Defying the ban from the Taliban, the Afghan people came out to vote amidst tight security. But it might be too early to celebrate the victory of democracy.
Afghans struggled with their hopes and fears to take part in their second presidential and provincial council elections on 20 August, with uneven participation across the country, reflecting the ground realities. As the Kabul government claimed success and the international community rushed to proffer congratulations, there were initial signs that the electoral process may have been compromised through disenfranchisement, inadequate preparations as well as electoral malpractice. While the extent of these problems was difficult to judge, the initial reactions of the Afghan people, as reflected in the local media, indicated that unless these were acknowledged and addressed, the lack of legitimacy could further undermine the stability of both Afghanistan and the region.
The 2009 election was unprecedented in terms of the intense political debate and competition surrounding it. The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, faced a challenge due to the disenchantment of a population tired with the lack of economic growth, non-delivery of services, growing violence and high civilian casualties caused by the international military forces. While a fragmented opposition still allowed Karzai a clear lead in the contest, the presence of at least three high profile candidates opened up a political debate on issues and personalities. The campaign had none of the trappings of other Southasian electoral campaigns which resemble a jamboree as much as they do a political contest. Insecurity has been growing in Afghanistan, making life increasingly unsafe for ordinary Afghan citizens as well as their leaders. Election meetings, Afghan style, were carefully calibrated interactions with the public, with several layers of security mechanisms.
On a campaign visit with Karzai’s challenger Abdullah Abdullah, this writer flew in a military helicopter which hugged the ground, rising and dipping with the contours of the mountainous terrain in order to avoid hostile fire. A gunman at the open door was keeping a sharp eye out for gunners on the ground. Most meetings, especially in rural areas begin with a gathering of the village elders – inevitably all men. And so did Abdullah’s that hot August day in the Pashtun belt of eastern Afghanistan. While Abdullah insisted to reporters that the elections had gone beyond ethnic divides, making him a national rather than an ethnic candidate, during meeting after meeting on this day his supporters appealed to the electorate on grounds of tribal affiliations, reminding would-be voters of Abdullah’s Pashtun antecedents from his father’s Kandahari Ghilzai family.
While calculations on ethnic grounds were a sine qua non of the electoral process, the 2009 polls revealed a more complex mix of motivations and issues that came together to determine the vote. Abdullah’s hosts in Hesarak were a traditional Pashtun family, the Khans of the area, who had never supported any non-Pashtun candidate. Abdullah is half Tajik and a leading member of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. “Yes, it is difficult to ask for votes from Pashtuns, but we did it. In politics you have to take sides, and we decided to take the risk this time” said provincial candidate Abdullah Arsala, who had staved off appeals for support from tribal compatriots who were also in the contest.
A new feature of the elections this time was the televised debates involving the top incumbents, which saw millions glued to their radios and television screens. Karzai’s electoral platform seemed to be based on continuity, feeding off fear of change, as he repeated earlier promises of negotiations with the armed opposition and rewriting of the agreement with the international military forces. Ramazan Bashar Dost travelled on the negative ticket, criticising the incumbent for his failure to deliver good governance to the people. Meanwhile, the international high-flier Ashraf Ghani produced a minutely detailed blueprint that was more focused on programming than politics. Abdullah Abdullah, on the other hand, was vague on programming but more forthcoming on the political component, campaigning on the promise of ushering in a parliamentary democracy.
In the current circumstances, a change of the horse in the presidential saddle, if it happens, is unlikely to make much more than a superficial initial difference to the polity. Afghanistan’s present political and administrative system concentrates all decision-making authority in the president, marginalising both parliament and provincial bodies. The attempt to rule this complex, diverse and difficult country from a single point of power was initially seen by a Western compact, led by the US, as a means of control and stability that would avoid the messy business of a more democratic polity. Wider administration was to be enforced through a series of strongmen – warlords, commanders and leaders backed by armed power – appointed to control their individual areas. After having witnessed the failure of governance, the international community still continues to toy with the idea of changing the man rather than the method, looking for suitable individuals rather than building institutions.
Afghanistan’s electoral system reflects this concentration of power and the attempt to keep the polity fragmented. Its bizarre electoral system is followed only by three other countries: Jordan, Vanuatu and the Pitcarin Islands. It combines a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) with a multi-seat constituency. What this means is that each voter picks one candidate from a list which names many candidates for several seats. Under the specific formula used, the candidates win by a preferential system which picks the top scoring candidates. Consequently, many of the votes cast are ‘excess’ ballots, so to speak. To address just this situation, a number of countries use the single transferable vote (STV) system under which voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. In this way, no vote is wasted. This is not the case in Afghanistan where the SNTV system discourages the participation of political parties. Political parties are, in addition, also banned from contesting as political parties, but their members can contest as individuals. The ban on political parties’ participation was ostensibly in response to the Afghan population’s dislike of them after years of war. But insiders say this was put in place in order to keep the Afghan polity fragmented, thereby strengthening individuals rather than political groups and formations.
