The Folly of Holding Afghan Elections

EDITOR’S NOTE: If the upcoming parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are meant to serve as a barometer for the country’s stability, the West will be disappointed, says Candace Rondeaux, South Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group, in an interview with staff writer Greg Bruno. A few excerpts:

In mid-September, thousands of Afghan candidates will compete for the 249-member lower house of parliament. How are the elections shaping up in terms of security, transparency, and potential turnout?

As we get closer to election day, we’re going to see very much a repeat of last year, where candidates, campaign managers, [and] members are at risk. We’ve had three candidates [killed] so far and that’s just the start. It’s safe to say that the competition is very high with so many candidates [over 2,550] in the field for such a small number of seats [249 seats are being competed for in the Afghan parliament]. It’s a very complex chess game. On the one hand, security is not very good because there’s an insurgency. But also, this sort of internecine competition between what are essentially members of a sort of political mafia have encouraged [candidates] to be a little bit more bold in their bullying and their intimidations against rivals. So this is really a very volatile situation. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to say what the impact will be. It’s very clear that we will not have a sitting parliament for many, many months to come even after the elections, in part because there’d be a lot of challenges. And it’s not entirely clear whether the ECC, the Electoral Complaints Commission, is fully equipped or prepared to deal with some hundreds of challenges in such a complex political field.

There have already been reports of irregularity, such as attempted vote buying, intimidation, and bribery. Can the tide be reversed?

There are very few opportunities now to reverse course. Unfortunately, the train was out of the station the minute there was a decision to go forward with these elections. There’s a lot of work that needed to be done before holding these elections. In a more calm environment, maybe a less politically pressurized environment, both in Kabul and Washington and Brussels, if everybody had taken a step back, they’d have seen the cliff that we’re about to now go over. But this is a very difficult political picture for everybody involved. Most importantly, Afghans themselves are really struggling to understand what is going to happen next. It’s not clear what the outcome’s going to be.

Why isn’t the international community raising the alarms, then?

Short-termism has been the name of the game in Afghanistan since the start of this engagement. And it is not at all surprising that nine years later, we don’t have much to show for this type of thinking. There are real and serious and very sincere members of the military, members of the international community who are absolutely convinced that the only way forward is just to think long haul. The problem is that time is running out in terms of the domestic constituency in Brussels, Washington, and elsewhere. It has not helped to have this deadline hanging over people’s heads [President Obama has set July 2011 as the start of the U.S. withdrawal], and it’s made things quite difficult. Anyone who spends any time in Afghanistan fully understands that if you want to make change here, you’ve got to get your arms around really big institutional change and you have to be prepared to fight that fight, but recognize that at the same time, if you don’t have Afghan buy in, you’re not going to go anywhere.

If all of your predictions hold true, and the elections go off but are riddled with fraud and low turnout, what happens on the nineteenth of September?

The question is, “What happens on the nineteenth of September 2011?” It will take a while before we really understand the impact of more instability generated by flawed elections, but I can say that the trends that are emerging now point toward deeper conflicts between the main ethnicities here, which can also then exacerbate the divide between the north and the south. We’ll see that come full circle once parliament is actually sitting. We’re going to see a lot of very tough conversations about the constitution. We’ll see some very tough conversations about Karzai’s term when we get closer to the end of it because there is a lot of fear among Afghan politicians that he may seek to extend his term. That, of course, would be disastrous on a number of levels. The more we force politics the way that they have been forced, the more we ram through strategic goals and benchmarks without ever checking to see whether there are results, the more difficult it’s going to become to make this a stable member of the international community.

Re-published with permission by the Council on Foreign Relations. Visit the original article.

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