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Are Afghanistan elections hurting democracy?

US officials are calling the Afghanistan election for parliament a success, even as fraud allegations mount.

By Staff writer / September 21, 2010

An Afghan election worker marks a ballot box at the warehouse of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP

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Official results from the Afghanistan parliamentary election are still weeks away. But with fraud allegations pouring in, anemic turnout from the most violent parts of the country, and doubts about the Afghan power structure's willingness and ability to rein in the corruption, grim assessments of the election are already being made.

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According to the Electoral Complaints Commission, it has already received about 3,000 complaints of wrongdoing in the weekend poll despite onerous reporting rules for citizens, chief among them the fact that anonymity isn't allowed in a country where political assassinations are common.

To be sure, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is urging patience, saying it's too soon to judge the success and utility of the poll. Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander for the Afghan war, said over the weekend that "the people of Afghanistan sent a powerful message" to the Taliban.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan election

But the exact content of that message was unclear. That's partly because of confusion over what polls are for. Though newspaper articles and commentators frequently argue that "successful" Afghan elections are "crucial" for stability, focusing on elections in isolation may put the democratic cart before the horse.

Best face on fraud?

I spent July in Afghanistan. In conversations with Western diplomats, Afghan election officials, and independent monitoring groups, it seemed everyone acknowledged that significant fraud was going to be inevitable in this election. The diplomats working with the NATO coalition there tried to put the best face on it, suggesting that elections were a good in and of themselves, because they said they would help get the Afghan people used to the forms of democratic politics, even if the governance outcome was largely the same.

The outsiders were more cynical, worried that fraud-marred elections to create an ineffective parliament amounts to a kind of democracy theater. In the critical view, such elections can convince people that democracy isn't for them.

In functioning democracies, elections are important because they choose leaders that are both responsive to constituents and have some power to improve those constituents' daily lives. But Afghanistan's parliament – or Wolesi Jirga – has been largely a legislative afterthought in its five years of existence. MPs hold few levers of power at the national level, and at the local level have been almost completely absent in addressing constituent concerns.

As Ben Arnoldy reported from Kabul on Monday, few Afghans expect that the new parliament will be much different, particularly in checking the initiatives of President Karzai, whose administration has been plagued by corruption allegations and investigations since its inception.

Democracy: one way to improve governance

Anthony Cordesman, a past director of intelligence analysis for the US secretary of Defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, addressed this issue on Monday.

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