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Unprepared for the electoral fraud storm

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-09-07

The electoral fraud clouds were long hovering in the lead-up to the Aug. 20 Afghan polls. And yet, when the storm hit, the international community was caught off-guard. But is there worse to come?

On Aug. 20, as Afghan voters trickled to the polls under the glare of the international spotlight, word on the ground started to spread that all was not quite right with the $225 million-odd democratic enterprise.

Election observers, journalists and diplomats began to get wind of low voter turnout and irregularities - some serious, some not so serious – at polling stations across Afghanistan.

Shortly after casting his vote at a polling station in the heart of Kabul, Afghan presidential candidate Sarwar Ahmedzai warned of dire consequences if Afghan President Hamid Karzai was declared the outright winner of the Aug. 20 poll with more than 50% of the votes necessary to avoid a run-off.

“If the Election Commission declares Karzai the winner, it will be a fraud,” Ahmedzai warned. “We are going to take whatever means are necessary, whatever peaceful means are necessary, to challenge the election.”

More than a week later, that scenario looks likely to play out in Afghanistan. With about three-quarters of the votes counted, Karzai has 48.6% of the votes, while his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah has 31.7%, according to the Afghan Independent Election Commission.

Under Afghan law, final election results can only be declared after the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has investigated fraud allegations. Faced with more than 2,000 complaints, analysts say the ECC is unlikely to declare final results by Sept. 17, as originally planned.

As Afghan election officials get set to announce the full provisional results this week, the likelihood of Karzai reaching the all-important 50% mark looks increasingly likely. But that would throw up a host of challenges for the international community as well as Afghan political leaders.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 Monday, Ahmedzai predicted that “pretty soon we will see Karzai get 50% of the votes. That, for us, is absolutely unacceptable.”

Caught unprepared for the storm

While supporters of several candidates have been accused of trying to influence the election outcome, by far the most serious charges are directed at the incumbent.

According to a leading US daily newspaper, there were as many as 800 fictitious polling sites, where no one voted yet hundreds of thousands of ballots were cast for Karzai.

The magnitude of the fraud claims is certainly ugly. But the fact that they occurred comes as no surprise to seasoned Afghan experts.

The security situation had deteriorated considerably since the last round of elections in 2004-2005. Given Karzai’s sinking popularity, a run off looked increasingly likely, and widespread voter registration irregularities triggered alarm bells in Afghan circles.

And yet, as the storm clouds approached, experts say the international community was ill-prepared to respond to the situation. “There is a sense of drift in Western capitals about what do we do now,” says Alexander Jackson, a policy analyst at the London-based International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). “The international community has its hands tied. There’s really only so much it can do at this stage.”

A second-round? Another election? But when?

The crux of the post-election conundrum is whether the international community will accept a result which shows Karzai winning more than 50% in the first-round or if there is a push to hold a run-off given the widespread fraud allegations.

A run-off is not likely to go down well with the Afghan president. In a widely reported meeting between Karzai and US envoy Richard Holbrooke the day after the election, the Afghan president reportedly reacted “explosively” when Holbrooke suggested a second round would be necessary to lend legitimacy to the poll.

But in a country as remote and dangerous as Afghanistan, a second-round comes with its own set of challenges.

With further result delays on the cards, the time to plan another vote is running out before the brutal Afghan winter sets in.

Some presidential candidates such as Ahmedzai say they are opposed to a run-off and are seeking a new poll after what they see as a deeply flawed vote.

Making a deal: The Afghan way

Meanwhile, the stasis that has gripped the Afghan presidential palace during the election campaign looks set to continue.

In its report, Guns and Money, the International Council on Security and Development had called for a contingency plan if voting went into a second round, including the establishment of a temporary governing council to preserve stability and security.

In the absence of a contingency plan, experts warn that the risk of violence increases, particularly if the unrest is split along ethnic lines.

While Abdullah is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik and has actively courted the Pashtun vote, he is widely viewed as a Tajik political figure and his ties to the former Northern Alliance are regarded with deep suspicion in the Pashtun belt. In the event of ethnic unrest, urban centers such as Kabul and the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which have mixed Pashtun and Tajik residents, could turn into a tinderbox of discontent.

Of course there is always the chance for a negotiated settlement. In Afghanistan, it is often said, the business of war and peace is done by doing deals, swapping sides and changing alliances.

A political solution could be reached if, for instance, Abdullah was handed a senior post in a Karzai administration. Abdullah himself ran on a platform of political reform and has pledged to introduce a new position of prime minister.

There has been some speculation in Afghan political circles that the current impasse could be overcome by handing Abdullah the post of prime minister.

But at this stage, that looks unlikely. “If Abdullah is offered the prime minister’s post, I’m not sure he will take it,” says Jackson. “I’m not sure he would be willing to accept a second-rung position.”

Abdullah himself has dismissed any chances of making a deal with Karzai. But, as they say about Afghanistan, anything is possible.

Date created : 2009-09-07