Afghanistan’s elections have been spectacularly problematic. Only hours before the announcement of this year’s preliminary results, Professor William Maley explores the different ways in which electoral processes can be viewed – as theatre, a way to change power without bloodshed, or a means of renegotiating power relations. He discusses the corrosive impact of widspread fraud and explores how we can make Afghanistan’s elections count.
Afghanistan’s unhappy recent experiences with elections have received a considerable amount of attention. The monumental fraud which saw more than 1.3 million votes being invalidated out of less than 5.7 million allegedly cast in the August 2009 presidential election won Afghanistan a spot in the record books: never in an internationally-supported electoral process had levels of fraud even remotely approached what Afghanistan succeeded in achieving. The spectacular politics surrounding this event — the rift within the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, President Karzai’s initial refusal to countenance the runoff vote required by the 2004 Constitution, and the eventual withdrawal of Dr Abdullah from the runoff — distracted attention from irregularities that also seriously marred the Provincial Council elections held on the same day as the presidential poll, but these have now been documented as well (*). It may be premature to offer a final assessment of the 18 September 2010 Wolesi Jirga election, but already there is evidence of very significant fraud in that vote. It pays, therefore, to pause and reflect on what some of the implications of the broad slide towards fraud in electoral politics might mean, both for Afghanistan and for international actors supporting Afghanistan’s transition and government.
To address these issues, one needs at the outset to reflect on what an electoral process actually is, and the answer is not as straightforward as one might think. One answer is that an election is simply a form of theatre, around which propagandising and political mobilisation can occur. The non-competitive elections held in the Soviet Union fell into this category. Real personnel choice was carried out pursuant to the nomenklatura system of elite recruitment whereby individuals considered for appointment to party or state offices had to be approved at higher levels of the ruling party, but a ‘campaign’ could be used to rouse members of primary party organizations, and externally the system could be presented as one of ‘Soviet democracy’. Elections of this sort do nothing to legitimate a political order, but they are not without their functions.
Another answer is that an election is a device by which ordinary people can change their rulers without bloodshed. If there are no devices in a society for achieving this end, the result will either be at best a relatively stable autocracy, or a at worst a sequence of bloody coups and other extra-constitutional exercises by which one set of rulers is ejected to make way for another. Afghanistan’s experience from April 1978 offers a warning of the dangers that can accompany such events.
A third answer, recently advanced in the light of the 2009 fraud, is that an election is a mechanism (or a trigger) for the renegotiation of power relations. This might seem completely at odds with the first view of an election, but it accurately characterises what happens in a number of European parliaments where systems of proportional representation are used to elect deputies, and no single party is likely to emerge with an absolute majority of seats. Voters when choosing whom to support may need to make educated guesses as to the kind of alliances that parties might strike in post-election bargaining, something recently on display in The Netherlands.
The distinct virtue of elections as devices for changing rulers or as mechanisms for the renegotiation of power relations is that they can generate legitimacy for a political system. This is the key role that they play in consolidated democracies. However, it is doubtful whether either of these understandings of electoral processes stands up when massive fraud has occurred, on a scale capable of altering the outcome. If elections are to serve as device by which ordinary voters can change their rulers without bloodshed, they must be conducted in a way that is free and fair. The requirements for freedom and fairness, now very well documented, represent the minimum conditions required for a choice mechanism to be meaningful.(**) Electoral fraud is a form of theft: it steals the right of ordinary people to change their rulers. In a political system that is already fragile, a sham election can trigger a legitimacy crisis, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto found in Pakistan after the elections of 1977, and as the Marcos government discovered in the Philippines in 1986.
Nonetheless, this begs the question of whether even free and fair elections serve as a source of legitimacy in a country such as Afghanistan. What do voters think they are doing when they choose a particular set of rulers? The standard (Western) view is that the voters thereby endow a set of rulers with legitimate authority for the duration of their specified term of office. But this need not be the case, and arguably is not in Afghanistan. On the one hand, voters may go to the polls simply with a view to giving a particular set of political aspirants the chance to prove whether they are up to the task of ruling, and if their actual performance proves to be weak, their legitimacy may crumble. On the other hand, the Afghan landscape is rich with other figures who might claim legitimacy on the basis of tradition (such as tribal leaders), of performance (such as regional strongmen), or even of historical contributions to ‘national liberation’ (such as Mujahideen party leaders). When Karzai was elected President in October 2004, there were high hopes in Western circles that this would empower him to dispense with reliance on such figures and rely increasingly on modernist technocrats. Instead, he swiftly disposed of modernists such as Dr Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani, while continuing to work with ageing figures such as Sebghatullah Mojadiddi and Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had hardly covered themselves with glory in the 1990s.
