Democracy or disaster?Posted: August 22, 2009
AFGHANISTAN: IT was aimed at giving the nation a common voice but Afghanistan’s election, riddled with corruption and violence, may have only added to the country’s ethnic and political tensions
AFTER weeks on the campaign trail, Afghan politics is suddenly quiet as president Hamid Karzai and his closest rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah wait for the result of Thursday’s presidential election.
Spokesmen for both candidates declared victory on Friday before bowing to pressure from the country’s Independent Election Commission to maintain a dignified silence.
“It is not the job of the campaign managers to announce the election results,” said Zekria Barakzai, a spokesman for the IEC, who estimated national turnout at 40-50%.
US envoy Richard Holbrooke met both candidates to ask them not to incite their followers. There had been fears their rhetoric might stoke violence and split the country along ethnic lines.
Karzai belongs to the Pashtun majority and derives much of his support from Pashtun voters in the south of the country, where turnout was lowest. Analysts fear that allegations of fraud among his supporters will prompt Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik, and has his support base in the north to protest against an unfavourable result, sparking violent clashes.
Another possibility is that high turnout in northern Afghanistan and low turnout in the south, where voters carried Karzai to victory five years ago, may force the race to a second round. Karzai has said in the worst-case scenario this may lead to a civil war.
“We’re in a period where the outcome is unclear … Everyone said that they would respect the process,” Holbrooke said.
The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said that the two candidates had responded with a “responsible attitude”.
International election observers also urged caution, saying it was too early to say who had won and whether fraud had affected the outcome. Violence, particularly in the south, made the vote hard to analyse.
The IEC will start to publish preliminary results on Tuesday. But election monitors have already criticised it for failing to release results from individual polling stations as they come in.
“I can’t think of an election that was this opaque, where no-one seems to have a good sense of how many people voted, whether they felt restricted or not in their ability to vote, what the breakdown between men and women was, what the support of various candidates was,” said Glenn Cowan, a principal with Democracy International. “All that information tends to act as a pressure release. You’re not getting that here.”
If Karzai receives the 50.1% of the vote he needs to win in round one, the depressed turnout in the Pashtun belt across the south and east Afghanistan, where he garners most support, may actually boost his legitimacy by showcasing him as a leader able to appeal to voters countrywide.
Some polling stations remained closed amid insurgent intimidation and violence. Residents of parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, and eastern Herat had little or no opportunity to vote. In Helmand, where thousands of British troops fought a month-long operation to provide security allowing 80,000 people to vote, just 150 were reported to have cast their ballots.
Gun-battles between militants and police raged all day in several districts in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland. Insurgents attacked the provincial governor’s palace at 3.30am and kept up a barrage of rockets, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades until after dark.
Police said they fought gun battles with the insurgents, killing several. About a dozen roadside bombs were destroyed in controlled explosions.
The Taliban targeted Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and a powerful figure in southern Afghanistan. Two rockets fizzed overhead as he voted. Another fell short of his house, blowing a young girl’s head off and wounding three members of her family. The Taliban fired more than 200 rockets across the province in total.
A few defiant Kandaharis did cast their ballots, mainly for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.
“We must make our country and now is the time,” said one voter, squatting by a puddle and trying to scrub away the indelible ink that election officials had stained his finger with. Although the ink was intended to prevent people voting twice, it also identified those who had ignored a Taliban boycott of the election.
“They will kill me,” he said, asking not to be named.
Exiting the white tent where he had just voted, another man, Mohammad Younis, recalled that the last time he had cast a ballot, in 2004, it was with a spirit of optimism.
This time a rocket exploded nearby.
“You see our situation,” he said.
By early afternoon, the explosions and the baking desert heat had driven almost everyone off the streets. Polling stations were deserted save for a few election staff. When polls closed at 4pm, 1838 men had voted at what officials said was the city’s busiest polling centre. The IEC had estimated 6000 would turn out to cast their votes. “It’s been a quiet day,” said Sediqullah, the registrar at another polling station in central Kandahar City. Only 387 people had voted there.
The numbers at female-only polling stations were even lower.
The deputy president of the provincial council said that besides security being “very, very bad,” minor irregularities in voting were being reported in Kandahar City. “First bring security, then elections,” said Toorjan Dastagir, a stocky shopkeeper who refused to visit the polling station barely a hundred yards from his store. “All night there were rockets.”
The insurgents hanged two voters in Kandahar and cut the ink-stained fingers off two others. Rumours that militants would cut off voters’ ink-stained fingers had spread before the vote. A Taliban spokesman had said militants would not carry out such attacks, but the Taliban remains a loose confederacy of individual commanders who act on their own initiative.
Overall, though, the level of violence was less than had been feared. The UN, American and Afghan officials hailed the election a success, not least because the Taliban failed to stage any of the “spectacular” attacks they had promised. The Afghan government said at least 26 people were killed in 135 incidents countrywide. US President Barack Obama called it an “important step forward”.
Meanwhile, campaign managers for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani have reported ballot-box stuffing by local commanders loyal to the Karzai family. This has been vociferously denied. Election monitors said turnout levels would give an indication of how much fraud had taken place; early indications are that a suspiciously large number of ballots were cast in places savaged by fighting.
In Kandahar one man also told the Sunday Herald that votes were being sold for $20 a time. Later, I saw people being admitted into polling stations after they had officially closed. The Election Complaints Commission has so far received 100 formal complaints about irregularities, including “allegations of ballot-stuffing in Kandahar”. European Union observers had difficulty getting to polling stations in southern Kandahar because of rocket attacks.
Nader Nadery of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said his group saw widespread problems of election officials pressuring people to vote for certain candidates. In Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, a fistfight broke out when a Karzai supporter began distributing campaign literature to people queuing to vote. In Balkh, three election workers were fired because they were campaigning for Abdullah during the election.
Election monitors saw voters carrying whole boxes of voting cards to polling sites, Nadery said. There were widespread reports of underage voters. In Kandahar, I found one 15-year old girl who had not only voted but was working as an election observer.
And yesterday, a long-shot presidential candidate displayed torn and mangled ballot papers that he said had been cast for him and tossed away by local election workers who support Karzai.
Mirwais Yasini said his supporters had found them ditched outside Spin Boldak city in southern Kandahar province. The ballots bore the stamp of the Independent Election Commission, which is applied only after they are used for voting.
“Thousands of them were burned,” he said. Spin Boldak is where campaign staff of Ashraf Ghani also alleged large-scale fraud was orchestrated by Karzai supporters.
Election observers were split in their opinions of the poll: some said low turnout reflected how dreadful security in southern Afghanistan has become. Others said just holding an election was a success. The ballot took place in a country at war, with little history of democracy, deep ethnic splits and endemic corruption.
The National Democratic Institute said it saw orderly voting, but added that the vote “involved serious flaws that must be addressed in order to build greater confidence in the integrity of future elections.”
The fact that members of the IEC were appointed by Karzai suggested a degree of bias, it said.
Democracy International reported that although violence and intimidation disenfranchised voters in large parts of the country, in more secure areas Afghans were able to cast their votes. The IEC was able to administer the elections effectively enough to prevent questions of legitimacy arising on this front, it said, but the lack of a voter list created plenty of opportunities for fraud. Around 17 million Afghans were registered to vote, although it is unclear how many hold duplicate cards.
United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide recently referred to the Afghan poll as “the most complicated elections anywhere in the world”.
After the events of last week few would question his assessment.