The South Asia Channel

Avoid the rush to judgment

By Brian Katulis, Kabul, Afghanistan In the 48-hour period after the polls closed here in Afghanistan, there has been a quick rush to judge on the elections here, long before the votes are tabulated and the process for dealing with complaints has even gotten underway.  As a member of an international observer delegation organized by ...

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -AUGUST 21 : Counted ballots are crammed into a ballot box in a polling station on August 21, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Counting continues today with top presidential candidates Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah both having declared victory in Afghanistan's second democratic elections. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

By Brian Katulis, Kabul, Afghanistan

In the 48-hour period after the polls closed here in Afghanistan, there has been a quick rush to judge on the elections here, long before the votes are tabulated and the process for dealing with complaints has even gotten underway. 

As a member of an international observer delegation organized by Democracy International, I’ve been asked questions that simply can’t be answered at this point, because no one has enough information to know what actually transpired in Thursday’s elections.  Different groups have a collection of anecdotes and observations from around the country.  But that’s all they are — anecdotes and qualitative observations.  Will that stop groups from holding press conferences this weekend or analysts from penning opinion editorials drawing grand conclusions for U.S. strategy as a result of the elections?  Don’t bet on it — the mad rush is spin the elections is already happening. 

No one can definitively answer some of the questions put to election observers by the media — what was voter turnout, whether Afghanistan’s presidential elections are heading to a second round, broader questions like whether the Afghan people will see these elections as legitimate or “free and fair,” or what this means for the Obama administration’s strategy to stabilize Afghanistan.  It is too early in the process.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced on Friday that the presidential vote count was completed in all provinces, which means that the numbers from each of the polling sites around the country would be posted in those areas but not officially tabulated.  This is just the first step in the process – the full tally will take place over the weekend, and the IEC said that it plans to have preliminary results by Tuesday, August 25.  The results won’t be finalized for weeks, until the Election Complaints Commission deals with at least hundreds and quite likely thousands of complaints that are likely to be filed in the coming weeks.

Yet there’s been a quick push to frame the post-election debate coming from two main groups — the competitors in the elections here and the United States government.  The two camps of the presumed frontrunners in the presidential race — Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah — did what every political group of any worth does in an election — they claimed their candidate was in the lead early.  Like the “spin room” after a presidential debate in my own country, the candidates or their surrogates have been fast out of the gate to frame the post-election debate. 

That’s understandable, and the longer it takes the IEC to announce even preliminary results, the more we’re likely to see additional claims and counterclaims.  Afghanistan’s tension-filled and uncertain political environment — leaders have hinted at taking their supporters to the streets if there are questions about the results — means that the IEC should release its results as quickly as possible to cut off the spin and conspiracies that are starting to grow.

The United States government has also been quick to frame how these elections are interpreted. U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to offer his judgment, saying on Election Day that, “We had what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban’s efforts to disrupt it.”  The day after the elections, Obama made another statement concluding that the elections were an “important step forward in the Afghan people’s effort to take control of their future, even as the violent extremists stand in their way.” 

Both statements were aimed at putting the best face on an election that appears to have had mixed results at best — that Obama did this is understandable given that the American public appears to be increasingly skeptical about additional investments in Afghanistan.  President Obama needs to do a better job at convincing the American public that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” and an election that leaves the country’s political leaders divided wouldn’t boost Americans’ confidence. 

The danger President Obama faces is that an election that he called the “most important event of the year” in Afghanistan and now has quickly judged as a step forward might not be viewed by Afghan political actors and the public in the same light, and the U.S. government might find itself in an awkward position in the coming weeks trying to adjust its position on these elections.

Various observer delegations are still trying to understand what they actually know at this early stage of the process.  I participated in a debriefing with many of the observers that were part of the Democracy International team, and I’ve been calling colleagues who were placed in various areas of the country to try to get a sense of what we saw collectively as a group.  Democracy International has a core team processing reports from all around the country and coordinating with other groups, particularly Afghan election monitors, in an effort to collect as much information as possible. 

At this early stage, there are some safe preliminary conclusions one can make about the 2009 presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan.  First, it is clear that a significant number of Afghan voters were disenfranchised by the violence and intimidation. Organizing an election in a time of war presents serious challenges.  Some of our observers were actually holed up because of the fighting, and Afghan voters faced the difficult choice of going to the polls in a combat zone, if the polls were open in their area. 

How many were disenfranchised, we won’t know until more data is available, but it looks like the turnout was considerably lower than the 2004 and 2005 elections. Some might argue that it wasn’t just violence and intimidation, but also voter apathy about the candidates that has contributed to lower turnout. That’s an empirical question that could be answered by survey research, assuming one can conduct accurate survey research with the security challenges and cultural constraints that Afghanistan has. 

Second, it appears that there were several instances of voter irregularities and fraud in certain parts of the country, particularly with voter identification cards and the voter registry. Whether these irregularities amount to the type of problems that could tip the balance in the presidential election is anyone’s guess right now, and that’s just a guess.  (The provincial elections are another matter, since the number of votes required to win is much smaller, and worth more attention in a separate analysis.) 

If voter turnout is low — say something like 5 million voters out of 15 million registered, then it would take 50,000 fraudulent votes to move the presidential election results by 1 percent. That’s a lot of fraud, and it’s quite likely that any fraud of that magnitude would be detected by election commission officials, observers, and the media. It’s not impossible to move the results in that fashion, but it would require a degree of coordination and effort that might be difficult to execute in a country with considerable infrastructure and security challenges.

But we won’t really know much more until the data comes in from the Independent Election Commission and it is measured up against the information collected by election monitors and observers, who are still trying to put all of their pieces together. In the meantime, we’ll all engage in sharing our anecdotes, which may be interesting but won’t really tell us anything about the quality of the election process.  Eric Bjornlund of Democracy International, the man who literally wrote the book on international election observation noted today, the election process is ongoing and it will take some time before we can judge what really happened.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis

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