Friday, August 14, 2009

Perils in Placing Too Much Hope in Afghan Elections

A low-order analysis of the coming Afghan election (which is about the best you'll be getting out of me today) suggests that no likely result is going to have particularly positive outcomes for the anti-Taliban coalition, despite the increasingly bulky bunch of eggs being stuffed into the election basket by the ISAF.

Recent polls put Karzai in a decisive lead with 44%, though failing to get 50% would lead to a runoff. In second is former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah with 26%; in third, Ramazan Bashardost with 10%; and in fourth, Ashraf Ghani with 6%.

So let us first assume that the vote goes relatively smoothly, despite Taliban attempts to disrupt it. If Karzai wins, Afghanistan has a status quo problem. He is not a terrible president, but he is often arbitrary, his government is corrupt and dysfunctional, and he has apparently alienated much of his former Pashtun support in the south (he is the only all-Pashtun major candidate). Worse, he is being seen as selling out women's rights: he is executing the implementation of a law that allows Shiite men to deny food to their wives, should their wives not be satisfying them sexually (among other things). The implementation of the law is likely to boost his support among some of the 20% Shiite population of Afghanistan. Once the golden boy of the anti-Taliban movement and its Western allies, Karzai has fallen to the point of receiving but an exhausted shrug from those former allies with whom he is not currently cutting deals. Communication difficulties throughout Afghanistan and other barriers to entry for other candidates are probably large contributors to Karzai's current poll popularity.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is half-Pashtun, but spent the Taliban regime fighting with the Northern Alliance, and is therefore unlikely to win over many fence-sitting Taliban supporters simply by being elected. His current campaign mimics that of President Obama in rhetoric, and he has clearly set himself up as a sortof "change" candidate, with governmental corruption being his highest campaign issue ("security" is not listed as an official issue, but this may in large part be due to the fact that Abdullah knows better than to think it is a simple lack of will to fight that is keeping the Afghani security forces from winning). He is certainly likely to take Mr. Karzai to a runoff, but whether he'll win is unclear even to pollsters. And whether he can pull Afghanistan together is equally unclear. He does not have the loyalties of many tribes and warlords that Karzai does--and if they cannot be kept in line as the Afghan state develops, they will become as dangerous as the Taliban. And while a change in face might bring some temporary honeymoon to negotiations with the Taliban, they are unlikely to balk on their demand that negotiations occur only after foreign troops have left the country.

The other two candidates are very unlikely to make it to the runoff, which is a shame, because they're quite incredible men. They're both very well-educated technocrats that have detailed plans on how to create structures and incentives to eliminate corruption. Bashardost and Ghani have both won my heart: Bashardost's campaign office is a small tent outside of Kabul's parliament, and he's got a reputation as a charismatic, hot-headed crusader for transparency and political rights. Ghani is talkative and is apparently at times overbearing, but this is largely because he has so many intelligent things to say that he must say them quickly, lest he run out of time. As the former planning and finance ministers, respectively, their attention to detail grossly outstrips their more strongman-style rivals. But, again, they are very unlikely to win.

And, again, this assumes that the Taliban's relative quiet over the past few weeks has not been in preparation for a devastating and coordinated attack on the elections. Should the elections be significantly disrupted, the winner will face incredible legitimacy problems, despite the best of possible intentions. Thursday shall be a tense day. But the Taliban have largely let election commission workers set up and prepare without harassment, which means they may well not try to disrupt the elections themselves. The Taliban are more interested in gaining popularity for themselves than instilling temporary chaos. 90% of polled Afghans declared their intention to vote, which means a significant disruption would likely stir anger amongst otherwise-friendly Afghan people. The Pakistani Taliban's PR disaster has probably taught the Afghani Taliban that discretion is often a key aspect of a winning strategy.

We'll keep you updated on how things go on Thursday when we know.
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