War In Afghanistan - Afghanistan's electoral debacle
IN A country already rich in tribes, two more factions have arrived on Afghanistan’s diplomatic and political scene: the first- and second-rounders. Last month’s presidential election is looking ever more of a debacle. The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, has 55% of the votes on a preliminary count. But the level of fraud was such that this is seen as a joke. Everybody agrees, having read their counter-insurgency manuals, on the importance of a legitimate government. And some argue only a second-round run-off between Mr Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, can restore a semblance of legitimacy. First-rounders, however, fear another vote might actually make things far worse.
Second-rounders hope the Election Complaints Commission, an independent watchdog, will be able to whittle down Mr Karzai’s share to below 50%, forcing a run off. It has announced an investigation of 2,516 polling stations, roughly 10% of the total. First-rounders, however, point out that people are utterly disillusioned with the electoral process. So turnout might be pitiful, especially if Taliban insurgents step up their campaign of intimidation.
Dr Abdullah might actually have a chance of winning a second round. He thinks he can peel off a few of the power-brokers who backed the president in the first round and pick up some of the anti-Karzai votes that went to the dozens of other candidates. Moreover, insecurity could deprive Mr Karzai of votes in his electoral stronghold, the ethnic-Pushtun south—assuming ballot-boxes are unstuffed.
Mr Karzai’s clear desire to avoid a second round suggests he is worried. So is NATO. If Dr Abdullah, half-Pushtun but widely perceived as a Tajik, were to win because the Pushtuns, the largest ethnic group, could not vote, it would be a disaster for the counter-insurgency campaign.
In this fraught climate, even meteorology has become politicised. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) insists winter will start on October 15th. Parts of the country would be cut off (see map), and a second round, which it says would take six weeks to organise, impossible. The Americans have responded by asking the Afghans to start printing ballot-papers in advance. And they have asked their own army’s weathermen, who reckon there is at least a month longer than the IEC claims.
Whatever happens, however, it seems probable the next president will lack legitimacy. So another debate is under way—about how to to bolster public support, both Afghan and foreign, for the next government. The United Nations’ most senior diplomat in the country, Kai Eide, believes a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness of the government and its ability to deliver basic services could do the trick.
He reckons, however, that the Afghans and international aid donors will have just six months to start showing results. And any progress depends on Mr Karzai, assuming he wins. These days he does not have many fans among foreign governments. Tone-deaf to the outrage in the West at the widespread electoral fraud, Mr Karzai has not even denounced those who cheated on his behalf. Instead he has claimed that any fraud was low-level and normal by international standards.
The UN’s vision requires him to fill a future cabinet with bright technocrats. It is looking at ways of making aid conditional on such appointments, and on ending the practice of granting amnesties to well-connected crooks. But, to bolster his re-election campaign, Mr Karzai recruited an odious collection of former warlords and human-rights abusers. They, presumably, will now expect a share of power.
One foreign diplomat says that, if Mr Karzai does indeed reward his warlord friends with jobs, then the attempt by the Western powers to rebuild Afghanistan “will be over”. Sadly, Mr Karzai has a long record of defying his foreign paymasters and getting away with it. And many senior Afghans are convinced that their country remains so important to American interests that the foreigners will never dare to leave or risk annoying Mr Karzai too much.
But as popular support for the war in Afghanistan collapses in the West, Mr Eide believes that the Afghans will soon learn how dangerous that assumption is, and that “ultimately it is not governments who are the decision-makers; it’s people sitting around kitchen tables who watch television and read the news.” And the message many of those people are taking from Afghanistan at the moment matches one long-serving diplomat’s succinct summary of the post-election mess: “There are no good outcomes”.
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