Crucial repoll in Afghanistan

When William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, said any appearance Britain was ‘rubber stamping’ disputed or corrupt Afghanistan elections risk bringing more violence against British troops he might not have been exaggerating. The recently concluded Afghan election was decried as yet another symptom of the mass scale and deeply entrenched corruption that is eating into the democratic processes there.

Even as foreign governments claim to do the tightrope walk between non interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and yet working proactively towards ensuring that the elections do count for the Afghan people it appeared that horse-trading, back-room deals and corrupt electoral practices is what the new Afghan government was all set to be built upon.

But the pressure of international outrage on the foreign governments that have invested in Afghanistan and the subsequent pressure of revelations of fraud by an UN-backed panel on President Karzai appears to have yielded some positive outcomes as the country prepares for the second round of presidential elections in November. President Karzai’s chief political rival Abdullah Abdullah — his foreign minister once — agreed to participate in the final runoff following confirmation that the incumbent president had, in fact, failed to win the 50 per cent required to avoid the second round.

Safety concerns

The poll line ‘ballot over bullet’ had lent hope that the Afghan people would be able to give their verdict on Afghanistan’s future president. With the legitimacy of elections, to some extent, depending on whether the Afghans felt safe enough to go out and vote, it was crucial that the security situation in the country improved.

But those had been the hopes even as news consistently poured in of naked ballot rigging, ghost polling stations, fake electoral IDs and of course the omnipresent Taliban threat — a potent combination of violence and accusations of mass-scale electoral fraud — marring Afghanistan’s second presidential elections in its history.

Starting with 40 candidates for president and more than 3,000 for the provincial councils, the election broke new ground with more than 17 million people registered to vote evidence of continued interest in the democratic process. But the so-called progress has come with its costs.

The two women presidential candidates and another 300 who contested in the local provinces were frequently attacked, threatened and harassed as they contended with ultra conservative interpretations of Islamic law. With almost half the country depicted as ‘at high risk’ the UN’s recently published security map of Afghanistan is not encouraging either.

What the second round of ‘free, fair and credible election’ really requires is enough security to encourage people to turn out and vote since a substantial percentage of the bogus voting was attributed to the ‘ghost polling stations’ that never opened because they were in dangerous areas. Threats, insecurity, punishment to voters and actual violence made the journey to polling booths treacherous. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Additional challenges, now, come in the form of drawing voters and the transportation of votes as the bitter winter begins to set in. Another challenge for the Independent Election Commission — also accused for their bias — to prevent rigging is in finding replacements for election workers implicated. The government had already struggled in recruiting enough poll officials and workers for the first round, especially at voting stations for women.

While the inevitability of the second round had been taken for granted Karzai, too, had always been the front-runner. What is unclear now is whether his leadership faces the threat of being undermined by these accusations.

The next four years are extremely critical for the country. It is seen as the time frame for the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take responsibility of security from the international community against the background of General Azimi’s (chief spokesman for the Afghan military) comments on the ANA’s preparedness to engage the Taliban militia single-handedly by 2013.

Among Afghans, the ANA is one of the most respected public organisations in the country, outranking even the police, foreign troops or the national government. The Afghan government and international community probably needs to take lessons from here and look ahead towards making substantive improvements in the upcoming 2010 polls — changes that are sustainable, build on greater support for the representative bodies in the future and strengthen the democratisation process. It is critical that when the people come out to vote they do it confident that the risk is worthwhile.

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