US Government
US Government
The International Community and Afghan Elections: Helping or Hobbling Democratic Development?

Originally posted December 2009

The handling of the 2009 election represents the international community’s most recent contribution to the destabilization process of Afghanistan. The international community chose to ignore the obvious risks of fraud before the August 20 polling as well as the evidence of fraud immediately afterward. As a result, Afghanistan has endured a political crisis that threatened to divide the country along ethnic lines, weakened the legitimacy of the winning candidate, and undermined domestic support in the countries of the NATO/ISAF force. The election fiasco is only another example of the general chaos that the international community’s unplanned actions have created in Afghanistan.

The 2004 Election: Democracy Promotion on Track?

Largely dominated by the UN and well salaried expatriate staff, the first election held in Afghanistan in 2004 was hardly Afghan-led. However, the face of the election was inspiring: a universal adult franchise marked by a very high turnout; disciplined voters; a high percentage of women voters; and a somewhat peaceful electoral operation across the nation.

Observers in residence in Kabul and international observer teams declared the election as fraud-free and promoted it as a successful benchmark of democracy promotion. Yet, a former envoy of a Western nation recently claimed that the 2004 election was pervaded by fraud as well. The prevalence of widespread fraud in the election, fully financed with Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds, was not divulged by Western diplomats or the UN at the time. This implies a deliberate cover-up in an attempt to keep the Afghan and donor nations’ publics under the illusion that a free and fair election had been held and that democracy promotion was on track.

The 2009 Election: Support for Afghan Democracy?

During the election campaign, BBC journalists found clear evidence of the selling of voter registration cards and the bribing of tribal leaders as a method for vote buying. The BBC widely broadcasted these findings. However, the international community ignored the warning, as if to suggest that no better process can be expected in Afghanistan, which is not a mature democracy.

On the day of the election, Kabul was like a ghost town. By the afternoon, news streamed in about extraordinarily low turnout across the country, especially in Kabul and in the eastern and southern, predominantly Pashtun, areas. This was shocking for those who had witnessed the 2004 and 2005 elections, which registered 70% voter turnout.

Within an hour of the closure of the polling stations, international diplomats in Kabul and political leaders in Western capitals gleefully announced the election to be a complete success — not a free but a nonetheless fair election. However, this positive assessment ignored the hundreds of serious security incidents across the country, including people losing their fingers, nose, and ears. The fact that Afghans did not vote in large numbers was considered “normal” (i.e., Afghans do not know how to exercise democratic rights). Little, if any, importance was ascribed to the voter apathy resulting from the failure of the international community to enhance the country’s security and development.

The UN’s most disingenuous step was the firing of Peter Galbraith, the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), who prior to the election had identified the potential for fraud and proposed actions for alleviating it during the polling process. The UN interpreted Galbraith’s propositions as interference in Afghanistan’s national affairs. This position is hypocritical. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for example, is guilty of such interference — acting in violation of the aid effectiveness principles of the Paris Declaration of 2005 by operating its DEX (Directly Executed) development projects not owned or implemented by the Afghan government. The international community indirectly endorsed the Galbraith’s misguided firing by reiterating their strong support for the UN Mission in Afghanistan.

It also was disingenuous of the international community to congratulate President Hamid Karzai, whose back had been pushed to the wall by the United States and its allies (who earlier had argued non-interference) for agreeing to a run-off after the Election Complaints Commission’s recount reduced his votes to below 50%. As the President of the country, it is Karzai’s first duty to abide by the Afghan Constitution, and he did so. Does he need to be congratulated for observing the laws of the land? Again, the unstated argument was that because Afghans do not know any better, congratulations were due simply for observing the law. Similarly, congratulations piled up when the Independent Election Commission cancelled the run-off and declared Karzai the winner. Whether the decision strengthened or weakened the legitimacy of the government was hardly debated.

Afghan Democracy: Chasing an Illusion?

What is the conclusion to be drawn from the circumstances described above? The international community’s behavior and the democratization process associated with it reflect either a lack of understanding of, or the expedient disregard for, what constitutes democracy, democratic development, and elections. Clearly, this behavior also reflects the lack of respect for Afghans, including for the elected President.

Afghans themselves are disgusted, as illustrated by their criticism of the United Nations. They have charged that the UN interfered in Afghanistan’s election process by firing Galbraith, who many of them believe had their interests at heart. Many Afghans also are outraged by the fact that though they risked their lives to go to the polls, they were effectively disenfranchised by vote-rigging.

Afghanistan is a new democracy in the early stages of a long process of transition from non-democratic towards democratic rule. At this stage, we should not arrive at the dramatic conclusion that it is impossible for democracy to take root in Afghanistan.

In countries such as Afghanistan, where large portions of the adult population are illiterate and a substantial number of people live below the poverty line, a vigorous democracy is more difficult to achieve than in countries with better socioeconomic conditions. Yet, over the past three decades, democratic openings have taken place in countries where some of the preconditions conducive to democratic development — the level of modernization and wealth, political culture and institutions — are weak. Democratic consolidation in such countries takes time.

Democracy is far more than just elections. It requires independent courts; nonpartisan civil servants; robust institutions and universities; the rule of law and property rights; a free press; constitutional checks and balances, and above all, a culture of openness and tolerance, especially of minorities. To be sure, the critically important process of institution building requires external support. But the international community should seek to ensure that its approach to providing this assistance is not paternalistic.

In the wake of the 2009 Afghan election fiasco, one may be tempted to draw all sorts of facile conclusions, including perhaps that elections do not matter, or at any rate do not matter to Afghans. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Elections afford citizens the ability to choose their leaders. And elections do matter to Afghans, who are not prepared to give up their right to vote. The international community should help Afghans to exercise this right by assisting them to run free and fair elections. Regrettably, the international community did more to abrogate this responsibility than to honor it in the 2009 Afghan election. 

[T]he face of the election was inspiring: a universal adult franchise marked by a very high turnout