The Avoidable Death of Afghan Democracy

Elections could be the country's undoing. Or, it could be a good start for much-needed reform.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Hearing the news of President Hamid Karzai’s win by default in the Afghan election, I remembered what an Afghan friend had told me about the death of his cousin, a tribal leader in Afghanistan’s troubled south, who had endorsed and taken part in the recent election. When his cousin’s body was found, the eyes had been gouged out and every bone was broken. 

Unfortunately, my friend’s cousin wasn’t the only victim of Afghanistan’s electoral tragedy. Democracy took a serious hit as well. Electoral fraud was rampant — an injustice to every Afghan who took the risk to cast a ballot in August’s presidential vote. Today, Afghan democracy needs more than reform; it needs an overhaul. I saw this firsthand as political advisor to Peter Galbraith, the top U.S. diplomat in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, until he (and I) left following the mess last month. Luckily, there are solutions available.

What went wrong in August is hard to count on two hands. When election outcomes — particularly at the local level — are decided by those who can stuff the most ballots, it is these unsavory characters who end up benefiting from the process, rather than the electorate as a whole. The ballot-stuffers demand payment (often government posts) for their "services," further degrading the government’s work. Surely, this is the opposite of what democracy is meant to deliver.

More, the free and fair governance promised by the United States and its NATO allies promises an endless sequence of such elections — one almost every year according to the Afghan Constitution. On top of voter disillusionment, this election cost the equivalent of 2.5 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, more than most European countries spend on their entire defense budgets. How likely is it that Afghanistan will keep this system when foreign donors stop funding it?

Fixing all this will take fundamental institutional change. As it stands, Afghanistan’s electoral body is headed by someone appointed by the president. That’s an appointment Karzai should agree to forfeit in favor of someone who is truly independent and chosen through consensus. If this means constitutional change, so be it. The loya jirga, or tribal convention, that such amendments would require could take the opportunity to reform the over-ambitious elections timetable as well.

In the meantime, Afghanistan can build on the one solid achievement these elections have had. More than a million fake votes were found and discounted. And though there were no doubt many more — maybe hundreds of thousands — this was a much more determined effort to root out fraud than any time before. Now, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) which carried out the fraud investigation, most of whose members are non-Afghans appointed by the United Nations, should conduct further investigations to determine who carried out the fraud, and impose fines. (It has the right to do so, penalizing with up to $2,000). That follow-up matters because it is not the first time that ballot-stuffing and strong-arm tactics have determined the outcome of Afghan elections. Most recently it happened, very blatantly, in 2005’s Parliamentary elections. Until now, it has been tolerated, emboldening the fraudsters and disillusioning the voters. Prosecutions would send a powerful message.

The Afghan parliament has proposed making the ECC wholly Afghan in the future. This year’s experience is not encouraging. Because the campaign is so ethnic in character, few Afghans are wholly neutral. As long as foreign countries are funding elections in Afghanistan, they can demand that the ECC remain as it is as a precondition for funding. Indeed, this foreign involvement could be used as a model for another and even more useful institution. 

Or course, electoral fraud is a symptom of an even bigger problem: corruption, the Afghan government’s biggest enemy and the insurgency’s best friend. Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, was quick to capitalize on the elections fraud as propaganda, listing it alongside other examples of government corruption. Karzai himself denounced corruption in the Afghan government in November 2008 and now has promised to tackle it in his new term of office. Here is a suggestion: He can use this election fraud investigation as a start.

In fact, the Afghan government could replicate the ECC’s structure and set up a similar body to investigate government corruption. As a body made up mostly of foreigners (ideally from countries which themselves have stringent anti-bribery laws), it would be much more resistant to the normal tactics that are used to thwart such investigations, for example, intimidation and bribery. It would need the power to enforce small fines like the ECC does, and ideally its powers would go further. If it is called foreign interference, well, it is mostly foreign money that is involved. 

If the Afghan government can use the lessons from this election to build some protection for the Afghan people against fraud and corruption, then those who died and suffered because of the last vote will not have done so in vain.

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