Thursday, January 07, 2010

Afghanistan: anatomy of a failed election

A new UN report prepared by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon shows just how protracted and flawed the Afghan presidential election was. His report released at the end of 2009 for the UN Security Council is couched in diplomatic language but its frustration is obvious between the lines. Entitled “The Situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security”, the document outlines a series of selfish actions in which none of the major Afghan players come out with any credit.

While there were over forty candidates for president, most analysts agreed in the end it would come down to run-off election between incumbent president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister in the Northern Alliance regime in 1998 when they ruled barely 30 percent of the country. Attacks by the Taliban severely limited the campaigning of candidates while state-run radio and television heavily favoured Karzai. Allegations of fraud, vote buying and armed coercion were rife, even before the election.

And the Taliban were not sitting idly by. On election day 20 August, Afghanistan suffered the highest number of attacks and intimidation since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. August 2009 would prove the deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan since the invasion eight years earlier. The violence continued into September.

On 8 September, the foreign-dominated Electoral Complaints Commission ordered a recount of the election after reporting 720 instances of fraud. The Karzai-appointed Independent Electoral Commission which administered the ballot was unhappy with the order but after two weeks of intense negotiation they agreed on a partial recount using a methodology which would audit suspect ballots through statistical sampling. The IEC would administer the audit with oversight from the ECC. Neither Hamid Karzai nor Abdullah Abdullah were happy with the process and both were sceptical of its outcome.

The ECC announced the audit was complete on 19 October. The preliminary results showed Karzai had gotten 49.67 percent and Abdullah had 30.59. Nearly a third of Karzai’s votes had been invalidated by the audit. Because no candidate had received over 50 percent of the vote, a run off was necessary to be held on 7 November. Karzai’s supporters and campaign team immediately protested the revised result claiming it was the result of foreign interference. There was a flurry of diplomatic negotiations led by John Kerry and after 24 hours Karzai agreed to participate in the run-off. In the meantime, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission released their report on the election which spoke of a low turnout due to many attacks and much intimidation, especially of women.

On 26 October, Abdullah announced the conditions under which he would take part in the run-off. These included the sacking of the IEC chair, the removal of election officials and the suspension of three cabinet ministers. He insisted his demands needed to be met by the end of the month. Both Karzai and the IEC rejected the conditions. So on 1 November, Abdullah duly announced he would not be a candidate in the run-off saying the government had not met his demand for a fair vote.

A day later, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon arrived in Afghanistan to negotiate with both parties. On the same the day the IEC announced Karzai the president-elect as the sole candidate in the run-off. They based this decision on the Afghan Constitution which stated the run-off could only be held between the two leading candidates from the first round. The decision immediately sparked celebrations among Karzai’s supporters. Abdullah said the decision had no legal basis but did not challenge it in court.

Afghan donor and troop-contributing countries reluctantly offered Karzai their congratulations on his “victory”. But most statements, including Ban Ki-Moon’s own encouraged Karzai to form a competent Cabinet with reform-minded ministers, to improve governance and to root out corruption. Karzai was re-appointed for a second five year term on 19 November. In his inauguration speech, Karzai reached out to the Taliban as well as Abdullah.

But his re-election honeymoon was short-lived. A new report says that 2009 was the deadliest year yet for Afghan children. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks are getting closer to the capital while there are doubts the international community has the stomach to continue the fight. As the UN report concludes “We are now at a critical juncture. The situation cannot continue as is if we are to succeed in Afghanistan. Unity of effort and greater attention to key priorities are now a sine qua non. There is a need for a change of mindset in the international community as well as in the Government of Afghanistan. Without that change, the prospects of success will diminish further.”

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