Monday, August 24, 2009

A Dirty Win for Karzai?

Partial election results are not due to be released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) until Tuesday, but a very late Monday announcement by Finance Minister Zakhilwal claimed that Karzai has won the election with a whopping 68% of the vote. If this is actually true, it might appear to be such an enormous number as to guarantee the consent of the Afghan people despite all the intimidation and corruption.

But I fear this election is not going to end cleanly or easily no matter what happens. There are 3 likely scenarios: outright Karzai victory, outright Abdullah victory, and toss up leading to a runoff. I talked about the consequences of an Abdullah win or a run-off in my last post.

But the Finance Minister, while out of line, is likely correct about the official vote count (he is otherwise very much sticking his neck out for seemingly little gain). But while Afghan polling was neither extensive nor accurate, it certainly seemed like this would be a much closer vote as of two weeks ago. And, further, low turnout in the southern Pashtun regions (due to Taliban intimidation) was likely to hurt Karzai, not help him. A 24% increase in polling for Karzai over that two week period seems highly unlikely.

And all of this, of course, is starting to look frighteningly like the Iranian elections. Abdullah, whose reformist slant and underdog attitude are reminiscent of Mousavi, is claiming "widespread fraud" in the vote, in the form of inflated counting, ballot-stuffing, and intimidation; he claims further that such extensive fraud may well change the election outcome, implying that there would have at least been a runoff had the vote been fair.

The announcement by the Finance Minister comes a few hours after the UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan supported claims of irregularities and urged that dozens of complaints be dealt with, as they are potentially outcome-changing. The announcement might be an attempt to instill decisive victory in the minds of the Afghani population to steal the initiative from a potentially messy review or recount process.

At this point, the legitimacy of the election may be beyond saving. Abdullah cannot be faulted for claiming fraud if the allegations are true (and they likely are), but a lack of legitimacy is likely to damage the government and can potentially lead to violence. It is difficult to undo the damage of most fraud without a second vote of some sort, and such a thing is not only highly uncommon, but is logistically a nightmare; further, it's unclear a second vote would be any better. For ISAF, it's time to dig in and prepare for unrest. Whether some semblance of trust and confidence can be imparted into the Karzai government when it (almost certainly) receives a victory announcement tomorrow is unclear and grim. And without the confidence and trust of the Afghani people, the central government is going to be unable to stick.
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