But that said, electoral fraud can still contribute to a legitimacy crisis for a regime. Here, the sense that many ordinary Afghans in 2009 may not have been too fussed by the fraud and simply wanted things sorted out quickly can be rather misleading. First, alongside those Afghans who viewed the fraud with an air of resignation were others who were very angry indeed. Second, legitimacy crises rarely have a single cause: rather, they reflect an accumulation of discontents, which can include challenges that a regime might superficially seem to have survived. Concern at electoral fraud, in other words, may become part of a wider syndrome of frustration in which concerns about nepotism, corruption and poor governance also figure. Third, a government which has successfully secured its position through the use of fraud may have a sense of its own omnipotence. Any convictions that the Karzai government, chastened by its near-death experience in August 2009, would rapidly take steps to clean up its act have been undermined by events since then, with Karzai instead accusing the international community of fraudulent behaviour, removing respected technocrats from the government, and continuing to appoint suspect cronies to high office.
But beyond these domestic considerations lies the problem of international legitimacy. The Karzai government remains heavily dependent on international support, and while Western governments continue to treat him as a legitimate ruler, the same cannot confidently be said for Western publics. Many citizens of Western states are unhappy with the idea that their fellow citizens in Western armies should run the risk of being killed in Afghanistan for the sake of a government that holds office — as they see it — by virtue of fraud. The long-term result could easily be an erosion of public support for involvement in Afghanistan, with other states following the Dutch in extracting their forces. With US public support waning too, the Karzai government could find itself fatally exposed.
So late in the day, can anything useful be done to make Afghan elections count? There are severe limits to what the international community can now effectively offer. The 2004 election was effectively run on the basis of what one might call a ‘shared sovereignty model’, and the presence of neutral international staff helped ensure that when problems arose with indelible ink, they were effectively contained (although it also helped that given Karzai’s popularity at that time, the election was less a contest than an exercise in ratification). This model should have been employed for as long as possible. Instead, the international involvement in 2005 was much less effective: the staff contracted to run it lacked the focus on local capacity building that had been a feature of 2004 (***). By 2009, the electoral process had been handed over to the nominally-independent ‘Independent Election Commission’ which was dominated by Karzai associates.
The consequences of this were devastating. The UNDP/ELECT Team tasked with assisting the process noted the ‘low capacity of the IEC, the political bias of the IEC commissioners and senior managers and the blatant political stance taken by Afghan ministries and the security forces’, and referred to the IEC as ‘an inexperienced and — in the end — deeply flawed — institution whose leadership felt no compunction about changing results, ignoring fraud and perpetrating wrong conduct’. When SRSG Kai Eide in March 2010 stated at his final press conference that ‘I believe that the “Afghanisation” of the election process is the right way to go and the only way to go’, he may have been bowing to what he saw as inevitable, but in the process the UN in effect surrendered any role it might have played as a defender of norms of democratic governance. Assisting fraudsters to run defective elections simply wastes scarce resources that could be put to other uses.
There are, however, two useful steps that can be taken. One is to support local observer capabilities, specifically through organisations such as the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA). International observers can rarely do more than engage in some confidence building; it is local observers who typically gather the hard evidence of fraud. Support can come in the form of training, but it may also require that agencies and diplomatic missions be prepared to countenance protection for local observers if things get really rough. The other step that states can take is to develop a black list of fraudsters. Those who contemplate orchestrating or presiding over fraud need to be told that doing so will have consequences — for their ability to access to Western visas, for their acceptability as ambassadorial appointees. This is not something that the UN can easily put in place, but individual states working with INTERPOL might succeed in sending a much-needed signal, that electoral larceny is just as serious a white-collar crime as corporate fraud. In the absence of measures such as these, there is a real danger that future Afghan elections will not count for very much at all.
(*) Martine van Bijlert, Who Controls the Vote? Afghanistan’s Evolving Elections, Kabul: AAN Thematic Report 05/2010.
(**) See Jørgen Elklit and Palle Svensson, ‘What Makes Elections Free and Fair?’, Journal of Democracy, vol.8, no.3, July 1997, pp.32-46.
(***) See Scott Seward Smith, Afghanistan’s Troubled Transition: Politics, Peacekeeping and the 2004 Presidential Election, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2010.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020