Asia Briefing N°96
25 November 2009
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President Hamid Karzai’s re-election on 2 November 2009, following widespread fraud in the 20 August presidential and provincial polls, has delivered a critical blow to his government’s legitimacy. The deeply flawed polls have eroded public confidence in the electoral process and in the international community’s commitment to the country’s nascent democratic institutions. Concentration of power in the executive to the exclusion of the legislature and judiciary has also resulted in a fundamental breakdown in governance while strengthening the hand of the insurgency. To restore stability, vigorous constitutional reform under the aegis of a loya jirga must be undertaken; an impartial commission of inquiry into the flawed elections should be formed; the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) should be restructured to restore credibility; and prompt steps must be taken to strengthen institutions.
The presidential and provincial polls, the second set of elections since the ouster of the Taliban eight years ago, were held at a time of escalating insurgency and severe economic stagnation. Insecurity hampered candidates’ mobility and drove down voter turnout. An under-resourced security sector, combined with Taliban military gains, severely limited the ability of Afghan and international forces to protect candidates and voters. Violence during the campaign and on election day and vote rigging brought into clear focus the challenges that lie ahead in planning for the 2010 parliamentary and district council elections.
Allegations of systemic fraud emerged even before Karzai and his chief challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, each declared victory. Reports of intimidation, ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations and interference by staff of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and candidate agents surfaced countrywide, but especially where insecurity led to an absence of female electoral staff, candidate agents and election observers.
Although the elections were held for the first time ostensibly under sole Afghan stewardship, UNAMA through the United Nations Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (ELECT) program was heavily involved in planning, preparations and logistics. The international community was thus perceived by Afghans as an active participant in the flawed process. When the U.S., European Union and UNAMA representatives quickly declared the elections a qualified success, these early endorsements may have cost them what little currency they had left with the Afghan public. The head of UNAMA’s failure to take decisive corrective action when evidence of fraud surfaced has badly damaged the UN’s standing in the country. Most Afghans believe that the political expedience of the rubber stamp was preferred to an honest assessment of systemic flaws in a process the international community had helped put in place and then failed to remedy.
Preliminary results released on 16 September 2009 indicated Karzai as the winner over Abdullah by 54.6 to 27.7 percent. A protracted investigation into claims of electoral fraud eventually led the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) on 18 October 2009 to disqualify nearly a quarter of the overall votes cast, necessitating a run-off between the two top candidates. Following intense pressure primarily from the U.S., Karzai agreed to face Abdullah in a second round of polls. However, Abdullah ultimately withdrew from the contest, citing concerns about electoral fraud, given the government’s failure to enact any meaningful reform of the electoral institutions.
Karzai’s retention of power under these circumstances has bolstered the impression that the international community is disinterested in or incapable of checking the corruption that has metastasised under his watch. To ensure against a further decline in public confidence, the international community must press harder for anti-corruption measures and for the appointment of respected individuals to the cabinet and provincial governorships.
The electoral fraud was a direct consequence of failure to build the capacity of government institutions. Since the 2004 presidential vote, the international community – UNAMA in particular – repeatedly turned a blind eye to the looming crisis of credibility rooted in an unsound process. The August vote laid bare disagreements between different international actors and within the new American administration, whose lack of clear policy in Kabul undermined their ability to press for necessary changes ahead of the elections. The polls severely damaged UNAMA’s ability to function effectively, weakening its internal morale and sharply eroding Afghan confidence in Kai Eide, the Special Representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (SRSG). The UN’s mission to bring stability to the country has been severely jeopardised. His effectiveness as head of mission will always remain in doubt. If UNAMA’s credibility is to be restored, Eide must step down.
The international community has too often acted as if the election cycle was merely a box to check off. It needs to recognise that impending decisions about military strategies, troop levels and state-building concepts may matter little if it does not cauterise the damage. The measures that should be urgently put in place and vigorously supported specifically by the U.S. and the UN include: