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Afghanistan: To Vote or Not to Vote

"If you hold no election at all," warned US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in a Wednesday press briefing at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, in which he participated via telephone from Kabul, "the crisis of legitimacy could be severe".
Feb 20, 2004

Central Asia

To vote or not to vote ...
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - With only four months to go before scheduled elections in Afghanistan in June, some experts are calling for the elections to be put off until next year. A delay would enable both international donors and the government of Hamid Karzai to make greater progress in disarming the warlords who still run most of the country and in extending security to rural areas, they argue.

These experts fear that the challenges created in preparing the country of some 28 million people for an election will divert attention and scarce resources from more important tasks, particularly in the security realm.

But Karzai himself, apparently backed by the administration of US President George W Bush, appears determined to forge ahead, at least with presidential elections that he and Washington believe would give the central government greater legitimacy, both internationally and inside Afghanistan.

"If you hold no election at all," warned US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in a Wednesday press briefing at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, in which he participated via telephone from Kabul, "the crisis of legitimacy could be severe".

"The current state of mind is to hold elections come hell or high water," Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin told Inter Press Service on Wednesday. "The UN people [who are helping to organize the elections] are working around the clock to come up with a way that they can do that."

Under the December 2001 Bonn Accord, agreed to after the ousting of the Taliban government, both presidential and parliamentary elections are supposed to take place no later than mid-2004, and Karzai seems committed to this schedule. But most elections experts, including many in the UN, have said that while a presidential election might still be doable, the kinds of preparations necessary for parliamentary elections - such as setting out final electoral boundaries, organizing political parties, and even preparing ballots for dozens of candidates in different parts of the country - are probably impossible to achieve by June 21, the date for which both elections have tentatively been set.

Khalilzad himself appeared to anticipate this Thursday. "If every effort is made to hold parliamentary elections, and a majority is satisfied that they could not be held, and the UN supports that [view], then the legitimacy issue will be satisfied."

But going ahead with only presidential elections could exacerbate tensions between the southern-based Pashtuns, who make up Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and the collection of non-Pashtun minorities, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Hazara that ousted the Pashtun-dominated Taliban with the help of the United States in November 2001, says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan specialist who also spoke at the USIP briefing.

Because the minority groups are themselves deeply divided, Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who is seen as having failed so far to reach out to the northern groups, is certain to sweep the election and might thus govern unchecked by a sitting parliament, where minorities could exercise some influence.

"The Americans have underestimated the ethnic polarization that resulted from the loya jirga," Rashid said, referring to the grand council of notables that met in late December to ratify a new constitution. "Is he going to be elected by the whole country or only one ethnic group?" asked Rashid. "I find it very dangerous."

Barnett agrees, at least in part. To him, the success of any elections at this point in Afghanistan's evolution depends most of all on whether the results reflect a consensus among key elites with sufficient confidence in the process to go along. "It is easier to get consensus around a presidential candidate if you had parliamentary elections at the same time because the losers in the presidential election would feel they at least have representation in the parliament," he said.

"Presidential elections will be seen as a kind of all-or-nothing thing in a system where the level of trust in existing institutions is practically non-existent." At the same time, Rubin says that Karzai's concerns about the impact of a delay on the perceptions of his legitimacy are real.

After the mujahideen defeated the Soviet-backed government almost 15 years ago, an agreement among the victorious groups to rotate power broke down when one president refused to leave office, setting off a new round of chaos and civil war that created the conditions that brought the Taliban to power in 1996.

"If elections are postponed without very convincing reasons, it will degrade Karzai's legitimacy," said Rubin. "And if the delay goes beyond September, elections will have to wait until next year because of the winter weather. They would need to hold another loya jirga to approve the delay, which may be worth trying."

The key is likely to come late next month when Karzai's government meets with its foreign donors in Berlin. According to Rashid, European donors, who have pledged much of the aid for Afghanistan's reconstruction and elections, are highly skeptical about holding elections in June. They are also resentful, Rashid said, of Washington's domination of the process, and see the push to hold elections as a US agenda tied in part to Bush's desire to be able to point to success in Afghanistan in his own re-election campaign in November. "The perception that it [the agenda] is being set in Washington is very widespread," he noted.

The best "way out", argued Rashid, is for the donors in Berlin to call for elections to be delayed until the spring of 2005, while taking responsibility for failing to follow through on their own previous promises of money and troops for reconstruction and security, which are necessary to ensure a successful process. "That lets Karzai off the hook," he said, and would help reduce the current polarization between the Pashtuns and the other groups.

Delaying elections would also permit the government and its international supporters to focus far more on particularly urgent projects, which include disarming militias, tackling the growing drug trade, and deploying more troops to more towns and cities in the countryside - all three of which are essential for ensuring successful elections.

Horacio Boneo, a former UN elections expert and senior USIP fellow, agreed that premature elections, particularly those carried out before substantial disarmament - as in Angola and Liberia - are particularly risky. On the other hand, he said: "I can't think of a single case where delaying actions caused any major problems." He cited, in particular, the example of Mozambique, where elections were delayed for one year so that disarmament could be substantially advanced.

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