The future of Afghanistan–and with it, global security–is being decided as the results from the 20 August Afghan elections are trickling in, with current president Hamid Karzai taking only a marginal lead over his main contender, Abdullah Abdullah. However, news reports of election fraud, including ballot box tampering, buying of voting cards and registration of "ghost" voters cast a cloud over the proceedings.
International monitors claim that voter turnout was only 50 per cent, compared to 70 per cent in 2004. As the second democratic election in Afghanistan's history, the process, as much as its outcome, will determine Afghanistan's path for the near future.
After the first-ever presidential election of 2004 and two prior elections in 2002 and 2003 to determine the delegates to the national Loya Jirgas, grand councils that are convened to make decisions about state issues such as the adoption of a new constitution, the democratisation process in Afghanistan took a 180-degree turn. Governmental appointments after 2005 began to reflect political expediency vis-à-vis former political rivals and the consolidation of power over meritocracy and competence.
The lack of skilled technocrats within the government led to a slower delivery of government-funded services such as infrastructure, education and protection under the law, and a rise in corruption. The Taliban insurgency became more potent and there has since been a consistent rise in civilian casualties, leading to greater citizen discontent and resentment of foreign troops at the same time.
If these 2009 elections are perceived as legitimate, and lead to a capable government, they can propel the country toward a more positive trajectory. If, however, Afghans think their new president assumed power through fraudulent means, the aftermath will likely be increased tension and a stronger insurgency, as it will prove that rule of law in the country is weak and corruption rife.
The United States and the international community can learn a valuable lesson from their assistance and support of the recent Afghan elections. It is possible to be proactive in upholding the rules of an election process, without supporting any one candidate.
One key institution in Afghanistan is the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), an independent Afghan body established under Article 52 of the Electoral Law. The ECC has both domestic and international observers and has been assessing complaints from voters and candidates, and investigating some allegations of events that may have impacted the outcome of the process.
If, in the coming weeks, the ECC determines the initial election to be flawed, there are three possible solutions: the ECC could call for a new election–a risky and costly option given the rise of violence across the country; it could call for a second round of voting, or "run-off", between the two leading candidates, which is allowed under election rules; or the international community could quickly engage with the newly elected government to provide assistance in building a national unity government, whereby the leading presidential candidates and other prominent figures would be encouraged to work as allies to prevent a political crisis.
Whether a new or run-off election will be held may be determined by the position of the candidates in the election. If most accept a run-off between Karzai and Abdullah, the ECC will then have the opportunity to re-assess the shortcomings of the recent election process, identify lessons learned and add polling monitors to voting stations to prevent further fraud.
All of these solutions would be the products of an imperfect democracy, but could nonetheless work to keep the process on a reconciliation track, rather than one that could slide back to civil war. Ultimately, what are most needed are extensive efforts to prove to the people of Afghanistan that the next government will value justice and competence and genuinely serve the nation’s interests.
* Dr. Nadir Atash (www.drnadiratash.com) is an educator, business executive and philanthropist, as well as author of the 2009 autobiography, Turbulence: The Tumultuous Journey of One Man's Quest for Change in Afghanistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).