The motions of democracy

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The first presidential election in Afghanistan is marred by complaints of fraud and the perception that the U.S. support for Hamid Karzai deprived other candidates of a level playing field.

THE first ever nationwide presidential election in Afghanistan on October 9 were conducted peacefully despite threats from the Taliban to disrupt the voting. However, there were complaints of widespread electoral fraud. The most serious allegation was that the supporters of Hamid Karzai, the interim President of Afghanistan, rigged the election. Most of the complaints related to the misuse of indelible ink used to mark the fingers of people who had turned out to vote. The Indian company that supplied the ink issued a statement after the controversy broke out asserting that the ink it manufactures is time-tested and tamper-proof. The company spokesman suggested that the ink used in many places by the Afghan authorities was of a different kind, and meant to mark ballot papers, not the fingers of voters.

Hamid Karzai, escorted by his American bodyguards, at a function in Kabul, on September 29.-SHAH MARAI/AFP

The immediate reaction of the other presidential candidates after polling day was to demand a repoll. But after a little arm-twisting from Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Ambassador in Kabul, most of the 15 candidates, including Karzai's closest challenger, Yunus Qanuni, the former Tajik warlord, backtracked on their call for non-recognition of the results. In the weeks preceding the election, Khalilzad was working overtime to persuade serious candidates such as Qanuni and Mohaqiq to withdraw from the race and provide a walkover for Karzai.

The final results are expected only in late October, but an exit poll commissioned by a right-wing American think tank predicted a thumping victory for the interim President. From the outset, there was little doubt that Karzai would comfortably get the 50 per cent votes required to avoid a run-off.

His closest opponent Qanuni, represents the rump of the Northern Alliance. Until recently, Qanuni, a close associate of Mohammed Fahim, the Defence Minister, was the Education Minister in Karzai's Cabinet. Fahim was tipped to be Karzai's running mate but the slot instead went to the brother of the late Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Masood. The Tajik leadership of the Northern Alliance, which did not take kindly to this move, moved quickly to put up a challenge to Karzai. They had hoped that they would be joined by Mohammed Mohaqiq, the Hazara strongman, and Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, who were part of the Northern Alliance. Mohaqiq and Dostum preferred to make their own bids for the presidency.

FROM all available indications, the election was deeply flawed, though U.S. President George W. Bush claims it as one of his more notable foreign policy successes. The only woman candidate running for the election, Masooda Jalal, refused to cast her vote saying that the election was massively rigged. She said that the ink could be rubbed off in a minute and that the people could "vote ten times". She said that the Bush administration's support for Karzai made a mockery of the election as it "denied a level playing field" for all the candidates.

Another candidate told the media that October 9 was "a black day" and said that the day marked "the occupation of Afghanistan by America through election".

Many observers believe that the voters' list itself was flawed. A researcher on Afghanistan working for Human Rights Watch said that there was "widespread/multiple fraudulent registration so the numbers are highly unreliable". The outfit finds it impossible to believe that 10.5 million Afghans out of a population of about 28 million have been registered to vote. Afghanistan watchers say that more than 30 per cent of the electorate registered their names many times. The names of children also found their way into the list. In the areas under the influence of the Taliban such as Zabul province, registration was around 55 per cent.

Only half the population of Afghanistan is of voting age. Many of the voting cards were issued just before the election, stoking suspicions about the electoral process. When it was pointed out to Karzai that many people were registering their names more than once, he said that it reflected the growing interest of the Afghan people in the electoral process. With much of the country infested with rebels, Karzai rarely ventured out of Kabul, the capital, for campaigning. On one of the few occasions he did, in late September, there was an assassination attempt on him, the second one since he took over the presidency. He had a narrow escape and preferred to stay in Kabul under the protection of his American-supplied security detail.

BOTH Karzai and Khalilzad, known as the American "Viceroy in Kabul", were employees of Unocal, the American energy giant. They are also known to have strong links with the American intelligence agencies. Khalilzad is a naturalised first-generation American of Afghan origin. Until September 2002, the Bush administration was seriously negotiating with the Taliban for a gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Unocal was keen on a pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, passing through Afghanistan. Speaking to Indian journalists in Kabul in the second week of October, Khalilzad again talked about the pipeline. He predicted that stability was round the corner in Afghanistan and that New Delhi should once again start giving serious thought to the pipeline from Turkmenistan.

Khalilzad is widely perceived as the "eminence grise" behind Karzai, and is credited with persuading Burhanuddin Rabbani, a leading light in the Northern Alliance, to switch to Karzai's camp. One of Rabbani's sons has been assured of a senior position in the new Karzai dispensation. Both of them were in any case likely to be accommodated in senior positions, after Khalilzad's intervention to accept the election results.

The United Nations-approved "poll facilitators" from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have conceded that there were shortcomings in the election but said that nullifying the results would amount to a great injustice to the people of Afghanistan, who had come out to vote at great personal risks. They said that an independent Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) comprising a Canadian, a Swede and an Afghan would investigate the complaints of electoral fraud.

At a campaign rally in support of Karzai.-FARZANA WAHIDY/AFP

Because of the adverse security situation, only 400 foreign observers were present in Afghanistan, and 2,000 Afghan nationals were given the onerous task of observing the conduct of the poll. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had in fact called for a postponement of the election to early next year. The earlier plan was to hold the presidential and parliamentary polls together, but the American administration insisted that the presidential poll be held in October, a month before the U.S. presidential election.

The OSCE representatives have not immediately reacted to the charge by Opposition candidates that people from Pakistan crossed over in large numbers to vote for Karzai. Many of Karzai's Pashtun brethren, who constitute his main support base, live across the border in Pakistan. It is in Pakistan's interest to keep the remnants of the Northern Alliance, which was armed and financed during the Taliban regime by India, Russia and Iran, at bay in Kabul. There were reports in the Pakistani media that Islamabad has succeeded in persuading Gulbudin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun warlord currently aligned with the Taliban, to lie low and allow the political wing of his Hizb-ul-Islami to join the government in Kabul. The joint U.N.-Afghan election commission has asked the U.N. to appoint a panel of experts to investigate the allegations regarding voting fraud.

A recent U.N. report warned that warlords, who made a comeback after the collapse of the Taliban rule, were intimidating voters. The boom in opium cultivation has enriched the resurgent Taliban and the warlords. In fact, the Americans have allowed many of the warlords to run their fiefs independently, provided they did not side with the Taliban.

Eight of the presidential candidates had asked for the election to be delayed because of the adverse security situation. Almost all staffers belonging to the U.N. and international aid agencies working in Afghanistan had left the country before the election owing to the deteriorating law and order situation.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, which was doing a lot of humanitarian work, left the country in June, after five of its staffers were brutally killed. The humanitarian agencies blame America for the chaos, for owing to the U.S' policies, ordinary Afghans do not distinguish between foreign aid workers and the American occupation forces.

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