Election legitimacy: a prognosis of Afghan government

Against the background of a failing counter-insurgency campaign based catastrophically around lethal force, the question of legitimacy following the elections is the key to avoiding failure.

By Frank Ledwidge for RUSI.org

Western press releases proclaiming successful elections have been prepared and are ready to be deployed. The elections will happen and there will be a result, which in itself is something of an achievement. Whatever the eventual majority and whether it is in the first or second round, no-one doubts that President Karzai will regain the Presidency. Equally, no-one expecting to be taken seriously is going to claim that by any sensible standards the election will be free or fair. For a start, no-one has any real idea of the population and therefore the correct number of voters. Whilst the Afghan Central Statistics Office guesses the population at 25 million, most foreign analysts put it at 33 million or more. Additional to that rather basic factor, with what the ICG has charitably described as 'striking flaws' in the registration process, there is going to be fraud on a vast scale. In Paktika, Paktia and Khost for example, there have been 205,000 female registrations to vote as against 167,000 males. Needless to say, this does not represent a triumph for new gender politics. In provinces with not a single female election official or observer, very many female 'voters' will never see their ballots. The media in Afghanistan are full of stories of men having ballot cards for sale. One man in Baghdis, for example, is said to have had 500 issued to him. That is by no means considered extraordinary.

No election is perfect

But this is Afghanistan, one might say. What are we really expecting? Besides, anyone who has observed elections anywhere outside western Europe has seen fraud. This correspondent remembers seeing 400 votes appearing from nowhere in a constituency in Southern Albania. No election is perfect.

At least, the weary skeptic may be told, the identity of the President is being settled by relatively peaceful means; indeed so. Whilst the elections would not pass any internationally credible test of freedom or fairness, they are at least taking place. In the absence of any meaningful Pashtun alternative (pace Ghani), Karzai's election may well reflect the views of the long-suffering majority as to which of a poor field they would have as their President. With or without fraud, though, Karzai's likely subsequent installation of the usual assortment of unsavory characters with dubious pasts will open the way for the insurgents to press home their key message: illegitimacy.

The trouble does not lie in whether the man with the most support gets elected. For the Taliban, who are no slouches when it comes to their media and information operations, the elections present a great opportunity. The insurgents are unlikely to influence the turnout directly, let alone the result, although the lack of security in Kandahar, Helmand and Urozgan and elsewhere in the south will deter many from voting. Their strength, as in so many insurgencies, is in their message.

A ‘game by the occupiers’?

The Taliban website proclaims that the elections are a 'game by the occupiers... the figureheads are not the outcome of your votes but rather selected at the discretion of those sitting in Washington. Do not expect these figureheads to be able to assist you.' With recent machinations concerning who is running for and against whom, some may argue it is a line that has some foundation in fact. The Taliban's message echoes the feeling of many in the country. Once the elections are over, it will be open to the insurgents to continue credibly to deny to the government the lifeblood of legitimacy. 'There's your democracy', they will say, 'and what has changed?' With one of the key messages of Taliban information operations being disenfranchisement, and accusations of vote-rigging and fraud dominating local media, they will be well-equipped to drive that message forward. So much for the elections themselves. What happens afterwards is at least as important. The government needs to ensure that the procedures for adjudicating complaints are robust and as transparent as possible. There is little doubt that the large team in the Election Complaints Commission is equipped to do that job well. This is one institution that might work well, and it needs to do so transparently. The Commission must act to regularise the 2009 election as far as it can, whilst also looking forward to next year’s poll.

At the strategic level, the question of legitimacy is critical. Is a regime perceived to be composed of criminals of one form or another and a President elected in a seriously flawed election worth fighting for? As the spin doctors would put it, that is the line the enemy will take. Unless the 2010 National Assembly elections are a significant improvement, turnout will continue to fall and with it the credibility of the government. With the failure to enact necessary legislation, particularly concerning political parties, the prognosis is not good.

Lt. Cdr. Frank Ledwidge was Former Justice Advisor to the UK Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand

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


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