Afghan elections offer a limited success story

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto On August 20, Afghanistan held its second presidential elections since the 2001 ousting of the Taliban. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. From the outset, the elections faced two major challenges. First, the election commission struggled to organize them, and completing the voter registration process proved particularly difficult. ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
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581742_090825_thecallb2.jpg
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -AUGUST 24 : An Afghan worker takes a break from work at a warehouse the Independent Election Commission center (IEC) on August 24, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghanistan is preparing to roll out partial results on Tuesdayfrom the contested election. President Hamid Karzai and his chief rival both claiming the lead.The outcry over alleged vote fraud in Afghanistan's election escalated and President Hamid Karzai's chief opponent Abullah Abdullah charging that turnout figures were padded and the chief fraud investigator saying some of the allegations were serious enough to influence the outcome.The controversy threatens to discredit an election that the Obama administration considers a key step in a new strategy to turn back the Taliban insurgency. It could also delay formation of a new government and fuel growing doubts in the United States about whether its worth continuing to fight the war in Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto

On August 20, Afghanistan held its second presidential elections since the 2001 ousting of the Taliban. Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends.

By Eurasia Group analyst Maria Kuusisto

On August 20, Afghanistan held its second presidential elections since the 2001 ousting of the Taliban. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.

From the outset, the elections faced two major challenges. First, the election commission struggled to organize them, and completing the voter registration process proved particularly difficult. Second, the Taliban threatened to sabotage the elections through a campaign of violence and intimidation. In fact, the government was forced to postpone the elections from May to August, raising fears of a more indefinite postponement. But the elections went ahead as planned, which is extremely important because it keeps the post-2001 state-building process alive. A further postponement could have suggested a victory for the resurgent Taliban, suggesting that the group could control the country’s political process and badly undermining confidence in the government.

While the fact that the elections were held is a positive development, the end result is likely to lack legitimacy. President Hamid Karzai probably gained more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections, which means that a second round is not needed, but there is a perception that he overcompensated for his declining popularity by engaging in wide-scale rigging and manipulation. He allegedly used government institutions, such as the election commission, and his supporters to inflate the voter turnout and the pro-Karzai vote in the southern and eastern provinces, which are his main constituencies. While observers are suggesting that the voter turnout was only around 10 percent in these provinces, the government suggests that it was a staggering 50 percent to 70 percent. The election commission is investigating some 800 complaints of rigging and manipulation. Although the runner-up, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, is unlikely to be able to challenge the result, he has emerged as an increasingly powerful opposition leader and credible alternative to Karzai.

Karzai’s reelection as president is unlikely to improve the Afghan government’s effectiveness. Since 2004, Karzai has appointed a set of controversial politicians and warlords to influential federal and provincial positions, and given them a free hand to run their respective ministries and areas. This situation has prevented the implementation of urgently needed reforms and development programs, while fuelling mismanagement and corruption. Karzai is unlikely to be able to break free of this cycle — of bad appointments and bad governance — because he owes his reelection to the support of another set of political thugs. Meanwhile, the United States’ ability to maneuver the situation is limited. Washington is trying to improve effectiveness by installing a powerful chief executive in the government, possibly former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and by appointing civilian advisers to key ministries and departments. But Karzai and his supporters are dragging their feet against institutional and policy reforms.

Finally, the elections themselves, without more robust governance, do not change the ground realities in most parts of the country. Large areas are slipping away from the control of Karzai’s government. On the one hand, many places are effectively governed by local strongmen, who are often more interested in poppy cultivation than governance, and their private militias. On the other hand, the Taliban is spreading its influence. The group is using high-profile terrorist attacks — such as the two pre-election attacks in Kabul — to create fear among the population. Moreover, they are using bomb and suicide attacks against NATO forces and the Afghan National Army. These violent tactics have two main aims: 1) to disable the vital reconstruction and development process; and 2) to create political pressure in the United States and the West to withdraw troops and engage in peace talks with the Taliban. This situation could undermine popular confidence in the Western-sponsored state-building process, and dangerously play into the hands of the Taliban.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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