Afghanistan Analyst: Election Marks an Achievement, But Complaints Pile Up

BY Larisa Epatko  September 20, 2010 at 5:44 PM EDT


Afghan workers unload ballot boxes. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty

Afghans voted Saturday in their second parliamentary poll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. On Monday, allegations of voter intimidation and fraud began rolling in, raising serious concerns among election observers.

In addition, attacks around the country killed at least 21 voters on Election Day, and the bodies of three abducted election workers were discovered Monday.

We asked Andrew Wilder, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, for his assessment of how this election compared to past ones and where the country goes now.

What stood out to you about how the elections unfolded?

ANDREW WILDER: Like any Afghan election — and I’ve been to most of the other ones — it’s always striking just want a remarkable logistical and organizational achievement it is to hold an election in a context like Afghanistan. Certainly, I would see this as another logistical and organizational success given the constraints. But I think it’s far too early to say yet whether it’s a political success or not.

If the past is anything to go by, I’m pessimistic that we’re going to end up with the results of this election being viewed much more positively than some of the previous ones. None of Afghanistan’s elections have met international standards. And certainly the security situation yesterday is not normal.

The things that really struck me: one, is just that they pulled it off, which was the achievement. And yet the real test of it — how it’s going to play out politically I think is going to unfold during the upcoming days and weeks.

The real controversy around elections, certainly the last parliamentary elections, as well as the 2009 presidential election, unfolded during the counting period, more so than on Election Day.

And yet we’ve seen allegations of fraud already. What’s behind those?

ANDREW WILDER: There are already allegations of fraud pouring in, which is not unexpected. I think anyone who’s been following the elections expected them not to be necessarily a pretty election.

First of all, there’s no accurate voter registry in Afghanistan. That’s probably the single most important thing to have minimize fraud in election is to have accurate voter registration lists, which then are used effectively on Election Day. And in Afghanistan, we’ve just had endless registration, prior to each of the elections, of new voters, but never a vetting of the electoral rolls.

So we don’t really know how many voters there are, which then lends itself to lots of multiple voting, proxy voting and ballot box stuffing. As in every previous election, there are some ink problems, where voters have been able to wash the so-called indelible ink off fairly easily and then vote again. When I’ve observed previous elections in Afghanistan, even with the ink mark, voters weren’t prevented from voting again.

There are reports of underage voting, of voter intimidation … and so I think we’ll be hearing a lot more of these kinds of stories during the coming days.

But it’s important to emphasize that that’s not really different than in previous elections. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, there were massive allegations of fraud as well.

If that’s the case, then how do these elections fit into Afghanistan’s overall political progress?

ANDREW WILDER: It’s really hard to say. My own view is that elections were held far too soon in the Afghan context. That if you want free and fair elections you basically need to rule of law and a relatively secure environment first. Or else you have what happened in Afghanistan: When you have elections before you really have the rule of law, the local strongmen — those people with the guns who didn’t go through a disarmament process, those with the most money often derived from corrupt sources, drugs — have the most influence. They are the ones most likely the ones to get elected, because both in 2005 and today there is not a rigorous vetting process to exclude candidates who are guilty of war crimes or involvement in drug trafficking or things like that.

That’s where my concerns are, that elections are often used as sort of a cookie-cutter approach in post-conflict situations — but Afghanistan is not a post-conflict situation, it’s very much in conflict. You can have the elections, but for democratic institutions to function afterward, it’s a very difficult environment right now.

I think another problem is that political parties are very weak in Afghanistan, and for parliaments to function effectively, basically they need a mechanism to organize themselves. And in most parliamentary democracies and virtually all other democracies — that’s political parties.

In Afghanistan, political parties are historically unpopular, but also the voting system has been designed very explicitly to try to keep political parties relatively weak and ineffective and, therefore, Parliament relatively weak and ineffective, relative to the executive branch. I think one of the problems in Afghanistan is you can have the elections to Parliament, but unless you have more effective political parties, Parliament does not serve as an effective check on executive power.

When will final results be known?

ANDREW WILDER: For many of the results, we’re going to have a good sense in the next week or so who are the early winners.

Then, I think we can expect to see lots of complaints registered with the Election Complaints Commission, and it really remains to be seen how effective they are in adjudicating these complaints. Are they going to adopt a fairly passive or a more aggressive stance in terms of complaints that are registered?

And I think they could be completely overwhelmed by the complaints process. Even last year, when you had 41 candidates in the presidential election, there were about 2,500 official complaints registered in which 800 were felt to be sufficiently serious that they could affect the actual voting result.

This election you have 2,500 candidates, so I think that we can expect the volume of complaints will be increased, and by all accounts the capacity of the Election Complaints Commission is probably considerably less this year than it was a year ago.

All of that is to say that I think the complaints process could drag on, but the date currently given for announcing the final results is Oct. 30.