Risks of a run-off

By Norine MacDonald The good news from Afghanistan is the seeds of democracy have clearly taken root and there has been vigorous public discussion in the build-up to the August 20 election. The bad news is that election dynamics and poor election management could exacerbate historic ethnic and North-South tensions, leading to a potentially explosive ...

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581953_090819_karzarrr2.jpg
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -AUGUST 16 : Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens to a speech while visiting the new Jumhuriat hospital August 16, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The incumbent president Karzai is considered to be the frontrunner despite claims of corruption and what many consider an ineffectual government. With four days to go before millions in Afghanistan begin to vote in the country's second democratic presidential election since a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001, candidates for the top job have gone into eleventh hour campaigning.Afghanistan's second presidential elections are to be held on August 20. Kabul August 12, 2009 in Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

By Norine MacDonald

The good news from Afghanistan is the seeds of democracy have clearly taken root and there has been vigorous public discussion in the build-up to the August 20 election. The bad news is that election dynamics and poor election management could exacerbate historic ethnic and North-South tensions, leading to a potentially explosive mix.

By Norine MacDonald

The good news from Afghanistan is the seeds of democracy have clearly taken root and there has been vigorous public discussion in the build-up to the August 20 election. The bad news is that election dynamics and poor election management could exacerbate historic ethnic and North-South tensions, leading to a potentially explosive mix.

There is still a great lack of clarity on vote counting systems, when voting results will be declared, how complaints will be dealt with, and the mechanics of maintaining domestic stability during a run-off period.

To prevent repeat voting in the presidential elections, voters will have their fingers dipped in indelible ink. Reports have been received of Taliban “night letters” issued in southern Afghanistan threatening reprisals against Afghans marked by indelible election ink, which is specially manufactured to resist removal and can remain visible for up to a week.

Potential scenarios

Firstly, incumbent president Hamid Karzai — once seen by some as an easy first-round winner — could have his legitimacy questioned by allegations of fraud which are already circulating widely and have been commented upon by international observers. This could further destabilize the country and raise the possibility of politically motivated violence. Elements of the Tajik community may respond dramatically if they perceive that President Karzai improperly influenced a victory over Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who shares his Pashtun roots but whose support is primarily in the Tajik north.

Secondly, in the final days before August 20, Taliban insurgents could mount a successful campaign of voter intimidation and attacks on polling stations. These security fears in Afghanistan’s south and east could lead to a low voter turnout in the Pashtun heartland of President Karzai’s support. This, combined with high turnout in the Tajik north of the country in support of  Dr. Abdullah, the president’s main challenger, would result in  President Karzai not winning the more than 50 percent of votes necessary to secure a first-round victory.

Should the elections be marked by a substantial abstention by the Pashtuns — the country’s largest ethnic group — due to insecurity in the south, and Dr. Abdullah declared victory, he might have difficulty claiming a legitimate mandate and political protests and violence could occur.

There is also the possibility of unrest during the first round of voting and run-off period. The run-off period stipulated by the Constitution is supposed to take place within two weeks of the first vote but it is now understood the second round of voting will not take place until the beginning of October. This is due to time needed to tabulate the first round, deal with complaints and set up for the second round of voting. Additionally, the holy period of Ramadan begins immediately after the first vote and ends on about September 17th.

Based on latest polling numbers, President Karzai does not have the support necessary to take the first round and we could see a potential alliance between Dr. Abdullah, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost and/or Dr. Ashraf Ghani to unseat President Karzai in the second round.

Contingency plans needed

More clarity and management of the period between the initial voting, the release of voting results, management of the complaints process and the run-off period is needed, along with clearly developed contingency plans to deal with and minimize any election-related instability.

Norine MacDonald is the president of the International Council on Security and Development.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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