The South Asia Channel

Afghan elections: Despite precautionary measures, voters remain disillusioned

As the country gets ready for the elections, the discussions — as usual — focus on security and fraud. There seem to be two worlds. One is the world of procedures, barcodes, scanners, and tamper-evident bags. Of recruitment criteria, complaints forms, female searchers, and police contingents. Of confident reassurances that everything is under control. The ...

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

As the country gets ready for the elections, the discussions — as usual — focus on security and fraud. There seem to be two worlds. One is the world of procedures, barcodes, scanners, and tamper-evident bags. Of recruitment criteria, complaints forms, female searchers, and police contingents. Of confident reassurances that everything is under control. The other is the world of rumors, threats, money, and power. Of disillusioned voters, scheming candidates, interfering government officials, and threats of targeted attacks. The two worlds don’t seem to meet.

Diplomats, U.N. officials and electoral advisers have been genuinely impressed by the measures taken by the IEC. Staff has been moved around, in an attempt to disrupt the links and agreements needed to organize effective fraud, and many of those working in last year’s elections were not re-employed (although this could mean many things). The list of polling centers has been released well ahead of the elections and the IEC has withstood pressures to add centers (the distribution of the centers has, however, not yet been properly analyzed). Procedures have been significantly tightened. This means that if they are followed it will be much more difficult to tamper with the vote — and if they are not followed, it will be easier to track where things have gone wrong. So there is cautious — and not so cautious — optimism that this vote will not be as messy as last year’s.

Many journalists, analysts, and observers however have a totally different picture. They take their cue from the Afghans they talk to, many of whom are now obsessed with the fake voter cards from Pakistan, but who also have detailed stories of schemes and deals and money payments — in the last election, as well as the current one. It would be foolish to dismiss these stories as irrelevant or ill-informed, as Afghans tend to know rather well what their relatives are up to and what goes on in their neighborhoods. It would be foolish to forget, yet again, that procedures and measures only work if they are implemented.

Polling day will be a scramble. Literally thousands of people — candidates, candidate supporters, IEC staff, local entrepreneurs, commanders, businessmen — have been preparing for months to manipulate the election, and many more are ready to improvise. Some schemes will fail, some will succeed. Ballot boxes will be stuffed, counts fudged, tally sheets altered, polling stations shot at and the boxes taken "into safety," voters threatened, polling staff made to look the other way, doors locked and observers asked to leave, polling stations "reassigned" to private houses, rival ballots removed or invalidated, boxes lost, forms forgotten.

Congratulatory statements at the end of the day, hailing the courage of the Afghan people and their determination to exercise their democratic right, will probably not fit how many Afghans feel and will add to the feelings of cognitive dissonance. But early assessments that the election was a full failure, because many people tried to manipulate it, also miss the mark.

In a way, the real question for this election is not whether there will be fraud — there will be and probably quite a lot — but what happens once the fraud has taken place and once the extent of it starts settling in. It is about what happens when the two worlds meet.

That is what I will be watching in the coming days.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the AfghanistanAnalysts Network, where this was originally published.

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