Afghanistan Heads Back to the Polls

An International Election Observer’s Impressions

Caroline Wadhams offers analysis from her recent trip to observe Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections.

Afghans count ballots in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province.<br /> (Heidi Carrubba)
Afghans count ballots in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province.
(Heidi Carrubba)

See also: Slideshow: Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Elections by Caroline Wadhams

I recently served as an election observer with Democracy International for Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, which took place on September 18. I was based in Kabul and deployed to Balkh and Samangan provinces in the north of Afghanistan, where I met with analysts, academics, journalists, parliamentary candidates, election officials, U.N. officials, NGO workers, and others from Afghanistan and abroad. We discussed the elections, the political situation in Afghanistan, and U.S. strategy overall. Below I share my impressions from these conversations as well as my observations at the polls.

Extent of fraud remains unknown

Results likely won’t be announced until October 30, making it still too early to assess how Afghans will perceive the elections and the extent of the fraud surrounding the election. The Electoral Complaints Commission received more than 3,800 complaints since election day, and the Independent Electoral Commission, the lead agency running the elections, declared votes in 35 polling centers invalid and called for a recount in 30 other centers.

But complaints do not necessarily equal actual fraud. Some candidates may have blamed the electoral process rather than their own failed campaigns when they realized they were going to lose.

Individuals complained to my colleagues and me about a number of problems that could have influenced the results. These included vote-buying, an overproduction and selling of voter registration cards, too few ballots in specific polling stations, candidate agents putting pressure on voters, corrupt members of the Independent Electoral Commission, and acts of violence and intimidation. Female candidates faced even greater difficulties, as rival candidates and their supporters targeted them with threats and/or violence, calling them un-Islamic and agents of foreign countries.

Fraud most likely did occur, at least at the provincial level. But most independent election observers do not believe that the Afghan government—or President Hamid Karzai himself—orchestrated widespread fraud as in last year’s presidential elections. The Independent Electoral Commission, or IEC, made important improvements in election transparency and in its technical execution. This included improving their tally system, increasing control of election materials, and removing polling officials who were complicit in fraud in the 2009 presidential elections.

The IEC is still not sufficiently independent since all seven members are appointed by Karzai. But their actions prior to and during the elections demonstrated seriousness about improving the process.

Election day

On election day itself we witnessed few irregularities in Samangan province or in the Balkh capital of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan. Polling stations operated smoothly, with men and women lining up to vote. Fingers were inked, ballots folded properly, and ballot boxes secured. The fact that millions of Afghans participated in the election despite security threats and their growing disillusionment with the Afghan government surprised me. And those we interviewed argued that the electoral process, while flawed, was an important step.

More than 2,500 candidates ran for 249 seats throughout the country, and approximately 4.3 million Afghans cast their vote. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan also deployed 6,600 observers throughout all 34 provinces and candidate agents flooded the polls to report on election day activities and watch for irregularities.

But, of course, as international election observers it was difficult to know what we were seeing. We had little way of knowing whether people felt intimidated by a local powerbroker to vote in a certain way or if someone had been paid to vote. We could not see what drove candidates to run or voters to choose specific candidates.

What we did see were busy polling stations full of voters and candidate agents. The mood appeared festive—Afghans went to the polling centers to vote and stayed on to socialize. Polling station officials did their designated tasks and local Afghan observers monitored most polling stations we visited with a clearer sense of the social cues and political dynamics than we possessed.

Questions surround the parliament’s composition and who it represents

We held interviews before and after the elections in Mazar-i-Sharif. Many voters and candidates there complained that local powerbrokers exerted excessive control over the electoral process, and they predicted that these individuals would dominate the new parliament. The powerbrokers, according to many, had the ability to buy votes and transport voters to polling stations. They also used scare tactics to prevent candidates from running or campaigning in certain areas and to guarantee support from voters.

In short, Afghans we interviewed in the north were more concerned about the further entrenchment of powerful warlords than they were about Taliban insurgents. They speculated that the new parliament might in fact provide a check on President Karzai, but not as representatives of ordinary Afghans. Instead these parliamentarians might represent a local powerbroker or commander and enrich themselves through accessing international funding networks and expanding business opportunities.

But we also met candidates who campaigned on a message of Afghan unity and peace. One candidate in particular faced threats to his life along with resource constraints, but he ran for the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) anyway. He wanted to reach out beyond his Tajik ethnicity to other ethnic groups and build a peaceful, unified Afghanistan out of the fractured and increasingly contentious society.

