In developing countries experimenting with electoral democracy, it is quite normal for rival candidates in elections to claim victory and allege rigging if one of them expects to lose. In the August 20 presidential elections in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s main contender, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah had first claimed “landslide victory” over Karzai, but then alleged “massive rigging” sponsored by the incumbent President. On September 5, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, which supervised the polling and ballot counting, announced that Karzai was on track to win the election outright, surpassing the required majority of 50 percent plus one vote. With 91.6 percent of polling stations tallied, the official count showed Karzai with 54.1 percent of the vote to 28.3 percent for Abdullah. This meant that Karzai would not have to face a run-off contest against Abdullah.
However, on September 8, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) announced it had found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud,” and ordered a partial recount “at all polling stations where 600 or more votes were cast and at all stations where more than 95 per cent of the vote went to one candidate.” As of September 10, the ECC had invalidated voting from 83 polling stations in political strongholds of President Karzai—the southern, ethnic Pashtun provinces of Kandahar, Ghazni, and Paktika—while recounting of votes in several other poling places was under way. It was still uncertain whether additional recounting would reduce Karzai’s 1.4 million-vote lead enough to force him into a second round election against Abdullah.
The ECC verdict tends to favour Abdullah’s claim of “massive rigging” in the elections sponsored by the incumbent regime of President Karzai, who had interestingly received almost the same 54.4 per cent of votes in the October 2004 presidential elections. There is no doubt that in his first term as elected president Karzai has gradually lost the level of public support he enjoyed at the time of the October 2004 presidential polls, primarily on counts of bad governance and rampant corruption. And the charges of rigging in the recent elections sponsored by his incumbent regime can be justified simply on the ground that with significant erosion of popular base he cannot gain the same percentage of Afghan votes as he did five years ago.
However, we must also not rule out two factors that give him an edge over Abdullah. First, the incumbency factor, which may have enabled him to cultivate support for his candidacy for a second presidential term from regional non-Pashtun warlords such as Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and Muhammad Mohaqeq, each of whom binging substantial voter blocs with them from Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara communities, respectively.
Second, we cannot ignore that Karzai represents Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority, which may not be fully represented in the current Afghan power structure, which is generally considered as a major reason for the growth of Taliban-led insurgency. However, it is a fact that after his transformation from the leadership of an interim administration to a directly elected president, Karzai did attempt to marginalize the power of non-Pashtun Northern Alliance figures, including the instant removal of Mohammad Fahim and Abdullah from powerful defense and foreign ministries, and installing Pashtun defense, interior and finance ministers.
Abdullah’s half-Pashtun, half-Tajik roots, and especially his close affiliation with the Panjshiri clique, should, therefore, be a major hurdle in enabling him to claim over 50 per cent of popular votes, even if the people may not have voted with as much enthusiasm in the country’s Pashtun-majority southern and eastern regions as they did elsewhere, largely due to fear of insurgent Taliban forces there. Suppose the recounting of votes ordered by ECC eventually reduces Karzai’s popular votes percentage to less than 50 per cent, leading to a run-ff of the elections, even then Karzai’s victory is guaranteed, because then the verdict will be based on who gains more votes.
Which of the two main contenders wins the presidential elections is crucial—as the Afghan and international forces combat growing Taliban-led terrorist insurgency and the Obama Administration attempts to re-orient its counter-terrorism approach in the war-torn country. Karzai’s election victory and his second term would ensure continuity of the political order that was established in Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban in late 2001. Because of his relatively long experience as head of the state in the post-Taliban period and his Pashtun identity, Karzai may still be a better choice for the Afghans, provided he attempts to govern better and is ready to fight corruption.
He is very well known internationally by now. His policies and approaches have evolved over time, shifting from a staunchly anti-Taliban person until a few years ago to a man who wishes some sort of conditional reconciliation with the insurgents at present. He has been able to cultivate a close rapport with regional leaders, such as those of Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkey, through a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings. Karzai has also smartly adjusted to the new US outlook on Afghanistan under the Obama Administration, and, therefore, he no more qualifies as simply a legacy of the Bush Administration.
Abdullah, on the other hand, does not fit anywhere in Afghanistan’s evolving situation, involving massive counter-insurgency campaign intended to weaken the resolve of the Taliban-led insurgents to such as extent that they are ready to surrender and participate in the political process. He is perceived to be a staunch enemy of the Pashtun, and, therefore, Taliban. The Obama Administration and the international community engaged in stabilizing Afghanistan may soften their approach in a year or so, after the broader political objective behind the troops surge and security operation is achieved: that of co-opting Taliban and other insurgents in the peace process, provided they disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda and resolve not to let Afghanistan again become a safe haven for the terror network’s international jihadi agenda.
