Afghanistan residential challenger Abdullah Abdullah decided (correctly) over the weekend that the planned run-off election between him and incumbent President Karzai would be subject to the same abuses and lack of transparency as the original election, and thus withdrew his participation:
“I will not participate in the Nov. 7 election,” Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s chief opponent, told thousands of supporters at a rally, because a “transparent election is not possible.”
(…) Abdullah did not call on his supporters to boycott next Saturday’s election; he repeatedly refused to say what he thought should happen next; he would not endorse or reject Karzai’s reelection as president; and he said he would “leave the door open” for additional talks with Karzai. He said his decision not to participate in the runoff was not made “in exchange for anything from anybody.”
The Nov. 7 runoff was called after reports of widespread fraud tarnished the results of the first election in August, which Karzai won with about 54 percent of the vote. The United Nations subsequently threw out millions of fraudulent ballots, dropping Karzai’s tally to less than 50 percent, the minimum necessary to avoid a runoff.
Abdullah claimed that much of the fraud could be traced to favoritism by the country’s electoral machinery, and he had ddemanded the resignation of Afghanistan’s independent election commissioner as a condition of participating in next Saturday’s vote. Karzai reportedly rejected the demand.
This announcement was followed this morning by the (entirely predictable) news that as there wasn’t much point in having a run-off when one of the two candidates runs off, the runoff was canceled and Karzai was duly re-certified as the President of Afghanistan this morning.
I admit that I am sympathetic to Abdullah’s concern, and shared his view that a runoff would not be any more transparent or immune to fraud than the original election. However, I still believed that the process of democracy was important. I am thus rather disappointed that Abdullah chose to remove himself and essentially validate the original election. The message this sends is that things are the same; the big Boss wins and there is no real challenge possible to the status quo. Even a flawed runoff, on the other hand, would have sent a message that here is a mechanism by which we can hold those in power accountable. It was unlikely thaht Abdullah would have won the runoff (even assumig everything went squeaky-cleanly). But it was important for Afghanistan’s civil process and maturation that he participated. By removing himself, he abdicated a responsibility he had accumulated as the only credible challenger to Karzai’s hold on power.
What next? The decision on troops remains Obama’s to make, and is largely independent of who is in power in Kabul, but the circumstances of Karzai’s re-election do cast a political pall. Look for the fact to be used against Obama mostly by the Left, arguing that Obama should send fewer troops to “support a tyrant”. Luckily the equally shrill Right will be harping on Obama in the opposite direction, so I hope Obama still has some remaining room for an actual decision.
As far as Afghanistan’s democracy goes, however, the lesson here I think is that the American model of a strong central government is flawed in applcation to Afghanistan. The Afghan constitution permits the President to appoint the provincial governors, in a bid to strengthen Kabul against the warlords who actually control most of the country. But this has allowed Karzai to build a powerful political patronage system and thus undermined the national election, virtually guaranteeing fraud (even if it was not directed intentionally by Karzai himself). A better approach would be to amend the Afghani constitution to allow regional provincial councils to veto the choice of governor, or even appoint alternates if they disagree and hold local elections. Further limits on Presidential authority are also probably due. Given that Karzai’s hold on power is stll heavily dependent on American support, we still have a lot of leverage to apply. The task for Karzai should be to restore faith in Afghanistan’s democratic process, and the best first step woud be to embrace reforms of these types. There’s still a lot of room for Abdullah Abdullah to play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s future, and there’s an opportunity here for us to help.
Speaking of applying American democracy to Afghanistan… ha!