The Afghan Elections
August 13, 2009
Q1: How will the elections impact Afghanistan?
A1: No matter who wins the August 20 elections, the results will be considered a positive step for Afghanistan if they are perceived as mostly free and fair (most analysts expect some fraud and security problems). Alternatively, if vote buying and corruption alter the results in a significant manner, or security concerns prevent large numbers of people from voting, violent protests could occur and the consequences could be harsh not only for Afghanistan’s democratic potential, but for the war against the Taliban. Afghan and international security forces will be deployed to secure polling stations and prevent violence, and the elections will test their effectiveness.
There are several potential outcomes:
- The incumbent Hamid Karzai wins in the first round of elections with slightly more than the 50 percent + 1 required by Afghan law. In this case, there may be protests, but this outcome may lead to less instability than the others.
- Karzai wins with more than 60 percent of the vote. This will likely result in accusations of fraud, public challenges by competing candidates, and potentially widespread violence in the north and in Kabul where many Tajiks live.
- Karzai does not win in the first round, and there is a runoff—probably between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who most polls place at a distant second place. Some predict violence in this scenario as well, especially if turnout is low in the south because of Taliban attacks and if Pashtuns feel disenfranchised. If security forces can control the situation in the immediate aftermath of an announcement, this could provide the space needed to prepare for the runoff.
- Karzai wins in the second round of elections, which would take place in October, a month after final results of the first election are announced in early September. There is a slight chance Abdullah could win in the second round. Either candidate may try to form a coalition with some of the other candidates, notably Ashraf Ghani, who is a distant fourth in the polling but considered a competent technocrat (especially by the international community).
The elections are already rife with problems. Weeks before the election there were accusations of corruption, especially against Karzai, with thousands of fake voter registration cards discovered in many parts of the country. Hundreds of polling stations may not open because of fear of violence and difficult access. The Taliban is openly threatening voters in an effort to keep turnout low, and insurgent groups have already been scaling up violence. Campaigning candidates are frequently attacked, especially outside their home districts. However, the Afghan population is committed to voting, and NATO and U.S. forces are engaged across the country to prevent Taliban attacks. There is some risk that not enough people will be able to reach polling centers and that corruption will create a questionable margin. Depending on who wins, there are risks that protests in the north and south could break out if groups feel their candidate has been cheated. Some of Abdullah’s supporters have already threatened violence if he does not win.
Often forgotten, but also important, are the 3,300 candidates running for provincial councils, who will be voted on at the same time. These councils could become more important as emphasis shifts from strong centralized government in Afghanistan to effective provincial governments that hold the president accountable. Given the complex network of tribal leaders and ties in the country, however, the importance of the elected councils is unclear.
Q2: Does Karzai face serious competition?
A2: Karzai is the frontrunner in the second contested election in Afghanistan’s history. He has obvious name recognition, as well as support from extensive power brokering with tribal leaders around the country. No candidate is receiving the same amount of media coverage as Karzai, and he has been accused of exploiting and censoring the state-run media. In a recent report, the Independent Election Commission noted that Karzai received 72 percent of mentions in state-run print media, while Abdullah Abdullah received 12 percent and Ashraf Ghani just 5 percent. Until a few weeks ago, it appeared that none of the 36 registered presidential candidates posed a threat to Karzai. But his three main competitors have recently gained in popularity, propelled by intense dissatisfaction with the corruption and inefficiency of the current government.
The most popular, Abdullah Abdullah, is a former foreign minister of Afghanistan. He was also a close associate of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a national hero who fought the Soviet forces and the Taliban and was assassinated just before 9/11. Abdullah is running his campaign on his connection to Massoud and on claims that he wants to end corruption and decentralize governance. However, Abdullah is a Tajik from the north and may be hurt by his lack of support in the Pashtun-dominated south, despite his paternal Pashtun roots.
Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank senior analyst and Afghan finance minister, has spelled out a more elaborate plan for ending corruption and building the country’s infrastructure. Without the popular persona of the other candidates, he lags far behind Karzai and Abdullah in polls. Ghani is popular outside Afghanistan for his experience and theories about state building, but it is unlikely that he will garner much support, though he could join forces with either candidate in a runoff.
Ramazan Bashardost, current parliamentarian and former planning minister under Karzai, is gaining popularity, despite his campaign’s small budget, by speaking out against the things frustrating most Afghans: current government policies, corruption, and the ineffectiveness of foreign nongovernmental organizations. Like Ghani he is not likely to win a significant percentage of the vote, but he could take votes away from other candidates and may find a spot in a future cabinet.
Karzai’s approval rating is extremely low, 31 percent, and it is likely that he will not win the required 50 percent. In that case, the candidates’ allegiances may shift for the second round of elections. There are rumors that Ghani may decide to support Karzai in exchange for a high-level government appointment, but Ghani has had previous unpleasant experiences in the Karzai government and is outspoken against Karzai’s corruption.
Q3: If one of the other candidates wins, how would the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship change?
A3: In the unlikely event that Karzai does not win, Abdullah is the most likely victor. His campaign rhetoric is focused on corruption, but he also wants to decentralize government control and accelerate military reforms. With the democratic endorsement of the Afghan people, and without the stigma of corruption Karzai bears, he could be more assertive and develop a strong working relationship with international counterparts. On the other hand, if Karzai wins, American officials are already familiar with him, while the other candidates’ policies toward America, and their potential plans for running the country, are unknown.
Q4: What should be done to prepare for elections?
A4: NATO is moving in the right direction reorienting troops to disrupt Taliban activity and keep civilians safe. However, it remains to be seen whether the new strategy, which is focusing on securing the population (the “hold-and-build” part of the counterinsurgency campaign) and keeping track of civilian rather than enemy casualties to track success, will make an impact before the elections. Strategists need to ensure that the south and east are safe enough for the population to vote. Otherwise, low levels of Pashtun voters could weigh the elections in favor of Abdullah, creating Pashtun resentment and a high risk of violent protests in the south and in Kabul. Such unrest would only undermine democracy and could potentially increase support for the Taliban. These elections, where widespread fraud is already expected, will be closely monitored to validate the results in national and international eyes. Monitoring teams are being deployed, with long-term monitors already in place. National monitors will be able to travel more freely than internationals, though it is not clear if anyone will be able to monitor the more dangerous and contested parts of the country. Consequently, strategies to ensure accuracy, including increased auditing of the result counts in inaccessible polling stations and multiple checks by the Independent Election Commission during ballot transport, should be put in place in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others. Officials must be prepared to handle a delicate situation as results return from the first election, as preliminary numbers arrive 48 hours after polls close and as official results are declared a month later. In the case of a runoff election on October 1 (or later), NATO and Afghan security forces will need to maintain peace through an interim government’s term and the final announcement of results.
Karin von Hippel is codirector, and Alyssa Bernstein an intern, in the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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