The election observed
The Washington Times
By Evelyn N. Farkas

The Afghans managed to organize and hold their second democratic election for president and provincial councils last week. It is certain that intimidation and apathy suppressed turnout and that there was fraud — probably before election day in the election personnel appointments, and possibly during the elections themselves.

Nonetheless, the imperfect elections (few aren’t) appear to mark progress in the development of democracy in Afghanistan simply because they took place in a relatively orderly fashion.

But we have yet to find out whether, as the Afghans say in Dari: “Dar zere Pilau sang bood,” or “under the rice is stone.” It remains to be seen whether the elections serve up some juicy meat or hard stones to the Afghan people with their rice.

In a postwar environment or during an insurgency, elections alone do not guarantee democratic progress. Sometimes a rush to hold them — as we learned in Bosnia in 1996 and 1997 and Iraq in 2005 — can have a negative effect on the quality of a new democracy.

If elections take place too soon before the international community can implement programs to dissuade ethnic polarization, to support moderates, or ensure that the administration of elections is neutral, they can serve to freeze into place political relationships that hinder the development of a free and fair democracy.

There is a danger that these elections will further polarize Afghan society and/or that they will result in a government that is not deemed legitimate by most Afghans. It remains to be seen whether President Hamid Karzai has gained 50 percent of the vote, or whether a runoff between him and the second-place contender will be required. Either way, because of structural shortcomings in the election operation, the outcome will be vehemently, if not violently, contested.

One thing is clear — putting the Afghan government fully in charge of these elections (unlike the last ones, which were run by the United Nations), should have been tempered by more international involvement. Kabul could still have been in charge, but contracted with United Nations and other organizations to help with critical tasks such as building a voter registration list.

Such a list is perhaps the best tool — even if flawed at its inception — for countering fraud. With a list of voters, officials can prevent multiple voting by cross-checking registration cards with the list, they can control where people vote, and the public can better understand turnout numbers.

In Bangladesh with its roughly 150 million people, about two years ago the army registered 80 million voters — creating the country’s first voter registration database ever — in a period of nine months. Even in Afghanistan, in 2005 voters did not have identification cards; they often didn’t even know when they were born (one U.N. official explained recently, “How old are you? Ahhh. Approximately 30.”) It stands to reason that at least by the time this latest set of elections were postponed in the spring, the Afghan government might have turned to the United Nations or been urged to do so in order to get help building a voter registration list.

This list might have also made it unnecessary to use purple ink on voters’ fingers to indicate that they voted — something the Taliban turned against the process by threatening to lop purple fingers off. Coupled with better voter education in the rural areas — election observers were told by the representative of an nongovernmental organization providing election support “in the rural areas people don’t know that the ballot is secret” — Afghan officials might have blunted some of the intimidation effect.

Beyond the voter registration list, the international community might have helped with vetting election officials and workers. Long-term international observers and other internationals and Afghans not affiliated with the incumbent Mr. Karzai expressed concern that the election officials were appointed by the president, throwing into question their neutrality.

In addition, some polling station chairmen complained about party campaign observers who were uneducated or even illiterate so they could not understand what was going on and caused problems in the polling stations.
The international community might have built upon the work it had done in 2004-05 running the last round of elections and helped the Afghans avoid the problems experienced before and on election day. More significantly, such measures would have boosted the legitimacy of the election outcome.

Sadly, the next step — the transition of power — is likely to be plagued by political, if not military, turmoil because of the international community’s hands-off approach.

This lesson must be retained in order to ensure that Afghanistan’s 2010 National Assembly elections — which could eventually be more significant than the presidential and provincial council elections — are administered to a higher standard. If not now, then eventually, Afghans should be able to trust democratic elections to deliver the meat under the rice.

Evelyn N. Farkas, senior fellow at the American Security Project, was a member of the International Republican Institute’s election monitoring delegation in Afghanistan last week, and is the author of “Fractured States and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, Ethiopia and Bosnia in the 1990s.”

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