Western powers rushed today to declare Afghanistan’s presidential elections a success despite evidence of irregularities and violence on polling day and growing uncertainty about whether the vote would return a credible result.
Both leading candidates, Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, were quick to declare that they had won yesterday’s poll, generating concerns of a full-blown election dispute. Election officials warned that it would take several days to determine the final result and the extent to which voting had been marred by corruption and low voter turnout.
But that did not stop the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, saying the poll was a “clear demonstration that the Afghan people want democracy, they want freedom and reject terrorism”.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, said the Taliban had “utterly failed to disrupt these elections” despite a day of violent clashes across the country. Other western diplomats were also bullish about a poll that they said could have been “far worse” in terms of Taliban attacks. US military officials have already qualified the vote as a reasonable success.
But democracy and rights groups offered a far more sober assessment. The Washington-based International Republican Institute praised the campaign in the run up to the vote, but said: “Unfortunately, such issues as lower turnout, fraud and abuse of state resources brought these elections to a lower standard than the 2004 and 2005 Afghan elections.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also questioned whether “one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years” could be described as a success.
Rachel Reid, a HRW researcher in Afghanistan, said the claims would “not ring true” for Afghans living in the south and east where Taliban attacks were most severe.
“They deserve an honest assessment … if international standards are dropped there risks being a serious credibility gap, which will only serve to increase disillusionment with the efforts to create a democracy.” And one senior Nato envoy cautioned against being too quick to welcome results which could turn sour if examples of mass fraud begin to be detected.
Western powers with more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan are eager to avoid a worst-case scenario in which the elections are deemed a sham or an inconclusive muddle, compounding an already worsening security situation in which dozens of foreign troops are currently dying each month.
The post-election uncertainty is not helping to calm tension. The Independent Election Commission said today it would not publish any official data until Tuesday. Genn Cowan, an observer from Democracy International, said the deicision was “probably a mistake”.
“Almost all elections add to somewhat to political tension and this one is not different. The best way to relive that tension is to provide information to people about an already uncertain election.”
That uncertainty has stemmed from three principal factors: violence, intimidation of both voters and candidates and allegations of fraud.
The Election Complaints Commission said it had received around 120 complaints so far, mostly relating to allegations of voter fraud, intimidation of voters and ballot box stuffing, but the main candidates were unwilling to criticise the process, Abdullah saying the vote had been “quite good”.
After polls closed yesterday Ashraf Ghani, the candidate who had been polling in fourth place, called for calm but also said: “The fifth most corrupt government in the world has shown that in its relentless desire for power it would hold no law sacred and violate all legal and constitutional norms.
“Bribery and use of government resources to secure the election of the incumbent has been the norm … money has spoken loudly without revealing its sources and a shadow has been cast over the democratic process.”