Fixing Afghanistan’s Election

Our guest blogger is Oren Ipp, a Senior Advisor to the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organization and a Fellow of the Truman National Security Project.

afghan-electionAs President Obama meets with advisers to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, questions abound regarding the legitimacy of the government the U.S. is trying to support. How the debacle of the August 20 presidential election is resolved could very well provide the answers the administration is looking for.

Looking at Afghanistan’s recent election, it appears that sometimes the remedy can be worse than the ailment. While the ailment — a fraudulent election — threatens to undermine the credibility of the country’s democratic experiment, the remedy — a run-off election — may in fact inflict greater harm. While prevailing wisdom demands a second vote, is it really in Afghanistan’s best interest?

The case for a second round is strong. The Election Complaints Commission (ECC), the joint Afghan-international body charged with investigating electoral irregularities, has ordered recounts at more than 2,500 polling stations after it found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.” The European Union alleged that up to 1.5 million ballots out of 6 million could be fraudulent.

Senior officials from the international community have also expressed serious reservations about the legitimacy of the election. Most importantly, Afghan voters themselves are questioning the credibility of the election, sapping what little faith they have left in the current government.

Popular attitudes are marked by a widespread belief that the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversees the ECC and whose senior officials are all appointees of current President Hamid Karzai, is anything but independent. It appeared that the ECC was taking its independent mandate seriously until it decided to examine only a statistical sample of contested ballots: just 10% of the total. This may lead many Afghans to perceive the work of the ECC as biased.

Should the ECC find that fraud did not significantly alter the results of the election, President Karzai would avoid a run-off. But given the public’s discontent with the electoral process, he would enter his second term in office with a serious legitimacy deficit. Considering the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how an administration elected in this fashion would be able to govern effectively.

It would seem clear, then, that a run-off election is necessary to restore confidence in the election and in the administration that emerges from it. Upon a closer look, however, a second round of voting may actually lead to a more acute political crisis.

A run-off would either have to be held by mid-November, after which severe weather conditions prohibit polling in remote areas, or wait until the snow melts in April. In the first instance, by the time the IEC makes the official decision, there would only be a few weeks to prepare for the election. While ballots are already being printed for a second round of voting, more than 100,000 polling officials need to be hired and trained, materials mobilized, and voters educated.

Above all, a pre-winter run-off would mean another election in an environment plagued by the very insecurity that enabled fraud to occur in the first place. Observation of the polls would be impossible in the areas that need it most, while intimidation of voters, particularly women, would be widespread. It is unlikely that the deficiencies that marred the first round could be adequately addressed. In other words, there is little reason to believe a second round would be any less flawed than the first.

The remaining option is to hold the run-off election in April, once weather conditions again allow for nationwide polling. Presumably, that would provide electoral authorities time to tackle the problems and ensure a more credible vote. But this raises a separate set of issues.

President Karzai has already remained in office five months past the expiration of his five-year mandate. Extending his term past the winter — basically giving him an additional year as president — may precipitate a constitutional crisis. An April run-off would also compromise planning and resources for the parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall of 2010. Finally, delaying the second round until after the winter would also give Taliban insurgents the time to regroup, resulting in a greater risk of violence.

While prevailing wisdom suggests a second round of voting, it remains unclear which prescription will do no harm. Since an ideal option is not available, it is imperative that authorities choose the path that will be perceived as the most legitimate by the people of Afghanistan. Making that the measure of success would do wonders to establish the credibility Afghanistan so desperately needs for continued support from the U.S. and its allies.