The election hurdles in Afghanistan

By Norine MacDonald With the Afghan election run-off just sixteen days away, much hangs in the balance. The good news is a resolution to the Afghan election standoff has been reached — a true success story for the domestic political agendas of the West. Whether or not the international community and the Afghan government can, ...

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578381_091023_921960042.jpg

By Norine MacDonald

With the Afghan election run-off just sixteen days away, much hangs in the balance. The good news is a resolution to the Afghan election standoff has been reached -- a true success story for the domestic political agendas of the West. Whether or not the international community and the Afghan government can, in just two weeks, pull off a clean and legitimate election is another matter.


By Norine MacDonald

With the Afghan election run-off just sixteen days away, much hangs in the balance. The good news is a resolution to the Afghan election standoff has been reached — a true success story for the domestic political agendas of the West. Whether or not the international community and the Afghan government can, in just two weeks, pull off a clean and legitimate election is another matter.

The fact of the matter is that holding any election in Afghanistan is an incredibly difficult task. Huge efforts were made to tackle the many challenges posed by operating thousands of polling stations in a rural and unstable country for the first presidential vote, held on Aug. 20, and still the election was marked by poor turnout, hundreds of Taliban attacks, and extensive fraud. Now, with winter fast approaching in many parts of the country, it is difficult to see how the required ballot papers, a new system to prevent a repeat of election fraud, and a new security response to allow more polling stations to open can all be brought together in the time provided.

But before votes can be counted, there must be voters. Assuring an acceptable level of voter turnout, especially in the turbulent Pashtun south, where Taliban activity led to low turnout in the first round, will be a formidable task. Presently, the security situation in the south — and now as well in the north in Kunduz and Baghlan — is grim. Many Afghans will be unwilling to risk their safety again, especially if they doubt whether the election will make much of a difference to their daily lives.

In addition to concerns over security, there are concerns about voter morale. During recent research interviews in Kandahar and Helmand, I found the cynicism of many ordinary Afghans clear. Afghans are threatening to boycott the poll. There are “no good Afghan political leaders to lead us out of this situation,” one local stated, indicating he would not vote in a run-off. Some of those who supported President Karzai, in particular, are unwilling to vote again, disenchanted with what they saw as his complicity in the fraud.

This disenchantment among Karzai’s supporters must be acknowledged, since it indicates the serious possibility that he may not, contrary to expectations, triumph in a run-off.

After the recount, Karzai had an estimated 48 percent of the vote, while his leading challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah took 35 percent.

It’s possible that Abdullah could pick up the votes of the other candidates, including Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani, who came in third and fourth, respectively. Their vote shares, along with the other 29 candidates, came to 15.3 percent of the total ballots. If Abdullah collects the majority of these votes, perhaps two-thirds, he will have to gain less than 10 percent elsewhere to claim victory. This gap could easily be closed by the drop in Karzai’s support — allowing Abdullah to overtake Karzai.

But before any new votes can be counted, the Afghan elections system and international partners must cope with the logistical challenges of delivering seventeen million ballots – by helicopter, truck, and donkey — to thousands of remote and increasingly snowbound polling stations.

In just sixteen days, a new system must be developed to prevent a replay of the first round’s fraud, and then deployed across the countryside. In just sixteen days, new approaches to security, which will allow more polling stations (especially in the south) to open, motivating the Afghan people to get out and vote without fear for their lives, must be put in place.

At this stage, delivering a credible second round of voting seems to be more an aspiration than a reality and will require a nearly Herculean effort by systems and infrastructures not operating at optimum levels. We in the West were keen on a second round to deliver the credible Afghan partner necessary for our domestic and security agendas. But we might just have walked into that space delineated by the saying: “Be careful what you wish for — you might just get it.”

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

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