Originally posted December 2009 

In the run-up to Afghanistan’s second presidential election, voter enthusiasm was muted by the widespread perception that the outcome would be determined not by votes, but by international decision-making, political backroom deals, and fraud.[1] The events during and after polling only confirmed this view: There was overwhelming fraud and manipulation, often organized or facilitated by government and electoral officials; responses to the crisis were crafted in behind-the-scenes negotiations between local political leaders and powerful international actors; and in the end the winner was declared based on a series of improvised procedures and decisions that were ratified by statements of international approval.

The main international actors — the UN (UNAMA and UNDP), United States, European nations, and NATO/ISAF — had been unprepared for the unfolding crisis, despite warnings that the absence of independent institutions had left the process wide open to manipulation and fraud.[2] Embassies in Kabul, which relied on briefings by electoral officials and the UN for their information, sent their capitals reassuring reports about “fraud mitigating measures” and assessments that possible “irregularities” would not fundamentally undermine the credibility of the vote. The main concerns had been about voter turnout and security — in particular after several high-profile attacks highlighted the vulnerability of the process. So once the elections had taken place and voters had voted, there was an overwhelming sense of relief and achievement, as reflected in most early statements on the conduct of the election.[3]

However, many Afghans felt quite differently: They were rattled by the many security incidents, including in areas that had been safe before, and offended by the fraud and manipulation that many of them had witnessed personally.[4] As the international press caught on to the unprecedented scale of the fraud, references to the courage of the voters and the achievement of a fully Afghan-led process were no longer sufficient to suggest a credible vote. The UN leadership and foreign diplomats were confronted with a dilemma that would shape their actions and decisions: how to deal with flawed elections when you desperately need them to be seen as credible and legitimate?

Most nations were faced with dwindling public support and had tried to downplay the problems relating to the elections — and anything else — as long as possible. A complicating factor was the narrative of the increasing Afghan lead role and how that would ultimately guarantee a smooth exit. This made diplomats reluctant to engage more closely, even if this meant leaving the process in the hands of blatantly biased institutions. So with the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) in the lead, they opted for a hands-off approach and insisted that “the process run its course.” This resulted in a major confrontation between the two main electoral bodies. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which was not independent, removed several anti-fraud triggers from the counting process, releasing well over a million suspicious votes — most of them for Karzai — into the count, before announcing the results. In doing so, it not only ignored a binding order by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), but it also fatally undermined the idea of a functioning Afghan process. And this is when the UN stepped in.

Backed by the main international ambassadors and assisted by two electoral experts, who were hastily flown in, the UN SRSG embarked on a highly complicated audit process aimed at restoring the perceived legality of the process. The route was not obvious and the procedures chosen were complicated and as a result non-transparent. This was illustrated by the continuous confusion over its details and implications — even among those who were regularly briefed. The “process” was precariously held together by the consent of the two main presidential competitors (which had to be renegotiated several times), the repeated expressions of support by a select group of international ambassadors, the assumed expertise of the UN advisers, and the reluctant cooperation of the IEC — while the rest of the country waited.[5]

The expectation of the main international actors that ultimately Karzai would win meant that discussions were essentially about whether it should be a first or a second round victory and how this could be used to shape future relations. In the meantime, negotiations in search of a political settlement — which included only the two main competitors — continued. This was closely followed and encouraged by international diplomats who hoped that an Afghan-led solution, which could still be presented as legal, would provide an alternative to going into an actual second round of voting. The absence of a clear international focus, other than insisting on the legality of the process and an Afghan lead, meant that the UN and its backers became hostage to the political posturing of both candidates and was left with no leverage over the IEC once the second round was announced. At the same time international envoys were seen to be heavily involved in intense negotiations with the two candidates. Great political capital was spent in persuading Karzai to accept the second round and praising him when he did — and then in convincing Abdullah not to contest the outcome when the IEC, after his pull-out, announced Karzai’s victory on November 2, 2009.

This focus by international actors on following a precarious — almost imaginary — process in order to insist to domestic audiences that “the system worked” was a high risk strategy.[6] The intense involvement in a process that resulted in Karzai’s re-election signalled to Afghans that he is again the international community’s choice. It confirmed their suspicions that the electoral process — even if it is expanded to include complicated fraud investigations — is mainly an elaborate cover for decisions made elsewhere. And the failure to prepare for a flawed election — instead hoping that it would turn out to be “credible enough” — forced the international actors to step in without achieving actual leverage. This means they are again seen as “being in charge” without actually possessing the means to influence what happens.


[1]. For a detailed analysis see Martine van Bijlert, How to Win an Afghan Election; Perceptions and Practices, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), August 2009, http://www.aan-afghanistan.org/index.asp?id=128.


[2]. Several reports, among others by the AAN and International Crisis Group (ICG), had warned that the rather liberal distribution of voter cards — a total of 17 million cards among an estimated electorate of 9.8 million — had laid the groundwork for potential mass fraud.


[3]. For the text of these statements see http://www.afghanelections.org/pdf/Statements.20Aug2009.pdf.


[4]. For more details see Martine van Bijlert, Polling Day Fraud in the Afghan Elections, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), September 2009, http://www.aan-afghanistan.org/index.asp?id=301


[5]. For more details on the audit and the confrontation between the IEC and the ECC, see the electoral blogs on http://www.aan-afghanistan.org/index.asp?id=5.


[6]. The claim that the system worked is dubious, as in a fully Afghan led process it is unlikely that the Electoral Complaints Commission — which would have consisted of only Afghan commissioners — would have been able to withstand the pressure and deliver such far-reaching rulings.


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