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The Killid Group

Elections Behind, Expectations Ahead

Monday, 04 January 2010 14:52

Elections Behind, Expectations Ahead


By Hashim Qiam

Two and-a-half months after Afghans cast their ballots, we finally have a president. Hamid Karzai will continue to lead the nation for the next five years, after being declared the winner following a seemingly endless process of constantly shifting political boundaries. It is just a first step.

Declaring a winner in the presidential contest is just one initial step toward turning Afghanistan's political and economic outlook in a more positive direction.

Since the campaign began last summer, the economy has suffered tremendously, with foreign investment in Afghanistan falling off a cliff and an already sluggish local investment scene becoming even more moribund.

Politically, the campaign, election and fractious post-election period, led to infighting among government elites and pitted provincial governors who may have supported different candidates against one another. The Afghan parliament also became fractured as opposing loyalist used legislative issues as proxy wars.

But after 74 days of wrangling, watching and waiting, most Afghans welcome the chance to put this drawn-out election process behind them.

"Declaring a winner has ended our worries and concerns about who will lead the government," says Rohullah Noori, a Kabul resident. "But now we have many expectations of this government, especially with regard to security."

Mohammad Nazir, who also lives in Kabul, says that though his candidate didn't win, he is glad that winner has been declared so the nation may move forward.

"I participated in the first round of elections" Nazir says, "and I cast my ballot for my candidate. Though he didn't win, I obeyed Afghan law and would have participated in a runoff. Since Hamid Karzai was declared the winner I continue to follow the law and warmly welcome this decision."

Some Afghans are just glad that a runoff has been avoided. The expense would have been nearly prohibitive and after the violence that plagued the last round of voting, many were wary of making trips to the polls.

"A runoff would have cost too much," says Roubina Safdari, a high school teacher. "And so many Afghans live in dangerous areas and their lives would have been at risk. It is a very good thing that this second round was terminated."

But like so many Afghans, Safdari has high expectations for Karzai's new government. She wants an increase in women's rights, having had enough of the prejudice that has plagued Afghan society for far too long.

As Afghans prepare to move past the election process, the question of legitimacy hangs heavy over the political scene. Over one-million of Karzai's votes were discarded due to fraud, nearly one-third of the electorate. Because of this, a runoff was called for between Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, but the challenger refused to take part in the second round of voting, leaving Karzai as the winner.

The above events are hardly a roadmap to electoral legitimacy or a mandate from the people of Afghanistan. But it is worth mentioning that even with all of those cast out votes, Karzai netted 47 percent of votes, far more than his closest challenger, Abdullah. Though Karzai's victory may be tainted by fraud, if we are to believe that all of the fraudulent votes were invalidated, then that victory does rightfully belong to Karzai.

From the standpoint of the Independent Election Commission they had no choice but to declare Karzai the winner.

"When Abdullah withdrew from the runoff, the IEC only had one course of action" says Zekria Barekzay, of the Commission, referring to the declaration of Karzai as the winner.  

He later told BBC that "Most Afghan political parties, as well as the international community, such as the UN Secretary General and European Union officials supported the IEC's decision. Therefore, we can say that the incoming government is going to be legitimate. If this had gone to a runoff, it would have brought many problems and much disarray for Afghans."

Since Karzai's acceptance of the IEC ruling, he has made a point of saying that he wants to have an inclusive government, representative of all Afghans. He has also said that he intends to root out corruption in Afghanistan's governmental bureaucracy. But when pressed for specifics about these initiatives, Karzai is hesitant to offer details.

In a speech last week, he said "Afghanistan has been tarnished by administrative corruption, and I will launch a campaign to clean the government of corruption." But when a reporter asked if this meant that Karzai would be replacing or sacking senior officials, the president scoffed.

"These problems cannot be solved by changing high-ranking officials," Karzai shot back. "We'll review the laws and see what problems are in the law, and we will draft some new laws."

In an interview with Al Jazeera last Tuesday evening a Karzai spokesperson repeated the president's message that he wants this new government to be inclusive. But when the interviewer repeatedly asked if Abdullah would be included in this new inclusive government, the spokesman demurred, saying only that "all Afghans should feel they have a role in our nation's progress."  

But the international community seems bent on welcoming this new administration. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the first to offer his congratulations to the newly re-elected president, as Ban was in Kabul when the announcement was made.

"I warmly welcome the IEC's decision to cancel the runoff" Ban said, "and declaring Hamid Karzai the winner."

US President Barack Obama also placed a congratulatory call to Karzai and stated publically that the US recognizes Karzai as the legitimate executive power in Afghanistan. But Obama also criticized the re-elected leaders past administration, saying that there was far too much corruption at the highest levels of Afghan government. Obama said that he hopes Karzai will clean up this corruption with specific initiatives, not just vague platitudes.  

But looking back on the last six months, it is actually impressive how far the Afghan political process has come. When campaigning began back in June, there were 44 declared candidates for the presidency. Some were well-known figures in Afghanistan and others where average Afghans, fed up with the status quo and hoping that their candidacy alone might inspire some change.     

Of the well-known Afghans who didn't run, Zalmay Khalilzad is probably first and foremost. The Afghan-born Khalilzad served as the first post-Taliban US ambassador to Afghanistan and also as an ambassador to Iraq. It was widely expected that he would run, and in fact, Killid reported at the time that his aides had obtained presidential registration forms.       

Because Khalilzad was thought to be a shoe-in to run, many other prominent Afghans, such as Ali Ahmad Jalali and Anwarullhaq Ahadi stayed out of the race.

But as the race began to heat up toward summer's end it became clear that out of the 44 candidates, there were only four legitimate contestants. Karzai, Abdullah, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Ramazan Bashardost. These were the four candidates who participated in most of the debates and public spectacle of campaigning.

From the beginning it was Abdullah who captured much of the public's imagination with raucous campaign rallies, attended by thousands. His supporters were the most impassioned, even threatening violence if Abdullah was not victorious on Aug. 20.  

The debates themselves were lively affairs, with candidates verbally jousting on political issues, but it was often hard to get all of the candidates together on the same stage. Karzai boycotted one debate and a week later, Abdullah boycotted the last debate, the only debate to be broadcast nationwide.

This seemed to help Bashardost, who came across as sensible and pragmatic in the televised discussions, and ultimately helped his stature as a political figure.

On Aug. 20, 2009, Election Day in Afghanistan, violence broke out across the country. Suicide bombings, running gun battles and attacks on voters and polling stations marked Afghans first foray into democracy. Turnout was lower than hoped for--between thirty and forty percent--and allegations of fraud began before the polls even closed. Eyewitnesses reported ballot box stuffing and phantom voters, that is, polling stations where nobody showed up, but hundreds of ballots were "cast" and reported to the IEC.

Karzai was declared the winner, with over 54 percent of the electorate, but the results were believed to be suspect.

The fraud did not go unexamined, as the Election Complaints Commission (EEC), the UN-backed body charged with investigating election rigging, began an examination that would ultimately take more than two months to resolve.

In the end, the ECC threw out over a million votes, costing Karzai an outright victory, and a runoff was scheduled for Nov. 7 between the president and his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

But almost as soon as the runoff was announced, Abdullah withdrew from the second round of voting, leaving Karzai the un-contested victor of election '09.

Though his mandate is far from overwhelming, the president must seize what momentum he has and lead the nation. The impact of the decisions Karzai makes today will have a resonance far greater than just the next 5 years. They will in fact, determine the course of this nation's future for decades to come.


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