Yesterday, on 24 November, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the final results for all but one of the Parliament’s constituencies. The UN and US were quick to welcome the move, having been desperate to do so for weeks. The message is clear and is by now a familiar one: ‘The process was messy, it has been dealt with, everybody move along now, there is nothing to see here.’(*) But the mess has not been dealt with and the worst thing to do now is to pretend that we do not have a problem.
Despite claims to the contrary, every election in Afghanistan has been worse than the one before. Each one has been progressively messier and more contested, as both practices and allegations of manipulation became more entrenched. Each time the link between how people voted and the results that were announced became more tenuous and difficult to detect. And each time the international donors chose to pretend that the process was good enough, claiming credibility and legitimacy and touting it as an important step forward. But an important step forward towards what?
Not towards anything that gives Afghans a greater say in how their country is run, or that gives them the assurance that their concerns, aspirations and votes matter. Not towards anything that ensures a relatively peaceful and somewhat fair division of power and spoils – if that is the route you want to take – and not towards anything that can be credibly sold to home audiences as proof of a successful intervention or imminent transition.
So what do we have? First of all, a process that in terms of technical management was better run than last year’s election. And anyone who wants to take this sentence and use it to argue that these elections were not so bad after all – as the UN and diplomats have consistently done, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary – is either deeply ignorant of what went on in Afghanistan and what elections are about, or pretty cynical. The point of elections in Afghanistan is not simply to have them – at least it shouldn’t be. Once you expect a whole country to mobilize in the face of real threats and in the context of fragile relations, there needs to be a real process with an outcome that seems appropriate and that is related to how people voted (or had wanted to vote). A better-managed-than-last-year flawed election is still a flawed election.
Second, what we have is a protracted process of investigations and audits after election day, both by the IEC and by an external body, that was hastily added in 2004 in the form of an ad hoc panel and then institutionalized in 2005 with the establishment of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). But the point has already been argued extensively in past blogs and publications: when fraud and manipulation is so widespread, when criteria for disqualification are ill-defined or not explained, when transparency is limited and suspicions are high, when all parties continue to wrangle during every step and at every turn, and when there are no practical safeguards or checks on the decisions of the electoral bodies, it becomes almost impossible to maintain the integrity and credibility of the very interventions that were designed to clean up the election. A flawed election that has been subjected to massive disqualifications is still a flawed election, particularly if the disqualifications themselves are contested.
Third, what we have is complete confusion over who has the last say when disputes arise. The absence of a final and impartial arbiter has been an issue in every election so far (as well as in a variety of disputes between the three powers, for instance on the interpretation of the Constitution), but it has been consistently glossed over by international announcements of support for whatever moderately acceptable or workable resolution could be reached. Although the ECC is often touted as a body that can somehow restore legitimacy when things get difficult, its mandate is so limited – both by law and the interpretation of the law – that it plays no role of significance in the resolution of disputes or the safeguarding of the process’ integrity, nor does it wish to. In practice disputes are resolved by the internationals picking a side, usually the one closest to the status quo.
The desire of the big players – the US-NATO/ISAF-UN threesome – to leave the elections behind them is understandable. It has become a messy and protracted process that leaves almost everybody involved feeling dissatisfied and wronged. But it is a huge mistake to act as if the problems were handled and resolved. As long as the internationals, who have become the de facto arbiters, settle for a ‘good enough’ that is really not good enough, there is not much chance of regaining integrity or credibility or legitimacy for future Afghan elections. The stated determination to push for electoral reform, without a clear-headed acknowledgement of how bad things were, is worth very little and will only result in more money spent.
(*) The UN and US statements can be found here and here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020