- Hamid Karzai has been an exceptionally difficult partner for the United States. Relations between the White House and Arg Palace in Kabul have plummeted over the past five years. Karzai has accused the U.S. of collusion with the Taliban, refused to accept his government’s share of responsibility for a raging insurgency, and turned a blind eye to predatory practices by officials in what Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index reports is the most corrupt country in the world.
These problems, and others, should not overshadow what appears to be one of the most important acts of domestic statesmanship the developing world has seen in recent memory, and a signature achievement by the Afghan people. Karzai did not use the machinery of the Afghan state to put the apparent establishment candidate, former Foreign Minister Dr. Zalmay Rassoul, into office. Such respect for the electoral process, at least in this first round, should be recognized and rightly celebrated.
The 26 April results show Karzai’s top 2009 rival, former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, garnered almost 45 per cent of the vote. Second was the independent-minded technocrat Dr. Ashraf Ghani with 31.5 per cent. Rassoul finished a distant third at 11.5 per cent. Complaints remain to be adjudicated, but are reportedly not enough to alter the outcome. Abdullah and Ghani are to face off in a second round planned for 14 June.
Karzai has many incentives to either cling to power or hand-pick his successor. Politics is historic blood-sport in Afghanistan. Afghan leaders have tended to either die (normally killed) in office or are ousted in a coup. A new regime that turned on the previous one would not be unprecedented in the developing world. Violent or extra-constitutional seizures of power are not uncommon.
Nor are rigged elections. In fact, according to Paul Collier in War, Guns, and Votes, the incumbent re-election rate is roughly 74% in the developing world as opposed to 45% in the developed world.2 Actions that officials often take to engineer outcomes are well documented.
Karzai has such means at his disposal, and seemed willing to use them. No independent civil service as yet exists in Afghanistan – every senior official involved in the process has been appointed or approved by Karzai & Associates. Pre-election opinion polls that could have detected a radical election-day shift were rubbished because they had been financed by the U.S. State Department. Reports of press intimidation by government officials have been on the rise; the press allegedly even agreed to avoid election-day reporting on violence and irregularities. Foreign observers were removed from the Independent Elections Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission. Whatever the motives, these efforts opened the door to rigging.
Vote buying and ballot stuffing occurred. Violent incidents on election-day were reportedly higher in 2014 than 2009; much of this due to factions attempting to suppress votes of their rivals. But these problems were not on such a scale to alter the first-round outcome. Had Karzai put the full weight of his patronage network in play, the results could have been very different.
Karzai clearly shaped the field in advance, and reportedly convinced his brother, Qayum, to quit the race. Many observers, myself included, expected him to throw the weight of his support behind Rassoul as the candidate most likely to advance the Karzai legacy and interests. While Abdullah and Ghani have also pledged a supportive relationship, they have a history of being critical of Karzai-regime shortcomings and failings.
As the first-round neared, perhaps Karzai calculated that engineering a Rassoul victory was simply too heavy a lift and not worth the risk. The latter’s campaign was reportedly uninspiring. Despite being of Pashtun ethnicity, he does not speak Pashtu fluently. He seemed to attract little enthusiasm even in his aspirational base in the South. He was trailing badly in pre-election polls. A large scale surge on election-day would have been seen as highly irregular and could have provoked significant backlash.
The electoral process is not yet over. The second round is another opportunity for rigging. Despite persistent threats, Taliban efforts to disrupt the first round failed. A surge in Taliban-related violence could suppress Pashtun turn-out in the South and East, providing Abdullah, whose power-base is in the North and West and with non-Pashtun populations, with an unfair advantage. The first-round Abdullah wins in Pashtun-majority Ghanzi and Wardak, for instance, may reflect this dynamic. Some officials have alleged meddling by neighboring and regional actors.
A close result in the second round, accompanied by widespread insecurity and fraud, could be de-stabilizing. Karzai may even declare a state of emergency and decide not to step-down after all. Longer-term, failure by the new government to enact needed political and economic reforms, advance a substantive national dialogue and peace process, and sustain donor support could user in a crisis in confidence.
Uncertainty remains, therefore, and much can still go awry. Nonetheless, Karzai and the Afghan people have made a statement and taken an important step toward the first peaceful, constitutional, democratic transfer of power in Afghan history. Provided this occurs, Afghanistan will have made one of the most signature achievements in the developing world.
Christopher D. Kolenda is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Center for New American Security, President and CEO Kolenda Strategic Consulting, and former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and three Commanders, International Security Forces-Afghanistan.