It is eleven days since President Karzai, flanked by a posse of international envoys and ambassadors, announced the date of the second round of the 2009 elections. Since then the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and UNDP ELECT have pushed ahead with the logistical preparations, releasing election material to the far corners of the country and remobilising electoral staff (although the details on who gets fired and rehired, and why we suddenly only need two staff per station instead of five, remain murky).
The security institutions are claimed to have assessed all possible polling sites, allowing them to secure several hundred more than was the case in August (although nobody has yet explained how this conclusion was reached, whether it has any relation to reality and why it should be believed). There have been campaign activities, mainly by the Karzai camp, but voter enthusiasm is practically non-existent and reports from the provinces suggest that many participants have to be pressured, bribed or tricked into attending.
The situation is quite surreal. On one hand there are the half-hearted attempts to go all out and achieve this almost impossible task of organising something that will still look like a relatively credible election, within the given timeline and under the given circumstances. And at the same time the various parties are watching each other, wondering whether we are still collectively pretending or whether this has now become for real, expecting (and hoping) that someone else will say the word: this is ridiculous, this is impossible, this is unnecessary, this is foolish.
So with only one week left before the second vote is to take place, all eyes are on Abdullah and what he will say, now that his ultimatum is running out and his demands have not been met.
And of course Abdullah is playing for time and trying to regain the upper hand. He is not an impartial player seeking to protect the process, but a politician trying to win as much as possible. And his demands were unrealistic. But were they unreasonable? The case that Abdullah is making – that there is in essence no real contest and that the whole apparatus is geared towards Karzai’s re-election – is a valid one. And it should have been raised by the international actors from the beginning, as they have an immense amount of domestic political capital to lose once the second vote turns out to be a repeat of the first one. Which seems increasingly likely.
The international donors have paid for both rounds of the election through UNDP ELECT, but this has given them practically no say in how or how well the elections are managed – not even in terms of ensuring that basic anti-fraud measures are established, improved and upheld. UNDP ELECT supports the IEC but is not in a position to intervene, even when safeguards are abandoned or principles of proper conduct are violated. The IEC is independent in name, but openly looks to President Karzai for instructions. It is bound by law to implement the rulings of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), but only does so when forced (and even then seeks to circumvent). And it has never acknowledged the existence and extent of the fraud, insinuating that the ECC methods were flawed and the rulings were politically motivated.
So we have maneuvered ourselves in a position where the body that intentionally released over a million fraudulent votes into the count to ensure a first round victory for Karzai and that has not acknowledged that there was anything wrong with this, is left to organise the second round in very much the same way as the first: unmonitored and unchecked.
A colleague who tried to get information from the IEC on the decisions surrounding the number of polling centres, commented on how difficult it had been. The communications officer had been evasive and the line had been bad at crucial points in the conversation – so much so that he suspected that this had been on purpose (he believed the man intentionally moved the phone away from his mouth whenever he did not wish to discuss the exact details). Even if this were not the case it is worth mentioning, as it is the perfect metaphor for how the IEC has been consistently reluctant to discuss and disclose the information that counts and has tended to provide explanations that raised more questions than they answered.
And then we haven’t even discussed the local networks linked to the present regime, who fear the loss of power and access more than anything else. They will do practically anything to ensure that Karzai wins. So much so that we cannot even be sure that they will hold back from the very crude and mass-scale fraud that made the 2009 elections so famous (although there are reports that local leaders are being instructed on how to be more subtle).
But instead of being very worried, international actors seem to fall back on their earlier – failed – strategy of hoping that collective spin will somehow make the process look good enough. So the UN has, at least in its public messaging, decided to believe that the firing of 210 local electoral officials will be sufficient to prevent fraud (which is not the case, but apart from that, in the absence of any details we are not even sure that actual people have been fired or that is was over fraud). And US officials have chosen, at least in their public messaging, to explain how having only two candidates and a simpler ballot will result in less irregularities (in which country is that supposed to sound rational?). This comes on top of earlier statements on how at least some fraud is an integral part of any electoral democracy, which was extremely unhelpful and inappropriate given the scale of fraud in this particular election.
Voters in the meantime see this second vote largely as a formality – but a very dangerous and costly one – aimed at anointing a leader who has already been chosen. And who can blame them for seeing things as they are. This second vote is not really meant as a contest. It is meant as a signal to international audiences that fraud has been dealt with, that the rule of law has prevailed and that Karzai is a partner we can work with. But it is an extremely high-risk strategy, given that there is no plan on how to deal with the fraud which is certainly to take place again (the preparations are being made) and that there is no one really in charge. It is also a total erosion of the idea of democracy: providing citizens with the opportunity to choose their leaders and, in doing so, hold them to account. Instead, the only thing that is asked of the Afghan voters is to turn up.
So what to do? Can the international actors now barge in and say they do not want the vote to go ahead under these circumstances after all? They probably should, but this means abandoning the route of “letting the process run its course” and acknowledging that you may need to intervene when “the process” is fatally flawed. It also requires a difficult balance between resolve and finesse. Abdullah’s demands and possible boycott should at the very least provide a rationale for some very serious discussions with the IEC, the two candidates, their supporters, and other eminent Afghan personalities (not only the former commanders) about some very serious concerns that the main donors have. The aim is to seek out a course of action that will not end in further confusion and disillusionment. It would be foolish to do otherwise.
(And if for some reason it is considered appropriate or unavoidable to go ahead with the second vote, it would be advisable to plan ahead on how to deal with blatant and widespread irregularities, keeping in mind that investigating fraud is not just about determining who won, but more importantly about restoring credibility and addressing impunity. So far we have not fared well on either of these counts.)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020