The Ballot Stuffing Equilibrium and a Messy Compromise: Winners and Losers of the Afghan Elections

As someone who lost close family members in this election process, I took some time to reflect on who the winners and losers are in this process and what it means for the future of Afghanistan.
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As you might have heard, Afghanistan inaugurated a new president on Monday, September 29, 2014. Unexpectedly, the country also got Chief Executive Officer, or simply a junior Prime Minister - a position that didn't exist before. It was a long and messy process, but, at the end, one that produced some interesting results.

These results are not necessarily the outcome of the election, but the consequence of a widespread fraud. Most Afghans entered the election process with the assumption that votes and political influence were not sufficient; and that for any candidate to win, s/he would have to master the art of ballot stuffing. Supporters of both successful candidates were indeed masters in this art. These two candidates also carried significant influence as they were endorsed by the country's most powerful warlords and former Mujahedeen commanders.

As someone who lost close family members in this election process, I took some time to reflect on who the winners and losers are in this process and what it means for the future of Afghanistan. Please share your perspectives as well.

Loser 1: The electoral authorities

Ironically, the biggest loser is electoral system. The "Independent" Election Commission of Afghanistan and its UN backers had learned many lessons from their failures in the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections to prevent fraud. One of the key lessons was the fact that most of the ballot stuffing had occurred during the evening after the end of the Election Day before the ballots were transported to a central location for processing the next morning - a critical window of time for the fraud masters. Why didn't the IEC take adequate measures to prevent a similar fraud in the 2014 elections? This is not even the main reason why they are the biggest losers, but the fact that their Chief Electoral Officer was caught red-handed while trying to organize the whole electoral machinery in support of one candidate.

International organizations that backed the electoral process are also as big a loser as the Afghan institutions since they failed to implement any innovative mechanisms to detect or prevent fraud. In a world where entrepreneurs have come up with ways to solve some of the world's most pressing and challenging issue, why was the UN unable to come up with a simple technology to prevent fraud? Why did they make it so easy for the candidates to stuff millions of votes? Is it really impossible to develop a technology that would read the finger prints of individuals and determine which ones are invalid? Would it really cost more to have such a measure in place than what was spent already for the elections? The only rationale conclusion that can be made here is that such organizations are a failure and serious consideration should be given to outsourcing their work to the private sector.

Loser 2: The Economy

Preparations for the election started in the beginning of 2014 and the first presidential elections were held on April 5, 2014. It took Afghanistan almost six months to declare a winner! In between, people suffered from the fear of a possible civil war, the possibility of America abandoning Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban, and a mild possibility of a coup d'état in which some key officials would take power without waiting for the official results of the election, among others. What did such unpredictability do to the morale of the people? It encouraged the wealthy businessmen to take most of their wealth out of Afghanistan. Businesses across the country were also stalled because no decent entrepreneur would consider investing in such a fragile environment. The result, according to the Minister of Finance, is that Afghanistan got a hit of about five billion dollars out of its twenty billion dollars GDP. How would people adjust to this rapid downfall in addition to shortages in foreign assistance and military spending should be the top question on the agenda of all key players if there is a genuine desire for stabilizing Afghanistan.

Loser 3: Government Institutions

One of my central arguments in a paper I wrote in 2010 was that President Karzai had failed to adequately support state institutions due to his preference of empowering traditional and tribal chiefs and practices. To keep his grip on power, President Karzai also discouraged decentralizing the government. Since President Ahmadzai's campaign was run on the premise of reforms, Afghans had hoped that after the transition state institutions' performance will significantly improve and that they would be given sufficient autonomy from the influence of the tribal chiefs. However, in the current arrangement, to expect such a prospect is possible in Afghanistan, is an illusion simply because: 1) President Ahmadzai had solicited the support of influential warlords to win the election and in return he might offer them key positions in the government; and 2) On top of that, now he has to share 50% (50% of the 70% - see below where the rest of the 30% might go) of the seats with Dr. Abdullah's camp. If there were even slight chances of reform under a normal transition, under the unity government deal, there is almost none because there aren't any seats left for any reformists to make tangible changes.

