The South Asia Channel

Why the West should care about Afghan election fraud

With little fanfare, and in the shadow of a spate of corruption and governance scandals, millions of Afghans will head to the polls in two weeks to vote in the country's second parliamentary elections. The international community has, to a large extent, adopted a ‘see no evil, speak no evil' approach to the upcoming vote -- hoping that a lack of international media attention will minimize reports of fraud that could further sour Western public opinion on the conflict in Afghanistan and undermine support for ongoing counterinsurgency operations.

Afghans, however, are paying keen attention to the upcoming polling. The distribution of power within a province in many ways has more impact on local political dynamics than does the presidential election, and election to parliament is a coveted status symbol (if not a ‘get out of jail free' card) for many local leaders. Therefore, the motivation for electoral mischief is high. Any significant fraud that goes unaddressed by the electoral authorities has the chance to cause feuds among provincial factions that will reduce security even more and undermine the counterinsurgency strategy.

In this context it is sobering to consider that less than a year has passed since the presidential and provincial council elections were concluded in a cloud of uncertainty and allegations of mass fraud. Since then, there have been positive changes in the administration of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) that runs the elections, indicating that it is taking its job of ensuring a level playing field for all candidates more seriously. The new IEC chairman and chief electoral officer are both credible professionals and have taken a more balanced approach to this year's vote. More importantly, the IEC has fired many of the problematic provincial election chiefs and district field coordinators who were closely associated with the 2009 fraud.

On the other hand, the security situation has significantly worsened throughout the country since 2009. The Ministry of Interior recently announced that it can only secure 5,900 polling centers (amounting to around 20,000 individual polling stations), which is down from approximately 6,300 polling centers and 24,000 polling stations that opened last year; most of the station closures are in the more violent south and east. In addition, the IEC still does not have an accurate list of voters it can use to ensure those who show up at the polls are properly registered. Meanwhile, systemic corruption in the legal system and a culture of political impunity make it unlikely that many polling workers will be able to resist pressure to look the other way when fraud is being committed in contentious local races by commanders and political elites.

The main question, then, is not whether the parliamentary election will be clean, but what the consequences of another highly flawed election will be.

To assess the potential damage that significant irregularities in the parliamentary elections could cause, it is useful to consider the fraud that occurred in the provincial council vote in 2009. While the dispute over the presidential race dominated international headlines and absorbed most of the diplomatic energy devoted to rescuing the legitimacy of the process, the provincial council elections involved the same constituencies as this year's elections and were equally if not more flawed. Both ballot stuffing and counterfeit tally sheets skewed the results in many of the provinces. But because the provincial councils, like the parliament, involve dozens of candidates running for multiple seats in the same constituency, the patterns of fraud are more difficult for outsiders to detect.

Voters and candidates within a province know, however, when a vote has been stolen when the list of winners is announced. Does one family or tribe dominate the list? Are certain ethnic groups left out? Did the winning margin for a controversial candidate come from only one polling center where there was violence on election day and no-one showed up to vote? This puts a premium on having a fair and transparent dispute resolution process that has both domestic and international support.

In Nangarhar province last year, controversy erupted when the preliminary results for the provincial council were announced. Many candidates complained that the final tally gave far too many seats to members of a particular politically connected clan than would normally be expected to emerge from the diverse polity of the province. After several protests at the provincial IEC offices and threats of violence, the IEC acted to conduct an entire recount of the provincial council ballots, which revealed many of the tally forms sent to the IEC had been forged. This averted a potential crisis when the final tally was corrected. 

In other provinces like Ghazni, Paktika, Kandahar and Helmand, however, the conditions are not as amenable to a peaceful settlement of an electoral dispute. Local political or security conditions may not permit losing candidates from complaining loudly about fraud that may have been facilitated by corrupt officials or warlords more powerful than themselves. Or, due to lack of public outreach, candidates may not know enough about the official complaints process to utilize it. In these cases, the short term "gain" of an uncontested result may disguise the long term consequence of political unrest within the province by grudge-bearing losers who may choose to oppose the government, block reintegration, or even support the insurgency.

A second significant concern is that fraud coordinated at the national level could leave important constituencies in Afghanistan without effective representation in government -- particularly elements of the former Northern Alliance that have tended to oppose the policies of President Hamid Karzai from within government. A degree of political rebalancing is to be expected in any legislative election. But if a clear pattern emerges that allies of Karzai or certain regional power brokers are disproportionately represented in parliament due to fraud, then losing opposition groups will be far less willing to support the government and may be more prone to gaining power back through violence or corruption.

At the very least, if the current opposition perceives that its ranks have been thinned because of fraud, one can expect that members will be far less willing to support a reconciliation process with the Taliban that the government has been promoting. This too could have a negative impact on the counterinsurgency effort. Even though formal talks with the Taliban are not envisioned in the near term, the consensus view is that the war will only end when a settlement is reached that gives all major Afghan constituencies a representative voice in national affairs. This cannot happen if some of them are denied a voice in parliament due to electoral rigging.

At this point, postponing the elections is not a viable option. But strict scrutiny of the process by both domestic and international observes, backed by international support for a fair and transparent complaints process can help to avoid the worst-case scenarios envisioned here. 

To mitigate opportunities for fraud created by security risks, international security forces should work with their Afghan counterparts and the IEC to perform an honest assessment of security risks just prior to polling day. This will help the IEC prevent ballots from being sent in bulk to "ghost polling stations" where few voters are likely to appear.

On election day, Afghan observers and candidates' agents will be the first line of defense against widespread fraud. Their vigilance in turn relies on the IEC to be more transparent in its processes and rigorous in applying anti-fraud procedures, focusing on irregular voting patterns to detect fraud in the many districts where observers are absent due to security risks. The Electoral Complaints Commission and its provincial sub-commissions must also respond quickly and transparently to complaints that are lodged during polling and counting to protect the credibility of the process.

In Afghanistan's fragile political and security environment, neither candidates nor the electoral authorities can be expected to bear the burden of conducting a complex and inevitably controversial process alone. International assistance is needed in terms of both logistical and political support.

After the election is held, the international community should insist on prompt and transparent reporting of results from the IEC as the votes are counted, including clear information about where polling centers were closed on election day and which ballot boxes are quarantined to be investigated for fraud. At the same time, the international diplomatic community should make it clear through public and private channels that its primary goal is a thorough and transparent process, rather than any particular outcome. 

The international community can enforce this message by privately warning the government not to interfere in the counting and complaints process and by promoting patience among prominent candidates for the counting and complaints processes to play out peacefully and thoroughly. This would give electoral authorities time and space to resolve complex irregularities and maximize the chances that losing candidates will accept defeat if the process itself has been reasonably rigorous and fair.

The 2010 parliamentary elections will be marred by significant irregularities. The international community should not try to disguise this fact. Instead it should work to ensure that the worst fraud is identified, investigated, and resolved in a way that does not turn key political factions against the government -- paving the way for the reconciliation process that the international community hopes will occur.

Scott Worden is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He served as a Commissioner on the Electoral Complaints Commission during the 2009 Presidential election and was a legal advisor to the Joint Election Management Body during the 2005 Parliamentary election in Afghanistan.

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