In such a scenario, installing a new leader like Abdullah in Kabul with virtually no constituency in the potentially moderate insurgent forces will significantly constrain the international community’s option for resolving the Afghan conflict with instruments other than war. Even otherwise, if Abdullah and his supporters decided to destabilize the Karzai regime, after losing the election with or without a run-off, then the consequent power struggle and political instability in the war-torn country will only embolden al-Qaeda, Taliban and other insurgents, further narrowing down the possibility of a pragmatic reconciliation process that US and NATO command currently engaged in massive security operation in Afghanistan may be aiming to achieve eventually.
For Pakistan, whose civilian democratic leadership has build a close rapport with Karzai and where the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party ruling the Frontier province bordering Afghanistan, Abdullah’s victory in the election will be a nightmare: he is perceived as rabidly anti-Pakistan and staunchly pro-India. Even after the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s U-turn against Taliban preceding it, Abdullah has never shied away from spitting venom against Islamabad. Unlike most of the Mujahideen leaders, who lived in Pakistan, he and his family chose India as their abode in exile during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Thus, his assumption of Afghan presidency seriously threatens to reverse all the positive-cooperative developments that have taken place in Afghan-Pak ties since early last year, starting with Karzai’s initiative to attend the oath-taking ceremony of President Zardari almost a year ago. The Pakistani leader is reportedly ready to reciprocate the gesture once the controversy over Karzai’s victory in the election is over.
There must be many instances of rigging sponsored by the incumbent regime, as Karzai has overtime established quite an extensive network of supporters in most of the provinces, especially those under government control, through offering various incentives to provincial warlords and district representatives. However, to claim that the entire electoral exercise was fraudulent, as Abdullah has in his most recent interviews, is wrong.
At least we must take a sigh of relief that Afghans after seeing recurrent rounds of warfare in the last 30 years, including an ongoing one, are finally experimenting with democracy, whatever its limitations in Afghanistan’s context are. Pragmatism requires that we must lower down expectations from electoral exercises taking place in a country where people and their leaders had never experimented with democracy for decades, and where the transfer of power mostly took place through the barrel of the gun. Afghanistan is still at war and, therefore, can ill afford to have power struggles that are usually witnessed in developing countries in the aftermath of elections. Elections would have been rigged if Abdullah was in power and Karzai was his main contender. Even if Abdullah is installed in power, who can guarantee he will be less corrupt than Karzai?
As stated before, the emerging mood in the United States, and the increasing preference of the Obama Administration, is to resolve the Afghan conflict not through war alone but, rather, by adopting additional measures, which includes political conciliation with those insurgents who are willing to dissociate themselves from al-Qaeda, surrender arms and become a part of the political process in Afghanistan. This is exactly what Karzai also aims to achieve.
In the last few months, Taliban have been beaten up considerably by the US, British and other NATO forces. In Helmand, we have seen a full-fledged US-NATO operation in recent weeks, and quite a successful one. At the same time, on the other side of the Afghan border, Pakistani troops have undertook a successful counter-insurgency operation in Swat and beyond, culminating in last month’s death of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone attack in South Waziristan.
Such an intensified security campaign across the Afghan border by US-NATO forces and Pakistani forces, respectively, is essentially aimed at crushing the extremist-terrorist-insurgent forces enough so that those who manage to survive these operations are compelled to come around the table and negotiate peace largely on the terms and conditions of the state and international state parties involved in the current war against al-Qaeda-inspired and Taliban led terrorist insurgency.
Seen in this backdrop, Afghanistan can hardly afford the Machiavellian sort of power struggle that Abdullah seems to have pursued in the aftermath of the recent polls. Controversial balloting must be re-counted for the sake of legitimizing the second historic elections in Afghanistan. Until 2001, no one could have imagined that the war-ravaged people of Afghanistan would ever directly elect their leader through a nation-wide poll.
In a country marred by recurrent warfare for the past 30 years, even the holding of such an internationally-sponsored and locally-driven exercise, even if its conduct and outcome do not meet the universally-accepted standards, is a great achievement. In the case of Afghanistan, we have to lower down our exoectations, meaning tolerating instances of electoral malpractices to a certain level. Politics of ideals at this budding stage of Afghanistan's democratic history of less than a decade may cause a political crisis which only al-Qaeda and its Afghan affiliates will exploit.
The international community has already invested so much in Afghanistan that eventualities like this are simply unaffordable. For argument's sake, even the charges of rigging, the decision of the ECC to order a partial recounting of ballot, and the possibility of an electoral run-off are developments reflective of an emerging democratic culture in the Afghan nation, which must give rise to optimism about the country’s future rather than to a cynical, despondent attitude about its current misery.
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