Afghanistan elections: Domestic and external spoilers

The challenge facing Afghan leaders will be to allow for the constitutional process to run its course, without meddling.

A large number of Afghans are eager to take part in the upcoming watershed presidential and provincial council elections, writes Samad [Getty Images]

With less than a week left before Afghans go to the polls to elect a new leader to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has been in office for the past 13 years, the country is vacillating between trepidation and enthusiasm. For the first time since 2004 (the date for the first post-Taliban general election), there is a groundswell of political excitement building up across the country. But the spectres of intimidation, meddling and uncertainty are acting as spoilers. These could become serious barriers to realising a relatively fair and free ballot that will determine the level of credibility and legitimacy needed to assure a more stable and prosperous future.

A new survey released this week indicated that a large number of Afghans are eager to take part in the upcoming watershed presidential (and provincial council) elections. Last winter’s survey conducted by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), indicates more than 91 percent of respondents support the holding of elections slated for April 5, and more than 74 percent want to participate.

Whether events unfolding over the next few days will allow for a large turnout on E-day is another question.

Intimidation through violence

Although rigging is a prime concern for most political actors across the country, security has become a major worry since the beginning of the year. Kabul and a number of high target provinces have experienced a spate of suicide attacks and assassinations after the Taliban leadership issued one of its signatory statements earlier this month promising to “use all force” possible to disrupt the presidential elections.

Making good on their promise, they have unleashed spectacular suicide attacks that have resulted in civilian deaths as part of a pre-meditated intimidation strategy.

But the reaction by Afghans across ethnic and socio-economic lines has been one of defiance. Realising that peace talks between Pakistan and the home-grown TTP (Taliban of Pakistan) may be intended to facilitate the Taliban’s ability to disrupt the Afghan elections, there is growing Afghan civil resistance, especially due to the news that many attackers are Taliban students being deliberately discharged from cross-border madrassas.

Afghan sensitivities to perceptions of intrusion by any foreign power, as well as local spoilers, have hardened voters’ resolve to assure the success of the national process.

Despite having more than 20 million voter cards in circulation in a country with an estimated 11 million eligible voters, there are still long lines of Afghan men and women at registration stations eager to sign up. All indications point to a heavy turnout on election day, both in urban as well as relatively safe rural areas.

In addition to more than 380,000 army, police and international forces securing the elections, more than 13,000 women will also help with security to boost gender participation.

The challenge facing current and future Afghan leaders will be to allow for the constitutional process to run its course, without undue meddling or tampering.

Meddling and fraud

Despite a dynamic campaign and mobilisation effort, several frontrunners in the 2014 race point to fraud and high-level meddling as the primary challenge facing the overall process.

There are lingering questions about the neutrality, independence and capacity of the independent election commissions to mitigate, investigate and follow up with the irregularities.

Moreover, some candidates have accused high government officials of financial impropriety, bias and intrusion in favour of preferred candidates.

Empty threats and warnings have been issued by the authorities, but to date, no one has been seriously penalised or prosecuted.

Three major types of fraud are anticipated: ballot stuffing and the use of illegal voter cards on elections day; post-elections manipulation of results; and biased or erroneous assessment and adjudication of complaints.

While most of the campaigns, civil society, media, and international observers groups and youth organisations are concentrating their monitoring efforts on election day, there is little that is envisaged in terms of oversight in the crucial post-balloting phases before results are finalised.

Many Afghans have all but given up on the international community playing a neutral but effective oversight role in assuring a credible outcome. Even the United Nations, usually seen as an unbiased arbiter, came out with a contradictory position this week, whereby it condemned electoral fraud, but also warned candidates to accept final results and refrain from protesting.

If election results were to be contested by large constituencies, the ultimate responsibility for a botched election will rest partly with corrupt candidates and their agents, the electoral commissions and, above all, with the outgoing government.

Karzai has tried in vain to avoid giving the impression of meddling, but has not been able to appease public doubts since the 2009 fiasco that led to the disqualification of more than one million votes.

Uncertainty amid growing enthusiasm

Both random cases of insecurity and likelihood of fraud have fueled uncertainty about the transparency of elections. However, as shown by recent surveys, Afghans consider an inclusive electoral process as not a perfect solution, but as the best opportunity to express their free will, given the challenges they face at this juncture.

The FEFA survey also reveals that most Afghans want to protect the gains of the last decade, and are looking for traits in a leader that include good education and experience, in addition to honesty and being just.

Caught between uncertainty and enthusiasm, it is evident that the electoral process and widespread communal participation in political life – exposed through a vibrant media – have enriched the countrywide discourse and strengthened the bonds of nationhood.

It is for these reasons that domestic and external spoilers aim to disrupt the flow of progress by resorting to extreme means of violence and intimidation. But these forces are now facing deep resentment and defiance by all segments of society.

The challenge facing current and future Afghan leaders will be to allow for the constitutional process to run its course, without undue meddling or tampering.

Omar Samad is a senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was Afghanistan’s ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).