Reforming the institutions is not even the central concern. The fear is that a unity government might not work for Afghanistan. The country had a debacle in 1992 because of a similar situation which resulted in a civil war. These types of duct-taped governments have also not yielded positive outcomes where they were attempted in places like Zimbabwe or Kenya. How Afghanistan will perform is vastly dependent on the leadership and statesmanship of the President and now the CEO (and their key allies).

Now I would like to turn to the winners and share my brief perspective on how they got there:

Winners 1: President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

This is a no-brainer. President Ahmadzai won less than 3% of the votes in the 2009 Presidential elections. Isn't it a miracle that he got more than 54% of the votes in this election? If you had asked Afghans at the beginning of the election process, a vast majority of them would have not considered him as one of the top two candidates, especially because there were rumors that Zalmai Rassoul - Former Foreign Minister had the backing of President Karzai. Moreover, most Pashtuns don't like his first vice President Abdul Rashid Dustum for his war crimes against the group. However, with the grace of God, the support of the youth, some bright intellectuals and a huge number of warlords matched by a full backing of the "independent" election commission, he became the rightful winner of the crown.

Miracles do happen!

On the other hand, let's hope that the poor Rassoul get something as he never was truly Karzai's top pick. Karzai had spent his last four years in office grooming Ahmadzai to be his successor as his Head of Security Transition from NATO/ISAF to Afghan forces - a position that allowed Ahmadzai to visit most provinces and meet with influential political figures and solicit their support. So Rassoul, you were played pretty miserably. I hope you realize that by now!

Winner 2: President Hamid Karzai

Some would go as far as concluding that President Karzai systematically planned the election process to be messy in order to maintain influence over the final outcome. I wouldn't go that far, though, but the fact that the elections were so muddled and needed a national hero to bring everyone together that the situation placed Karzai in a perfect position to get what he wanted: adequate power to influence policy making in the future government. My guess is that if Dr. Abdullah is the Junior Prime Minister, President Karzai is the new Senior Prime Minister. It is also fair to assume that the appointment of the about 30-35% key ministers, governors, and ambassador level positions would come from Karzai's camp - these individuals directly or indirectly supported one of the two top candidates during the second runoff as well.

Winner 3: The Afghans

How can people be the winners after all this? Well, there are few reasons why. First and foremost, they avoided a possible civil war (or something like that) by accepting a compromise. They'll also likely have stronger participation in the state-building process as a result of a shared government. Secondly, Afghanistan had a first ever peaceful transfer of power. Lastly, the Afghans learned to be surprised by the results of the election. This was the most profound positive impact of the election process. In the 2004 and 2009 elections, things were pretty much fixed and no one seriously believed that either Yunus Qanuni or Dr. Abdullah would win the elections (despite U.S.'s indirect support). In this election, however, no one, including the top politicians could gauge who might win the elections. It was a guessing game with no credible indicators. Some of the unsuccessful presidential candidates even sent one of their two vice president nominees to both camps just to be on the safe side. Whether this was intentionally planned to be like this or not, for the people it truly was a miracle to see a fragile state like Afghanistan have no predetermined or fixed election results. It is safe to conclude that the Afghans as whole learned from the process and are now encouraged to believe that their votes could make a difference despite all odds.

It is yet to be seen how the President, the "Senior Prime Minister" and the "junior" Prime Minister will approach this uncommon alchemy of governance in Afghanistan and if they will stay united. With the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with U.S., however, and a win-for-all conclusion to the election crises, things seem to be on the track in Afghanistan, at least for now.

I am also not able to determine if the people that lost their lives for this elections were winners or losers. Their fate will be decided by how these leaders approach statebuilding in Afghanistan.

Note: Shairf Azami is a Program Officer at the Fetzer Institute. These views are his own.

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