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What are we demanding from the Afghan elections?

Commentary, 8 September 2009
Law and Ethics, Central and South Asia
In the midst of abundant criticism of the Afghan democratic system and the perceived illegitimacy of the recent election, Ershad Ahmadi considers the symbolic and logistical successes made by the country. Amidst ‘myriad challenges’ facing Afghanistan, the international community must come to terms with its system and start looking forward.

In the midst of abundant criticism of the Afghan democratic system and the perceived illegitimacy of the recent election, Ershad Ahmadi considers the symbolic and logistical successes made by the country. Amidst ‘myriad challenges’ facing Afghanistan, the international community must come to terms with its system and start looking forward.

By Ershad Ahmadi for RUSI.org

Experts usually consider elections to be the largest logistical exercise in mobilisation outside wartime. In a country confronting insurgency and civil strife as well as a paucity of historic experience in democratic elections, these logistical dynamics are even starker. This is of course the situation confronting the electoral authorities of Afghanistan.

In such an unpromising circumstance, it seems that parts of the Afghan electorate and some of our international friends are pinning heavy hopes on these second elections in Afghanistan. There is a hope that the elections will bring (self) perceived reformers to power, engage citizens in meaningful political participation, and reduce political tensions and divisions. The elections may not achieve all these lofty expectations.

In common with elections in many new, transitional or fragile electorates, key issues following polling day surround allegations of fraud, intimidation and irregularities. Some domestic and international media stirred by certain politically vested interests and biases have been quick to issue a thumbs-down verdict and deliver superficial judgments over the elections – even before the results are known.

The pace of vote tabulation has certainly varied across the country. In the more peaceful areas of the north, west and centre of the country, most of the votes are now in. While in the more troubled south and east, it is, not surprisingly, taking longer to get the votes tabulated.

The results recorded so far frankly make sense. Dr Abdullah (in second place in emerging provisional counts) gained strong results in the northern areas where his political base is strongest. Dr Bashardost has gained a solid result across Ghazni and other central provinces. Meanwhile President Karzai polled strongly in the southern regions of the country. These conflict- prone areas are also the regions from which the lowest percent of votes have been tabulated. Provisionally, Hamid Karzai has secured 48 per cent of the popular vote nationally. We should expect that when results from these regions finally come in, his overall result will rise significantly. In the final result, President Karzai should easily secure the 50 per cent of the total required to secure a first round victory.

A commitment to democratic process

Despite the myriad challenges and even threats to their lives, Afghans across the nation affirmed their commitment to the democratic process. As the post-polling games and accusations unfold, let us not forget this valiant and ongoing support by ordinary citizens to this democratic way of determining who should lead the nation.

Even before the results are finally tabulated, there are voices coming forth demanding a second round. As outlined above, given the almost mathematical impossibility of the incumbent failing to secure 50 per cent, any demand for a second round is simply illegal. It is time we began to respect the Constitution and the laws of the land. There is no provision in the Constitution or the law to run a second round, simply because somebody or group does not like the results of the first. It is for the Independent Election Commission and the Election Complaints Commission to issue their verdict on allegations of fraud and irregularities and determine any follow up action, which must include legal action against those individuals who engaged in fraudulent acts on behalf of any candidate. Those parts of the international community with an interest in supporting Afghanistan consolidate its nascent democratic traditions ought to also be fully supportive of this rule of law based approach.

Let us even consider the implications of breaking the law and running a second round. If the same candidate were to win, there would be legitimate complaints about why so much money was wasted to re-run an election already won. If there was a different result, there would be questions as to the legal authority of someone elected by an illegal election. Either of these two results would produce a government of fragile legitimacy. How would this actually advance the cause of political stability or, more importantly, implementing of the rule of law in this nation?

The role of Afghan media

Beyond the technical aspect of managing the elections, there is little doubt that the overall security situation confronting candidates and voters in these elections was less conducive than five years ago. This problem has been well reported in the press, locally and internationally. One area that deserves favorable mention when we look at the wider political environment in Afghanistan is the press itself. We now have in Afghanistan a much more robust, plural and active media than at any time in the country’s history. The sharp expansion of television stations and TV access by the people is having an impact on how citizens are informed and make their conclusions. As political leaders have to cringe at the emerging political satire in the media, there can be little doubt that the plurality of views and perspectives aired are good for building a culture of accepting peaceful differences of opinion.

In this regard, it will be very detrimental for the long-term democratization process if the international community seeks to force a 'national unity' style coalition. This will undermine the creation of a sound opposition role which is surely a prerequisite for a viable democratic polity. They should instead encourage and support the fledgling opposition to grow and come up with a unified structure with a viable alternative agenda.

Additionally, grand national coalitions also have a tendency to result in weak, highly divided and dys-functional Administrations. Such a development runs the risk of disrupting the existing capacity to deliver that has been developed over the last eight years.

In any case, the existing Government and indeed any likely elected alternative is already a form of coalition. In each of the major candidate teams, we see people from varied ethnicities, religious denominations and regional backgrounds. The various competing coalitions already cut across the nation’s traditional primordial divisions: this is a good thing.

Afghans should continue to see that political coalitions can consist of differing peoples whilst at the same time seeing that people of their own ethnicity or region can be found in alternative coalitions.

As a rule, national unity coalitions do not last as it is not possible to keep everyone happy inside the same overweight Administration. More dangerously who is outside the Administration seeking to hold those inside to account? Perhaps most dangerously of all, if all political factions were to stay inside, what happens to citizens who wish to hold a different opinion? How safe can they be?

The rules of the game

Let us not fall victim to some naïve romantic notion that somehow all Afghans (or people anywhere else for that matter) can somehow put aside partisan differences in some artificial or forced show of unity. It is optimal if we can agree on the rules of the game.

Indeed, in the case of Afghanistan this is where the battle lines are still being fought - that is between those, such as all the candidates and voters who took part in these elections, and those who remain violently outside this emergent system.

It is often said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Afghanistan’s progress towards becoming a functioning democracy will be a long one. While it is correct to note the ongoing weaknesses with a view to correcting them, it is equally well to recall how far we have come during the past few years. In this regard free and fair elections do not just occur. They are result of long built up political, legal, social and cultural traditions.

Moving forward

We need therefore to redirect efforts towards addressing issues of violence, insecurity, poverty and bad governance in collaboration with a freshly mandated government. We should recognise that despite allegations of irregularities, the second election in Afghanistan was another crucial national step towards a ‘long-term’ process of political reconciliation, rebuilding and democratisation. Concerns over the outcome of the elections must not create unending uncertainty and confusion. Uproars over the lack of transparency in election, used by some as an instrument of pressure, must not be allowed to derail millions of Afghans from enjoying the essence of this historic achievement.

The Afghan people cannot afford anymore political lingering over who is the winner and who is the loser. They want a new government which will urgently start addressing their problems resolutely and vigorously, with an understanding that Afghanistan has one last chance, one more window of opportunity with international support, which will not last more than five years.

Finally, if the winner of the elections is going to be the incumbent, President Karzai, as indicated by the preliminary results of the election, the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s key international partners, must come to terms with this reality and both sides must commit to redirect their efforts on resolving the host of challenges facing Afghanistan including a growing insurgency, a disenchanted population, abject poverty and rampant corruption and show results on all these fronts. Both sides should strive to understand each other and appreciate the complexity of the circumstances they operate in and the difficulty of the mission at hand.

Ershad Ahmadi is the deputy head of the newly established High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption in Afghanistan.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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