Afghanistan election: Karzai win spurs plans to improve governance

The long-drawn Afghanistan election ended Monday with Hamid Karzai declared the winner. Some experts lay out options that could reduce the president's powers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Afghan President Hamid Karzai gestures as he heads to receive UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday.
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The Afghan elections have officially ended, and President Hamid Karzai will hold on to his office for five more years, the election commission declared Monday after rival Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of the race.

The fraud-ridden saga has diminished the stature of both Mr. Karzai and the international community in Kabul, and the result brings no mandate but instead raises further proposals for forcing more government accountability.

The talk among Afghan and Western experts ranges from preparing immediately for next year's Parliamentary elections, to rewriting the constitution, to scrapping elections altogether in favor of an "enlightened dictatorship."

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One researcher whose work involved 170 recent interviews with voters in different districts of Kabul says these elections have not killed the democratic spirit.

"There was still very much a desire to be a part of this global movement to participate in government, but it needed to be defined in an Afghan context instead of a Western one," says Anna Larson, a researcher on governance with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul and author of a new study to be released tomorrow on the election. "The ideal system that seemed to come out from our respondents was a system whereby Islamic values were combined with a democratic system of selecting a government."

Hope for democracy

She notes that, though "Islamic values" are not universally defined, in general the concept denoted concerns – especially among the educated elite – that enfranchising a majority of Afghans who are young and uneducated could unleash the "unlimited freedom" of Western democracy and leave few safeguards for traditional religious and social mores.

As for the conduct of the elections, her interviews revealed that Afghans worried less about macro questions of fraud and influence-peddling, which they had assumed would take place anyway, and more on technical concerns about whether the ink was really indelible and the malfunctioning of hole punchers on election day.

Such problems, notes Ms. Larson, should be avoided by preparing immediately for the upcoming parliamentary elections this April.

"We need to start preparing earlier, getting the mechanisms in place earlier, to prevent the extent of corruption we saw this time," says Larson. One of the reasons for the last-minute preparation for this year's elections had to do with sluggish funding from donor countries, she adds.

Among the Afghan elite, there's at least some sentiment that democracy isn't the way to go for now.

"I think that we need a strong leadership composed of the enlightened people – we need an enlightened dictatorship," says an Afghan newspaper editor who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Democracy did not help us. Democracy means they are bribing people in the street."

Keeping Karzai in check

Then there are calls to move in the opposite direction, away from the current system of a strong presidency toward one that shares more power with the Parliament. This idea could gain momentum as the international community ponders another five years with Karzai as a partner.

Making such changes would involve calling a constitutional loya jirga – essentially an Afghan version of a constitutional convention.

"I think a constitutional loya jirga is way overdue," says Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, based in Islamabad, Pakistan. "The flaws in the constitution need to be removed."

One such flaw: The Independent Election Commission charged with running the elections is not independent because the commissioners are all appointed by the president, with no oversight by the Parliament.

Tweaking the constitution through the loya jirga has its problems, however.

"A loya jirga will be composed of the people who are now in power, and the same idea will go forward," says the Afghan newspaper editor.

Then, too, there are concerns – familiar to Americans who routinely vote down constitutional conventions – that convening such a forum would open a Pandora's box of suggested revisions that would involve lengthy debate.

Sharing blame for flawed election

Finally, the power to convene the jirga falls to the president, except in impeachment scenarios, and it's unlikely Karzai would see this to be in his interests. However, Ms. Ahmed and other observers argue that the international community must be more forceful with Karzai to get changes in governance.

"There should be a clear message sent that what Karzai has done is totally undemocratic and unacceptable," says Ahmed. At same time, she adds, the international community should not try to escape blame for what has happened: "Remember who paid for the elections. If you are paying for an electoral process that you know is so deeply flawed, surely there is responsibility attached to the internationals in making sure there is as credible a process as possible."

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Abdullah pullout from Afghan runoff sows new doubt over legitimacy. Read more here.

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