By now you’ve likely heard that there will be a run-off election in Afghanistan between the current President Hamid Karzai and his former Foreign Minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. While the Afghan presidential election was originally framed as the triumph of democracy over the terrorism of the Taliban, it quickly devolved into a stew of allegations of fraud, vote-rigging and ballot box stuffing. The main beneficiary of all these actions was the incumbent, President Karzai, who received 54% of the vote, enough to ensure that he wouldn’t have to face a pesky run-off against the second-place finisher, Dr. Abdullah.
But within hours of the polls closing in the August 20th election, Abdullah was claiming fraud. Soon he was appearing in well-choreographed press conferences to present his evidence, which included ballots that appeared to have been pre-printed with votes already cast for Karzai. Needless to say, Karzai thought the election was just fine and resisted all efforts to toss out tens of thousands of dubious votes and force a run-off, cloaking himself in the banner of nationalism and standing squarely against “foreign interference” in Afghan affairs (of course Karzai, an Afghan émigré and former oil company executive wouldn’t be President without “foreign interference”, but that’s a different story…).
Yesterday Karzai relented and dropped his opposition to a run-off vote. The man getting the credit for bringing the Afghan president around and saving the democratic process in Afghanistan is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. But the real credit should go not to Kerry but to United Nations envoy Peter Galbraith, since it was Galbraith who loudly sounded the alarm about “phantom” polling stations (polling places that never opened, yet still turned in filled ballot boxes), masked gunmen burning opposition ballots and other patterns of voter fraud and intimidation - even at the cost of his own job.
The international community was eager to accept the results of the Afghani election – allegations of fraud and all. Soon after the polls closed Barack Obama offered his congratulations to Afghanistan for a “successful election”, officials from NATO, the European Union, and United Nations did likewise, breezily dismissing claims of election irregularities. Even as the vote-rigging charges persisted, the international community was reluctant to do anything that might underscore the fraudulence of the Afghan election – the conventional wisdom was that it was better to endorse the return of Karzai’s narco-kleptocracy than to undermine its “legitimacy” by calling for fair elections.
In an effort to deflect criticism, the head of the UN Afghan mission, Mr. Kai Eide, proposed a limited recount of 1,000 polling stations (of course this did nothing to address claims of votes being destroyed, polling stations not opening, etc.). When Galbraith publicly protested, he was first recalled to UNHQ in New York and later dismissed. But Galbraith persisted and continued his public protest of the Afghan vote. In the past couple of weeks, pressure finally did start to grow on the international community to push for a resolution to the Afghan mess – mostly when the pundits and public started to question why US (or UK, Canadian, Dutch, etc.) troops should die for a corrupt, vote-stealing government like Karzai’s. (And let’s be clear that Afghanistan has moved past being an anti-terror operation, our own commander in Afghanistan admits al-Qaeda is no longer a serious presence in the country. We are at this point fighting on behalf of the Afghan government against a home-grown insurgency.)
So after a further review, enough of the dubious ballots were tossed out to drop Karzai below the 50% threshold and trigger a run-off against Abdullah, set now for November 7th. Meanwhile, 200 election officials were fired for their role in the August debacle. But this triumph of the democratic process may be short-lived. The legendary Afghan winter is already descending upon remote mountain villages across the country, likely cutting them off until spring. Some are asking how a nation with little infrastructure and just a 30% literacy rate, can hope to get word out about a new round of voting in just three weeks. And there are nagging questions about security, replacing the 200 fired election workers and how to ensure the run-off, this time, is actually free, fair and open.
Tough questions to be sure. But no one ever said that running a democracy would be an easy thing, let’s remember Winston Churchill’s famous quip that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And holding a technically difficult run-off is far better than letting the thoroughly corrupt government of Hamid Karzai steal the first one with the World’s tacit approval.Afghanistan, Elections, United Nations, US Foreign Policy