Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote
Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote
Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Op-Ed / Asia 2 minutes

Looking Beyond the Afghan Vote

With the worst violence in Afghanistan since the start of the war eight years ago, and decades of patronage politics still entrenched in the system, the Afghan people face daunting challenges when they head to the polls Thursday to elect a president.

Because the legitimacy of elections depends on whether Afghans feel safe enough to go out and vote, it is crucial that the security situation in the country is improved. Yet, insecurity and insurgent violence in the Pashtun-majority south and east make it increasingly difficult for people to go to polling places, and also provide a cover for mass fraud. The continued subpar quality of police and the use of police for counterinsurgency fighting are not helping matters, while the stalled disarmament process increases the chances of intimidation across the country. A recently published security map of Afghanistan by the United Nations is not encouraging. It places almost half the country at high risk.

Despite these difficulties, proceeding with the polls remains the best option. Forty candidates for president and more than 3,000 for the provincial councils are evidence of continued interest in the democratic political process. The election is also breaking new ground with more than 17 million people registered to vote. Two women are among the 40 candidates for president.

This progress hasn't come without costs, however. The two female presidential candidates and the 300 women seeking office in local provinces are frequently the target of threats, harassment, and attacks as they strain against ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law. The men in the race are faring better; President Hamid Karzai could possibly face a second round, with his rivals, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, putting up a tough fight.

It would be unwise to try to predict an election result, but one thing is clear. If these election polls are separate from a coordinated approach to nation-building in Afghanistan, the Afghan people's suffering will be prolonged. It is essential that resources and attention are channeled beyond these elections into strengthening what is necessary for sustainable security: political and electoral institutions.

The enormous international resources and attention currently focused on elections after years of inaction must be used to build Afghan institutions in support of democratic norms. The international community's goal should be substantive technical improvements in the 2010 polls and, more broadly, sustainable and widely accepted Afghan electoral institutions, with far greater support for the representative bodies in the future.

Since the last polls in 2004-2005, both the Afghan government and the international community have failed to embed a robust electoral framework and to drive democratization. Elections mirror wider social trends, and the challenges this week's polls confront reflect the political, security, and institutional developments - and failings - of recent years. Ideally, elections could help improve accountability and equal representation, and reinforce peaceful, democratic opposition; however, the neglect of electoral institutions and planning in recent years is symptomatic of an overall lack of institution-building in Afghanistan.

Renewed domestic and international attention toward Afghanistan must be harnessed to drive strategic planning beyond the 2010 elections. A post-election strategy group of major ministries, donors, civil society representatives, and electoral experts must ensure the creation of a permanent infrastructure and electoral framework. This needs to include ongoing training, oversight, and sufficient funds to retain the thousands of new police recruited to help secure the polls.

However, in the end it is the perception of the Afghan population that will measure electoral success. If Afghans are to be encouraged to vote, they must have the security to go out and cast their ballot and they must be confident that their votes will count. An election that is perceived as illegitimate could be the flashpoint for further destabilization of an already fragile state.

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