Afghans went to the polls on Aug. 20 to vote in the first truly competitive presidential election in their country’s history.
In the run-up to the election, pitting incumbent Hamid Karzai against 40 challengers, radical insurgents of the Taliban threatened to cut off any finger stained with indelible ink, a requirement to vote. In defiance of multiple threats of violence and intimidation, millions of brave Afghans did what some may think unimaginable. They voted anyway in a clear expression of Afghanistan’s commitment to democracy.
Their actions, taken in an election environment defined by insecurity, represent the best path toward a better future for themselves and their country. We have to look back only a few years to appreciate why this election is important to the United States and our allies.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were hatched and organized by the same extremists now threatening violence and death to Afghans exercising their right to vote. Afghanistan’s democratic development, based on a credible and transparent electoral process, holds the best promise for a peaceful and stable partner for the United States in an otherwise volatile region of the world.
Requiring voters to dip a finger in indelible ink is a common anti-fraud measure in many transitional countries. Ink-stained fingers usually are displayed with pride, although it would be understandable if Afghans took an opposite approach given the circumstances.
But when asked if they had any reservations about casting their ballot and having an ink-stained finger to prove it, the Afghans with whom I talked said it was their duty and they were proud to vote.
These sentiments reflect the optimism and resiliency of many Afghans, despite overwhelming security and other problems, revealed in a pre-election poll conducted by the International Republican Institute. IRI is a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy around the world, and its work in Afghanistan encourages electoral participation.
The poll found that more than six of 10 Afghans believe their country is headed in the right direction. The poll also found that a majority thought the government was addressing such concerns as social services, education, women’s rights and national unity.
In looking at the year leading up to the election, the pre-election administration and voting on Election Day, there is much to praise. Campaigning was civil and energetic with candidates appealing to voters based on issues rather than ethnic identities. The national election commission conducted comprehensive training for election workers, and the polling stations we observed were, for the most part, orderly and well-organized.
However, the election and the process leading up to it were not without substantial problems. The Taliban disrupted the elections, most notably by depressing turnout. Afghanistan’s democratic development can progress only so far until security improves. All stakeholders have a responsibility to contribute to an atmosphere in which voters can go to the polls without fear of violence or retribution.
There are also concerns about multiple voting. Reliable reports indicated voter registration cards were sold, and polling stations did not have voter lists. For the Afghan people to have confidence that elections are legitimate, officials must investigate and adjudicate these allegations and address the deficiencies.
We also found abuse of state resources, which were used during the campaign in violation of the law. An examination of state media found that as much as 85 percent of their election coverage favored one candidate. Although private media coverage was robust and generally balanced, government-sponsored media must not be allowed to deliberately influence the electorate toward the incumbent.
It’s likely a winner will not be declared for a few weeks as local election results trickle into Kabul. In fact, more than 2,000 donkeys were used to transport ballots and certified vote tallies from remote regions in mountainous, rugged terrain. A runoff is possible since it’s unclear if a candidate has received more than 50 percent of the vote.
While what we have seen so far shows a credible electoral process, it is still clear Afghanistan has a long way to go in its democratic development. It is also clear the national security of the United States and our allies and a hopeful future for the Afghan people are best protected if Afghanistan does not return to a breeding ground for violent, radical insurgents.
We can be encouraged that millions of Afghans have chosen to use the power of the ballot box to achieve those goals.
Brian C. Keeter, director of public affairs at Auburn University, was selected for a 29-member international observation team for the recent elections in Afghanistan. He has observed previous elections in Haiti, Mexico, Russia and Ukraine.