Electoral Transparency in Afghanistan
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the half-Tajik opthamologist who finished second in the first round of the Afghan presidential election and who led the push for this coming Saturday’s runoff, dropped out of the race today. His stated reason for doing so was the Karzai government’s refusal to revamp the existing electoral process, and notably Karzai’s refusal to sack three election commissioners whom Abdullah charged were disproportionately responsbile for widespread fraud in the first election and whose continuation guaranteed a reprise of dishonesty. As a result, Dr. Abdullah told a news conference in Kabul, a “transparent election is not possible,” and thus he will not participate.
There is something wholly disingenuous about all this. Electoral fraud in that country is virtually an art form; saying that the election is likely to be rigged is hardly news or newsworthy. Rather it is a dog-bites-man story. A fair, honest, transparent election in Afghanistan, on the other hand, would be something else altogether, a real man-bites-dog tale. Nobody, presumably including Abdullah, really expected that to happen. The only real question was how skillfully the reelection of Karzai would be orchestrated, not whether it would occur. Would there be dishonesty and corruption? Of course. The only real question was how obvious it would be. A transparent Afghan election is virtually a contradiction in terms.
Now the Potemkin village of an honest, competitive election has been torn down, and we are left with the naked reality of five more years of Hamid Karzai, except without the veil of having prevailed as the “people’s choice” in a competitive election.
What difference will this make? More to the point, will the outcome be viewed as “legitimate” either in Afghanistan or by the world (and especially the United States)?
It is, of course, impossible to argue definitivelywhat impact the change will have, because such an argument is based on counterfactual, unprovable premises. The only way to argue that an election in which Dr. Abdullah would have made or not made a difference would be to hold two elections, one with and one without his participationand then compare results. That, of course, will not happen, so we are all able to argue one side or the other of the proposition with no empirical possibility of being refuted.
Having said that, the internal outcome is unlikely to be much different with or without Abdullah. The real question around which legitimacy revolves is whether the voter outcome will be large enough and representative enough to bestow anything like a madate on Karzai. The answer before Abdullah’s drop out was probably not, and his withdrawal doesn’t change that calculation much at all. Why? The key to a representative turnout is getting the Pashtuns to participate, which they basically did not do in the last election. The reasons were largely Taliban intimidation and the lack of a candidate whom they supported. Both conditions still adhere: the Taliban will harass the process, and Abdullah is not a Pashtun, so the Pasthun would not have voted for him anyway. The Afghans already knew how the election was going to come out, and the withdrawal simply reinforces what they already knew–five more years of incompetent, corrupt rule.
Legitimacy of the government is Kabul is also a cornerstone of the American strategy for success in Afghanistan, but does that also take a hit? Not according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was quoted today (in an absolutely stunning bit of non sequitur) as saying, “When Karzai accepted a runoff without knowing what the outcome would be, that bestowed legitimacy from that moment.” Come again? Karzai agrees to stand in an election he knows his people will rig, and this legitimizes the process? Somebody is putting something strange in Hillary’s drinking water.
So what will this mean? Certainly it means Karzai will win, but we already knew that. Equally certainly, however, Karzai’s unopposed reelection will embolden cynics who argue that the goal of a legitimate government in Kabul is disserved and is, if anything, less likely than it was before. That, in turn, will make it tougher to argue that additional resources will lead to a better outcome in that country.
In our extremely partisan world of recrimination and counter-recrimination, those who want to continue U.S. policy will probably find this news shows even greater support for Karzai and strengthens his mandate, while opponents will argue it just intensifies the sham. At least we won’t have to stay up late on Saturday night to see who won in Kabul.