Flawed vote

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

President Hamid Karzai at a dinner with other presidential candidates in Kabul on August 22. The Independent Election Commission had invited all candidates to dinner in a show of tolerance after a difficult campaign.-MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

President Hamid Karzai at a dinner with other presidential candidates in Kabul on August 22. The Independent Election Commission had invited all candidates to dinner in a show of tolerance after a difficult campaign.-MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

FROM all available indications, the August 20 presidential election in Afghanistan has turned out to be a bigger charade than the one held five years ago. In that election, at the urging of the various warlords and assorted power brokers, more Afghans had turned out to vote. This time around, the countrys Independent Election Commission (which is not free at all as all its seven members were appointed by incumbent President Hamid Karzai) has not so far released the voting figures. It has maintained that the turnout was between 40 and 50 per cent. This figure is said to be grossly inflated.

The Taliban, which is said to control around one-third of the country, including most of the Pashtun-dominated areas, called for a boycott of the election. In the run-up to the election, its leadership threatened to cut off the fingers of those who dared to cast their votes. On election day, the Taliban carried out attacks in many parts of the country to dissuade people from voting. The government ordered the local media not to report the attacks as any publicity would affect the polling process. Before the election, an Afghan judge in Uruzgan province told an American news agency that only 10 to 20 per cent of the people would be able to vote.

Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obamas Af-Pak envoy, who was in Afghanistan in the last week of August, is reported to have told Karzai that the scale of ballot stuffing on his behalf was unacceptable. According to media reports, Holbrooke told the President that the only way to give the election some credibility was to go in for a second round. Immediately after the polling stations closed, Karzais senior aides predicted a massive victory for their boss, adding to the discomfiture of his American-backers. Karzais main presidential challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, alleged that poll rigging had taken place on a gargantuan scale. United Nations officials have admitted that at least one in five of the ballots are illegal. Many observers believe that this is a conservative estimate.

As things stand today, the electoral system itself is deeply flawed. Under the rules dictated by Washington, no registered political party could put up candidates. Only individuals could run for the presidency. Following Holbrookes meeting with Karzai, Obamas National Security Council spokesman said that the administration would encourage Afghan authorities to follow the comprehensive anti-fraud measures established in order to protect the integrity of the election process. United States officials told the media that the Obama administration had issued a blunt warning to Karzai that American patience was running out.

The U.N., along with the U.S. and the European Union (E.U.), had initially rushed with its conclusion about the electoral process. There were words of praise for the Election Commission from the chief U.N. special representative in Afghanistan. Obama hailed the election as an important step forward in the Afghan peoples efforts to take control of their future. He even gave a clean chit to the flawed electoral exercise. The international community was aware even at the time that the election was far from fair and free.

A report in The Times, London, said that ballot boxes had been stuffed even in the capital city, Kabul. The paper said no election monitors were to be seen anywhere.

Yet the new Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, described the election as a testimony to the determination of the Afghan people to build democracy. On election day, 75 incidents of violence, in which many civilians and soldiers were killed, were reported. In many districts, according to Western media reports, not even a single vote was cast.

The Talibans main argument was that elections were meaningless in a country under occupation. The Western governments that have sent troops to Afghanistan seem to be nursing the hope that holding a successful election in Afghanistan would influence their domestic public opinion to go on supporting an unwinnable war.

The Afghan people, on the other hand, have not been impressed by the charade of democracy. We are Muslims and tribal people, the Taliban are Muslims and from the same tribes, the foreign troops are non-Muslims and there was no referendum from the people to ask them to come here. God told us to fight the occupation, so the people are against the occupation, a Pashtun poet told a Guardian reporter.

It is not that the Americans are unaware of the fraud perpetrated by the Karzai regime. Two U.S.-financed opinion polls released before the election showed that support for Karzai fell below the 50 per cent vote required to avoid a run-off. The poll conducted by Glevum Associates showed Karzai at 36 per cent. Another one, by the International Republican Institute, gave Karzai 44 per cent of the votes. In May, Afghanistans independent election monitoring organisation, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, documented large-scale irregularities in voter registration practices. About 20 per cent of the registered voters were found to be underage, some as young as 12.

Independent election monitors discovered that multiple voting cards were distributed to individuals. In the run-up to the election, the Karzai campaign registered three million new voters, increasing the size of the electorate by 17 per cent.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission said that the number of major fraud allegations that could have an impact on the outcome of the election rose to 270. Because of the complaints, the official announcement of the election results could be delayed further.

In the run-up to the election, the U.S. tried to distance itself somewhat from Karzai. Senior Obama administration officials had earlier criticised Karzais reliance on a coterie of power brokers, most of them notorious warlords. The White House issued a statement criticising the return of Ahmed Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, from exile a few days before the election. Dostum, who is being investigated for war crimes, was living in Turkey and returned to Afghanistan at Karzais request.

Immediately after his return, he called on his supporters to vote for Karzai. In order to garner Hazara votes, Karzai passed the Shia Personal Status Law. The law allows a husband to starve his wife if she refuses sex. The new law will also require the wife to get her husbands permission to work.

The Obama administration was particularly angry with Karzais choice of former Defence Minister and Tajik warlord Mohammed Qasim Fahim as his running mate. Karzai was no doubt aware that the U.S. authorities were carrying out an investigation about his narcotics trafficking activities.

A recent report in The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had ordered American officials to cut all official contacts with him even when he held the post of Defence Minister. Fahim, as the head of the Northern Alliance, was a crucial ally of the U.S. during the invasion of Afghanistan. According to the newspaper, the Bush administration had compensated him with millions of dollars for the services rendered.

There are also indications that the Obama administration has for some time been planning to clip Karzais decision-making powers. Initially, some senior U.S. officials were talking about sidelining Karzai altogether. The stench of corruption around his presidency was getting too much for his mentors in Washington. Karzai had also started criticising some of the heavy-handed tactics of the occupation forces, especially the targeting of civilians from the air. The Presidents younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who worked in a convenience store in the U.S. before the ouster of the Taliban, is now a multimillionaire. He is said to have profited immensely from the opium trade in his native Kandahar province.

With America unable to find a fitting candidate to replace Karzai, efforts seem to be under way to ensure a second round of election. Karzai so far has opposed the idea saying that this would take ethnic fissures to even more dangerous levels. The Obama administration hopes that a run-off will help foster the illusion among the Afghan populace and the international community that democratic principles have been adhered to. According to reports, the Afghan Election Commission is under tremendous pressure to disallow millions of fraudulent votes cast in favour of the incumbent.

It is a given that Karzai will win handsomely again in the run-off. But Karzai, if the Obama administration has its way, is going to be saddled with a chief executive officer who will be making all the important decisions during his next four-year term.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said recently that the U.S. governments disappointment with Karzai was well known. Neumann, who served in Kabul from 2005-07, said that the U.S. would have to work out a reasonable number of things with Karzai while ensuring that he was not perceived as an American puppet.

It is obvious that the conduct of the election has further complicated the situation for the Obama administration. The U.S. military surge has not been able to stem the tide of Taliban resurgence. In fact, August was the deadliest for the U.S. military since 2001; 45 American army personnel were killed in that month. The number of soldiers killed in July was 44. In fact, 60 per cent of the 732 American soldiers killed so far were after the Taliban insurgency gained momentum in 2007.

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