Despite what logic and reason tell us, all indications are still that the IEC is getting ready for a parliamentary election in May 2010. The date was announced on 2 January, the electoral calendar was presented on 7 January and the government’s intention to press ahead was confirmed in a 12 January press release from the presidential palace. This despite the fact that the UN and the main donor nations, still reeling from the traumatic roller-coaster ride of trying to first ignore and then repair a very fraudulent election result, had decided in December that there should be no elections until at least late 2010 or even 2011.
The rationale for the decision was that an election in May would not allow enough time to properly prepare, let alone negotiate and implement the needed reforms – which is undeniably true. Moreover, it was argued, an election would distract attention and resources away from the military surge and the need to move ahead on issues such as corruption and reconciliation and the strengthening of national security forces. The reasoning made sense, although the preference of some to push back the election far into 2011 did not. But the Ambassadors had somehow forgotten (or not considered it important) to include the Afghan government in the discussions. And they failed to persuade them once the decision was communicated. So the government announced its intention to hold the elections according to the Constitutional timeline: on 22 May 2010 (although strictly speaking this will not allow them to announce the results before 1 Saratan, which is around 21 June, as mentioned in the Constitution).
The international actors have so far refrained from strong public reactions, possibly unsure over what their role should be now and, more importantly, probably counting on the fact that what is practically impossible will also not actually happen. There have after all been precedents in which President Karzai publicly opted to follow the Constitution or “the process”, even when highly impractical or logistically impossible, and then allowed himself to be persuaded otherwise (and to be praised for it). Remember 28 February 2009 when Karzai decreed that the Presidential elections were to be held in April 2009 after all. Or 20 October 2009 when Karzai flanked by several Ambassadors announced that there was going to be a second round of voting after all. There is a fair chance that it will be the same this time and that he will be persuaded to back down (and maybe again praised for it). But we cannot be sure. Like in the past there is an actual chance that nobody will blink and that we will suddenly find ourselves moving towards a very hurriedly organised election.
What is interesting this time, is that there seems to be a real interest on the part of the Afghan government (in particular President Karzai) to have the parliamentary elections both soon and on time. With other words, there suddenly seems to be a hint of a real Afghan lead, although we can only guess at what is driving it. Part of it may be Karzai’s wish to have a new and more pliable Parliament. Although the current Parliament was often considered to be largely in his pocket, the recent tough language on corruption may have helped erode the system of promises and pay-offs. Part of it may be the desire to be seen to follow the Constitution. Karzai seems genuinely irked by suggestions that he stayed on too long and that he was not really elected, and does not seem to like the idea of being potentially accused of mishandling this decision as well. Part of it also may be that he is fed up with what he sees as being pushed around by the foreigners. There is of course the suspicion – mainly among Karzai and his clique but it has been spreading – that the foreigners are not really acting in the best interest of Afghans and their government: that the fuss about election fraud was really a plot to weaken the government; and that the push for a delay of the elections will only further discredit both the executive and the legislative.
Several diplomats, including Kai Eide and the French Ambassador, have publicly commented on the fact that there can be no early elections without reforms, in order to prevent a repeat of the fraud in the presidential elections. But the model is not the presidential vote. If we want to know what the 2010 elections are going to look like, we should turn to the provincial council elections – which took place at the same time and which still have not been fully resolved.
One of the problems with the way fraud was handled during the 2009 election is that the focus on a presidential election result has left us with very little to work with in terms of preventing and addressing fraud in the future. The way the UN-led audit was designed meant that neither its findings nor its methodology could be used for the provincial council vote, or for future parliamentary elections. Moreover, the ECC was left with so little time and so few instruments to investigate the provincial council fraud that the exclusion of suspicious votes became a largely random exercise (the investigations were based on complaints, and on suspicious polling patterns if the investigator was keen, but the varying quality of the information and the extreme time pressure meant that fraud was not systematically tracked or addressed). The ECC did not have the time or the opportunity to come up with a methodology to deal with fraud on this scale and so far it seems unlikely that it will be better the next time round.
What is probably even worse is that the messy aftermath of the process has left the credibility of the ECC seriously damaged. It was extremely unfortunate that the ECC was more or less disbanded as soon as they had handed in their last rulings in early December (or it was actually the other way round: all rulings had to be finalised and handed in before the contracts ran out). It was also very unfortunate that when the Parliament summoned the ECC and IEC to the plenary session on 4 January, the only available ECC commissioner was Mowlawi Barakzai, who had publicly resigned from his post on 12 October 2009 (although his resignation was not accepted by Karzai) because he claimed the international commissioners took all the decisions behind his back – a complaint he repeated during the session. The second Afghan ECC commissioner, who had been travelling at the time, did what he could to repair the damage, but could not fully remove the suspicion that there may have been undue interference (Parliament has established a commission to further investigate the matter, although it will have no consequences for the results).
The IEC in the meantime has been very successful in deflecting the blame and suggesting that the final word had been with the ECC (which legally should have been the case). But the IEC has still failed to clarify the changes that were made to the election results and that were not linked to any ECC decision. A press release on 23 December 2009 mentions “some sweeping investigations and inspections to discover some of the disarrays and falsification”, but the IEC has provided no details or documentation on these investigations, other than maintaining that they took place in the presence of observers.
So where do we go from here? The first step to watch is the candidate nomination, which is supposed to start within the next few days and is scheduled to run from 16 to 22 January*. You will want to watch whether candidates are actually getting registered, but also who and how many, as this could provide some hints as to how contested the election is going to be. There is a possible scenario in which it is mainly the government-backed candidates who manage to get their act together in terms of financing and backing.
Some of my more suspicious interlocutors believe that the lists of “preferred” new MPs have already been drawn up and that the IEC and the local government officials will ensure that they get elected. They will however not be the only ones trying to manipulate the outcome and will be up against a multitude of “local initiatives” and individual “entrepreneurs”. So the outcome is far from fixed, even in a non-level playing field. But whatever happens and whenever it takes place, one thing is sure. It´s going to be quite a ride again, at least for those paying attention.
* N.B. This is incorrect. The period between 16 and 22 January was used for the dissemination of information on the nomination process. The actual nomination period was scheduled to run from 23 to 29 January 2010, but it was cut short when on 24 January the IEC announced the delay of the elections until September 2010. [MvB]
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020