The recent elections in Afghanistan were historic, but fraud eclipsed it. Democracy has never been easy in Afghanistan, but it now faces the twin challenges of surviving the vicious propaganda of the Taliban and the unscrupulousess of the Afghan polity. The elections were rife with fraud, especially in the insurgency-hit parts of southern Afghanistan. Terming them an unmitigated success or failing to investigate the fraud would constitute an injustice to the Afghan people.

The presidential and provincial elections were supposed to be a watershed. Unlike the 2004 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections, these were not conducted by the U.N. An indigenous election commission (which was commendably efficient) was in charge. The Taliban called for a boycott, and rejected offers for a ceasefire during the elections. It warned voters of dire consequences. Given the deteriorating security situation since 2006 and the state of governance, there was strong support for opposition candidates.

The U.N. and its agencies that were assisting in the conduct of the election tried to keep expectations low. What could be expected was an “acceptably credible” election, they said, rather than an “expression of the will of the people” or a “free and fair election.” Such semantic acrobatics failed to predict the travesty that transpired.

The pre-election period was marked by intimidation of voters and candidates. While the Taliban threatened voters with bodily harm, the candidates bribed them. While focussing on the Taliban threat, the international community has ignored the corruption. Several instances of malpractice have come to light. There were significant complaints of intimidation of opposition candidates’ supporters and campaigners by police and security agencies. Some police officers allegedly took ballot boxes home in the guise of “protection” and returned them stuffed with ballots.

Voter turnout is being taken by much of the international media and observers as the barometer of the success of the elections. But in reality, the turnout varied widely. In the north, despite violence by the Taliban in provinces such as Kunduz, it was rather high, touching 50 per cent in some towns. This was due to better security there, and the desire of the ethnic minorities to make their presence felt in the next government.

But the clincher was going to be the south. There were two reasons. First, the leading opposition candidates who belonged to ethnic minorities such as Tajiks and Hazaras had their largest support base in the north. Notwithstanding last-minute deals with Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum and others which helped Hamid Karzai get a foothold in the north, Mr. Karzai’s main constituency lay in the Pashtun-dominated south. Secondly, the Pashtuns feel victimised by both sides of the war. They have borne the brunt of coalition airstrikes that went wrong; the majority of casualties in Taliban suicide attacks have also been Pashtuns. Secular Pashtun nationalism as a political force has been decimated by Islamic extremism. The Pashtuns feel the former Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul has been unrepresentative and unresponsive to them, with Mr. Karzai as a figurehead. Thus, the vote bank of the Pashtuns, who comprise the largest ethnicity in Afghanistan and are concentrated in the South, was crucial.

Naturally, the elections in the South were expected to be close. In the run-up, most of the candidates tried to identify themselves with voters in the South through tribal or other ties of kinship. But on polling day, the region was under siege by the Taliban. It would be surprising if the elections are considered to be a nation-wide success.

The elections were needed to legitimise the Karzai government and its political-military actions to fight insurgency. The fraud has thus created a Catch-22 situation. Questioning their credibility would aid the Taliban propaganda and would amount to a strategic loss for the coalition. Declaring them a success would fuel the sense of injustice among Afghans, creating recruits for the Taliban and feed conspiracy theories about the elections being stage-managed by the West. While this dilemma is not easy to resolve, declaring the elections a complete success would prove more costly than admitting the faults and investigating them.

Fundamental to such dilemmas are questions about the wisdom of having a democratic system for Afghanistan. One influential tribal leader in southern Afghanistan summed it up thus: “Why is democracy being imposed on us? Under the tribal system, people obeyed us leaders. They came to us to resolve disputes and we protected them.” His contention was that the West was asking Afghanistan to achieve democracy in a span of a few years, a task that the West itself took centuries to accomplish. Voting for a candidate was still largely along tribal lines. Tribal voters considered voting as a method of buying the patronage and protection (even from the law) of a powerful candidate. The argument is that democracy as the rest of the world understands it is unsustainable, if not unsuitable, here. This theory has several takers in the West; they think the political solution to Afghanistan’s travails is to accommodate the Taliban in the Kabul government.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nobody has considered what the average Afghan wants. Afghans, especially the youth, desire democracy. They have respect for the jirga system, but do not want to see it become the de jure system of national governance. Nor do Afghans, even in the Pashtun areas, desire the return of the Taliban. The U.S. and its allies may be in the throes of redefining their mission in Afghanistan as one of “denying Al-Qaeda the possibility of revival” rather than state-building, but for Afghans a Taliban triumph would amount to a renewed betrayal of the Afghan people by the West.

The value of the elections to the Afghan people cannot be under-estimated. Voter cynicism, caused by misgovernance, should not be mistaken for apathy. Justice should be done to Afghans by means of a thorough investigation of the cases of fraud, indictment of the fraudsters and revision of election results where necessary.

( Raja Karthikeya was an international observer for the elections in Afghanistan.)

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