The South Asia Channel

Karzai’s stealth bid to fix the elections

Early last month, while the United States was in its own pre-election haze, Americans giddily re-tweeting whatever incremental shift Nate Silver’s model had just spat out, CNN personalities with their Magic Wall, nightly groping at some Ohio precinct, over in Kabul, Karzai was making his move.  With the West’s gaze averted, he quietly set in ...


Early last month, while the United States was in its own pre-election haze, Americans giddily re-tweeting whatever incremental shift Nate Silver’s model had just spat out, CNN personalities with their Magic Wall, nightly groping at some Ohio precinct, over in Kabul, Karzai was making his move.  With the West’s gaze averted, he quietly set in motion his plan to control Afghanistan’s next election.

Through the ministry of justice, Karzai pushed a draft amendment to the country’s election law that would add sweeping new restrictions to candidate eligibility for the Afghan presidency. The law now sits in Parliament awaiting debate, but if it passes, it would disqualify anyone who has a disability — physical or psychological, anyone who can’t speak and write in both Dari and Pashtu, anyone who doesn’t have ten years of work experience in the administration, anyone who doesn’t have a university degree, anyone who can’t pay one million Afs (the equivalent of $20,000), and anyone who can’t come up with 100,000 signatures cumulatively from at least twenty different provinces. 

A contrast, to be sure, with the comparatively modest 35 years of age and a citizen required of U.S. presidential candidates.  But is it a necessary one? After all, superficially the law would seem to weed out warlords, as well as especially ethnocentric candidates, for whom the inability to speak one of the languages that half the country speaks may indicate undue animus towards them, and for whom signatures from twenty provinces would seem to demand at least some appeal beyond just an ethnic powerbase which, in the fractious ethnic politics of the country, could be enough to propel a candidate into a run off election.  Besides,

"Afghanistan is very unsettled," as Ambassador Ronald Neumann, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, told me. "It is not clear whether a brokered election coming out of agreement among power brokers would be more or less destabilizing than a contentious fight among multiple candidates with highly partisan ethnic or tribal political bases."

And perhaps that’s what’s going on here; perhaps Karzai knows better than anyone how to promote a peaceful transition, and, in furtherance of that goal, what kind of people should be disqualified.

Or perhaps he knows exactly which people he wants to disqualify.  The timing, after all, is curious.  Eighteen months before an election is awfully late to introduce laws that restrict who can stand for them.  And when you look at the names that began to circulate in the rumors about the upcoming elections, an explanation emerges: he had to wait that long because he had to see who might run before designing laws to disqualify them. 

Haneef Atmar, the highly regarded bureaucrat who served ably in three different ministries, lost a leg while fighting in Jalalabad in ‘88. The disability provision would disqualify him-and many others, given that Afghanistan has the world’s second highest proportion of disabled people (behind only Cambodia) and has its most heavily mined capitol city.  Yunos Quanooni, who came in second behind Karzai in the 2004 elections, and is a former Minister and speaker of the parliament, was disabled by a car bomb in 1993.  Also disqualified.  Zalmay Khalizad, an American of Afghan extraction who has served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and to the UN (and therefore whose candidacy would require an awkward — though not unprecedented — citizenship change) has no lack of expertise in government, but does not have the requisite ten years in Afghanistan’s.  And the list goes on.  Is Karzai’s law tailor-made to disqualify specific challengers?

That is, of course, is the most conspiratorial analysis.  It’s famously difficult to decipher Karzai’s political calculus, but if he is trying to assure maximal control over his successor, how better than to cast doubt over who will be eligible to run?  That would be vintage Karzai.  In earlier cycles, it was the date of the election he delayed announcing and then moved up, which kneecapped opponents who hadn’t been able to plan for the elections without knowing when they would be, and now only had two months to campaign.  Indeed, today, potential candidates, and those who might support them, are sitting on their hands. No one wants to cast his or her lot without knowing who will actually be eligible.  Every day the qualifications for office requirements to run are unknown, candidates without Karzai’s blessing see their chances fade.  There will simply not be enough time for an alternative to make himself (or, more improbably, herself) known to the Afghan electorate before the election.  

Though Karzai’s intentions are not apparent, the practical effects the law would have are clear.  The "ten years in government administration" probably won’t include Taliban or pre-Taliban government experience, which means what the law is really saying is that candidates must have been in government between 2001 and 2014-all the years Karzai was in charge. In practice, the clause is a lazy euphemism for "must have worked for Karzai."

Or, take the university degree requirement.  At first blush, an apparent assurance that the president will not hail from the country’s deep stable of power-hungry warlords.  And yet in practice, it would be better at eliminating regular Afghans from the field than especially violent ones.  A college education was a luxury unavailable to most who remained in the country during the thirty years of on again, off again war, so the requirement would reduce the field of homegrown candidates in favor of émigrés to Western countries who returned after the worst of the fighting-a species Afghans have historically had a hard time trusting. Nor would the degree requirement even be all that effective at preventing warlords from running, since they could sue for exception given their military rank, or their knowledge of Sharia, as many have before in order to qualify for ministerial posts or Parliamentary seats.  Some actually have essentially honorary university degrees, granted by Iran or Pakistan as part of the patronage relationships those countries have with their clients in Afghanistan.

Then there is the filing fee. The average income in Afghanistan is about $1,000 a year; the filing fee is twenty times that. It would virtually guarantee that all the candidates either be from the country’s small financial urban elite, or have external backing.   Or, have Karzai’s.  By way of comparison, there is no filing fee for an American presidential candidate, and other developing or post-conflict countries that do have filing fees have very small ones, designed to insure some accountability from those who run for office-not eliminate everyone who isn’t already wealthy.

And every single one of these stipulations, by the way, militates against the participation of women, because they all depend on access.  Work experience, financial resources, education level, and even the mobility required to get signatures in twenty-five different provinces for the requisite 100,000 signatures, raise a bar still difficult for women in Afghanistan to clear. 

So how should the international community respond? Does it matter whether these are the cynical machinations of a despot desperate to hold on to as much power as possible after he leaves office? To install a seat warmer loyal to him for five years so that he can run again in 2019 (though constitution sets a limit of two consecutive terms, it does not mention a limit on non-consecutive terms)? Or are these the considered steps of a leader who knows better than anyone how to prevent the kind of violence possible when a presidential election comes along to inflame ethnic tensions, at exactly the same time the troops that might quell them are pulling out?

Certainly, the law is anathema to real representative democracy, and potentially, to the legitimacy of a post-Karzai president who will already, regardless of who he is and to which ethnic group he belongs, have a severe mandate problem in large parts of the country.

Fortunately, the law is still pending. At weakening the field, though, its effect is not contingent on its ratification, since no one can start a campaigning in earnest without knowing whether they’ll be able to run. Meanwhile, the United States has begun negations with the Karzai government about the terms of the U.S. military withdrawal, with particular tension over immunity for the U.S. troops that remain.  We need to think seriously, though, about what it is those troops that stay behind will be protecting.  And how do we balance the tension between one man’s idea of how to maintain stability, and a people’s right-a right which comprised part of the justification for this nation sacrificing no shortage of blood and treasure-to choose their leader, from a field of candidates unfiltered by one man notorious for cronyism?

Jeffrey E Stern––is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has appeared in Esquire, Time, Daily Beast, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications.

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