When the results for the parliamentary elections are released in late October we will have a better sense of the new parliament’s composition, if any reformers sit within the body, and what kind of power it hopes to exert. The question is: Will it be a body that can channel the grievances and aspirations of different constituencies in Afghanistan into policy or will it destabilize the country further by empowering individuals more interested in zero-sum politics?

The parliament is undoubtedly in need of serious reform. The Wolesi Jirga—which has responsibility for introducing and passing laws and approving cabinet appointments—remains a weak body despite its check in recent years on President Karzai’s ministerial appointments and electoral decree. The near absence of political parties means that most parliamentarians are independent actors who rarely form coalitions around issues and have little capacity to present an agenda. Moreover, they can approve ministry budgets, but they do not have the power to create budgets or the capacity to monitor government funds.

Beyond the election: Underlying concerns for Afghanistan

I was struck by the deep pessimism I encountered from the moment I arrived in Kabul for the election observation mission. Each and every person I spoke to, whether foreign or Afghan, believed Afghanistan was deteriorating despite the infusion of U.S. troops and assistance. They also thought that the insurgency was spreading.

A few major themes emerged in my conversations with individuals including the following:

Karzai. Many unsurprisingly expressed concern about President Karzai’s leadership. They questioned his ability to root out corruption, hold officials accountable, or conduct a genuine peace process. Afghans said that Karzai feels increasingly vulnerable and believes the West wants to get rid of him. He therefore acts in erratic ways—reaching out to the Taliban one day, creating new strategies for Afghanistan daily, deciding without consultation to disband private security firms, and more. The people we spoke to debated the international community’s leverage over Karzai.

Warlords. Afghans also leveled disdain at the international community’s (and specifically the United States’s) empowerment of warlords and tolerance of impunity and corruption. One U.N. official said that the international community has also marginalized Afghan civil society groups and women, who should be instrumental to creating peace in Afghanistan. Afghan women were often excluded from important conferences and meetings such as the London conference. Many also criticized the U.S. policy of supporting local militias. The newest incarnation is the Afghan Local Police Initiative program.

Drivers of insurgency. Many individuals argued that insurgency recruitment was increasing due to disillusionment with a corrupt government. Afghans in many communities are angry. They cannot get justice, and they cannot get jobs.

One man from Logar province also argued that some people’s opposition to a foreign presence was causing them to join the insurgents. The Taliban has outpropagandized the coalition with negative messages of foreign occupation, which the Americans only reinforce with night raids.

He argued that the systematic disenfranchisement of Ghilzais (a subtribe of Pashtuns) was the primary reason for insurgent growth in Kandahar. At the same time, insurgents are waging an aggressive assassination campaign against community members with authority, including village elders, and they are exploiting disputes between clans to win supporters. Many also blamed Pakistan for insurgent growth.

Distrust. The debate among Afghans and between Afghans and the international community is rife with distrust. I heard various beliefs Afghans hold about the United States, including that we are transporting Taliban from the south to the north by helicopter to spread the reach of the insurgency, that we want to occupy Afghanistan forever for their mineral wealth and strategic location, and that we hope to destabilize Afghanistan to bring about regime change in Iran.

Uncertain future. No one I spoke to, however, thought the United States should leave immediately. They said that civil war would most likely erupt. Some already saw signs of civil war coming because President Karzai’s base of support is eroding and groups in the north are beginning to rearm. They also thought ethnic divisions were deepening, with different countries in the region supporting their favorite faction.

People I interviewed were critical of the current U.S. and NATO strategy, but they were uncertain about what to do next. A number of people argued that the international community must focus on creating a larger national consensus on Afghanistan’s future—that broader political participation is required and that officials must be held accountable. They did not, however, believe that the United States is the right actor to broker a deal among groups. This has to be Afghan-led.

Another individual argued that the United States should replace the government and the parliament altogether, arguing that Afghanistan’s current government was too far gone to be salvaged. Afghan academics debated whether the country’s constitution should be amended to create a more federalized system. One worried that a more decentralized power structure would only empower unaccountable abusive warlords and commanders, leading to instability.

Another thought that the United States should focus on educating Afghans above all else. He believed that the central problem driving war in Afghanistan was lack of education. Once people were educated, he argued, no one would support the Taliban.


Over the coming weeks, we will have a better idea of the extent of the fraud, Afghans’ perceptions of the electoral process, and the makeup of the parliament and the role it may play in Afghanistan’s future. But there is a larger backdrop that the parliament will most likely not dramatically affect—a deteriorating security situation, an Afghan government losing support, and growing divisions among Afghanistan’s economy. What was clear to me during election day and in conversations with Afghans and foreigners living in Afghanistan was that the U.S.-NATO-ISAF strategy is not showing results and needs to be reassessed.

See also:

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow