Free but not fair

Free but not fair. This was the mantra adopted by EU officials overseeing the inaugural presidential elections in Afghanistan of the post-Taliban era. Last month, optimists hailed these elections as the first truly democratic representation of the Afghan people, and a major step toward acceptance into the global community.

However, the elections are fast descending into farce amid mounting evidence of voter fraud, intimidation and misrepresentation. The question of validity has turned from whether corruption occurred, to exactly how much corruption occurred. With 110 percent of the population polled, despite voter turnouts of less than 10 percent in many districts, coalition hopes of an entirely legitimate regime appear to be further away than ever.

The political landscape of Afghanistan remains a complex and dynamic hierarchy, often tainted by links to Al Qaeda and human rights disputes. Hamid Karzai became president of the first fully elected government in Afghan history in 2001, following the offical fall of the Taliban. He appointed the majority of positions of significance in his cabinet to Pashtuns, the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan. However, the dominance of the Pashtuns has waned somewhat in recent years. This is due to women seeking further equality and opposite ethnic groups, particularly the United Front, opposing Pashtun consolidation and striving to distribute power to elected provincial councils.

Preferring to remain free from the ties of a political party, Karzai maintains cordial relations with various warlords and militia leaders. Among his noticeable supporters are the Taliban leaders who reputedly aided Osama Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora.
While the Bush administration chose to adopt a neutral standing on the presidential position, seeing him as a troublesome yet wholly necessary evil, Obama officials are said to have become increasingly disenchanted by Karzai’s continued defiance of democratic procedures and ties to illegal activity in even the most mundane procedures. So great is the level of nepotism and profiteering that Transparency International recently ranked Afghanistan 176th out of 180 in terms of government corruption. In defiance of these results, Karzai has claimed himself to be a rebel, and the only candidate willing and able to stand up to western meddling.

Despite such blatant misuse of power, Karzai’s government has unquestionably made significant steps towards empowering the citizens of Afghanistan and reaching an image deemed acceptable for other nations to communicate with.

One area in particular which has undergone reform is the role of women in politics. Constitutional amendments require 17 of the 102 seats in the upper house and 62 of the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament to be held by women. In addition to this there are now 67 female judges and 447 female journalists nationwide, a significant alteration from widespread oppression under Taliban rule, when wearing the burqa was obligatory and strictly enforced.

This said, it appears that for every step towards democratic unification Karzai makes, a nullifying act of human rights degeneration swiftly ensues. Media clampdowns are common, such as a press law passed last September in which media outlets must be government licensed and subject to content restrictions. These acts point to a government seeking to limit external influences and moderate third parties.

Initial reports that the election passed relatively peacefully were welcomed by the White House. However, the celebrations were quickly quashed when the true scale of fraud began to become apparent. One US official backpedalled on the initial appraisal, stating
“Those comments about the relative success of the elections were coming at a time when there was the fear that the Taliban would disrupt the process…the Taliban launched hundreds of rocket attacks, and Afghans still voted.”

Playing devils advocate, Karzai has 54.6 percent of the vote, 3.6 percent above the all important 51 percent quota. His nearest opposition, Abdullah Abdullah, trails behind with just 28.1 percent. Preliminary turnout is estimated at 38 percent of the population.
These results must be taken with an almighty pinch of salt. Figures of 1.5 million fraudulent votes are estimated (1.1m of which are in favour of Karzai), as well as voter turnouts as high as 95 percent in districts with notoriously few marked ballots.

The job of adjudicating the unlikely validity of the election falls to the Independent Electoral Commission and the UN backed Electoral Complaints Commission. The ECC, which has final annulment authority, has revealed it intends to investigate every district with over 600 votes or those in which a 95 percent majority was received for one candidate.

A viable election remains the hinge-pin upon which the hope of a constructive Anglo-Afghanistan relationship precariously rests. Failure to obtain a lasting mandate will not only bring the allies back to square one in their democratic reform, but could further inflame the opposing parties in this most heated of political environments.

The problem presented for Obama and Brown is that although Karzai currently presents the greatest threat to their military operations, there is no alternative national figure in any position to achieve a mandate. If the election is indeed deemed void, responsibility for choosing a leader may fall to the Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly. Therefore in all likelihood no matter what the outcome of fraud investigations, Karzai will be re-elected and attention will turn to Mr Abdullah and the future.

Should Karzai offer a power-sharing arrangement, all parties should be reasonably satisfied, given the efforts taken to orchestrate the August election. Nonetheless this is highly unlikely amidst a tradition of big tent politics in the region. Abdullah then has the option of joining the moderate opposition or forming an extra-constitutional party to challenge the authority of Karzai.

Suddenly of one Obama’s three pilarstones for Afghanistan, that of “good governance and rule of law”, looks to be approaching the periphery, in the hands of the man posing the most danger to his foreign policy agenda.

According to Stanley McChrystal, the newly appointed US commander in Afghanistan, rather than sustaining progress, the ISAF have no option but to focus on stopping Taliban momentum. Long term military infrastructure such as a $780m Air Field base to house 13,000 international troops starkly exhibit the sheer magnitude of the operation.

Such plans are also likely to be negatively received in the 42 countries, which make up the ISAF, where support for a war with no foreseeable end has reached an all time low. The dichotomy of interests between domestic stability and sustaining a failing foreign policy is fast becoming what defines the current regimes of the ISAF.

All this creates a vicious political vacuum in a country where “Operation Enduring Freedom” has witnessed an estimated 1392 coalition deaths thus far and no fewer than 7,500 civilian fatalities. Time is clearly of the essence as regards getting an election result, but how productive or indeed counterproductive the outcome will be remains to be seen.