Eight years into the reconstruction of Afghanistan, there is still no census and no electoral roll. Furthermore, there are no checks and balances on voter registration since no standard proof is required, resulting in registration of underage voters or multiple registrations by the same individual. The result is an incredible 17 million registered voters out of an estimated population of between 25 to 30 million. While there has been no census, the estimated voting population in 2004 was a mere 9 million. Observers maintain that the high registration numbers arising out of successive cycles of voter registration in 2004, 2005 and 2009, was a sign of multiple or fake registrations.
While there is indelible ink in use, much of the checks and balances are dependent on polling station officers, who are vulnerable to many pressures – political, monetary as well as threats of violence. Initial reports indicated that proxy voting had taken place in many places, as was expected, with boxes of voter cards being brought to the polling station. Counting took place at the polling station, thus further minimising oversight by independent monitors. The Independent Election Commission’s own independence has been in question with its members appointed directly by President Karzai, who turned down a move to bring these appointments under parliamentary scrutiny. At a press conference to announce the completion of voting, the IEC appeared with a galaxy of senior government ministers who used the platform to hail the elections as a success.
While the polling day passed off without any major acts of violence designed to cause large-scale casualties, sporadic incidents did occur, affecting the voting. Overall, the threat of violence loomed large. The result was a turnout that was much lower than for the elections in 2004 and 2005, suggesting that a substantial part of the population may have been disenfranchised. Reports also indicated that a major portion of the disenfranchised were women, who were unable to access polling booths because of insecurity as well as prevailing conservative attitudes. However, the immense lack of transparency accompanying the process – even voter turnout percentages were not available several days after the polling – suggests that the full extent of any malpractice may never be fully understood. Adding to the absence of a full flow of information were censorship curbs imposed by the government prior to the elections. In a carefully calibrated order, the government advised the international media not to report on any violent incidents during the polling, but ordered the national media not to do so. While not all Afghan media complied with the order – some bravely and publicly opposing it – the extent of compliance was commended by the head of the National Security Directorate at the end of it all.
Both Afghans and internationals linked to administering the polls had heaved a great sigh of relief that the threat of widespread violence had not been fulfilled. While there were a long list of incidents including rocket attacks, arson and the chopping off of the fingers of two voters, the final civilian death toll nation-wide was nine persons. Blasé as this may sound, that is not a very high number for Afghanistan, as well as in terms of expectations. While the Afghan National Security agencies claimed success in defeating the designs of the Taliban to disrupt the polls, an assessment of the incidents suggested that the armed opposition may willingly have refrained from carrying out major strikes in order to win hearts and minds. However, the insurgents’ behaviour differed not just from province to province but from district to district and polling station to polling station, ‘allowing’ the process in some areas while attacking it in others.
Giving credence to the idea that there was a deliberate policy of reduced violence was recent evidence of the striking power of the Taliban. In the week before the elections, they managed a rocket attack inside the presidential palace compound, a suicide attack on an international military convoy on the outskirts of Kabul and a massive bomb blast outside the gates of the NATO headquarters in Kabul. This suggested that the absence of violence on polling day was as much a result of the Taliban decision not to cause large scale disruption as a dividend of the preventive steps taken by the Afghan and international security forces.
Keeping this context in mind, projection of the election as an achievement against the insurgency and other forces which have sought to disrupt polls by the Afghan government and the international community is simplistic and one-dimensional. Desperate for some signs of progress to justify their involvement in a country sucking up their human and financial resources, the Western international community, including the UN, has rushed to congratulate the Afghans on their achievement and success. Troop-contributing countries have especially been desperately seeking a symbolic event that would help validate their military engagement, which has becoming increasingly unpopular with domestic constituencies back home.
While there has been some acknowledgement of the anomalies and malpractices, the international community has concentrated on celebrating the fact that elections were held at all under the existing difficult circumstances. Unlike 2004, however, when the outcome of the results was a fait accompli, there has been a real contest this time. (Though the results were not out at the time of this writing, and the reported numbers are inconclusive, both Karzai and Abdullah are claiming victory). The competition was driven by a combination of disenchantment, an appetite for change and greater awareness of democratic principles on the part of Afghans. Unwillingness, on the part of the Afghan government and the international community, to acknowledge and address shortcomings in the democratic process could lead to further disengagement of the population, not just from the government but also the state-building project.
While a less than free-and-fair election was to be expected, Afghans do, however, expect that the international community will at least acknowledge the compromises made with democratic principles, rather than pretend all was well or that these do not matter. Leading members of the international community have repeated ad nauseam that the elections showed the engagement of Afghans with the democratic process. Until now, the international community itself has not shown a matching engagement with the democratic principles of the electoral process. Indeed, it is clear that they are treating the election as an unmitigated success story mainly because they desperately need one. In this way, the community is essentially telling the Afghan people a flawed process is good enough for them. By doing so, it is eroding the faith of Afghans on the all important democratic exercise that an election represents. If the realities of the elections just past are ignored, the result could be the loss of faith of Afghans in the democratic polity itself, a point of view which has extracted a great cost from both Afghans and the rest of the world in earlier decades.