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.
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.
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.
"Democracy is not a religion, and elections are not a religious festival. Democracy – or to be more precise – representative government, is a potential way of improving the quality of governance," he wrote. "For everyone but those elected to office, and paid as a result, its legitimacy depends on two things: First, the effectiveness of the actual government, and second, the evidence that it is the most successful option."
Dr. Cordesman criticizes what he sees is an undue focus on the quality of the process – how much fraud there was, did turnout rise or fall? Attention is better paid, he argues, to the quality of the parliament produced and its powers.
"So far, the primary answer of what the legislature actually does may be that it is a well-paid forum in a secure area that offers opportunities for patronage, and is dominated by Afghan power brokers," he writes. "To put it bluntly, the legislature's merits to date have been roughly the same merits as Mark Twain's talking dog: What is important has not consisted of what it has said or done, but rather the fact it could talk at all. Will this election make any difference? Any positive answer is at best uncertain."
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is the name of the NATO mission in Afghanistan that General Petraeus now heads. The mission's own metrics show that more than half of Afghanistan's roughly 390 districts have very poor to almost nonexistent government when it comes to providing public services. Whether the next parliament – which is probably months away from being formed – will do a better job is an open question.
The election itself? Over 1,000 polling places didn't open because their regions were too dangerous for voting. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent monitoring group, said that the Taliban either blew up or seized polling places in seven provinces and that its own observers were attacked in four other provinces.
Observers around the country reported double voting, made easy by supposedly indelible ink for voters' fingers that in fact was easily washed off – supporters of local candidates simply locking themselves into polling stations and filled out ballots as they saw fit, intimidation by warlords on the ballot (despite earlier promises that men with militias would be disqualified) that kept supporters of rivals away from the polls, and the violence that plagues many parts of the nation.
Afghan authorities said national turnout was about 40 percent – roughly the same as the fraudulent presidential election last year that returned President Karzai to power, and well below turnout in the first presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and 2005.
But that number may be high. Martine van Bijlert, a longtime Kabul resident who works at the Afghan Analyst network, writes that the turnout number was arrived at by dividing the number of votes cast by the number of ballots distributed – rather than the traditional method of dividing votes cast by the number of eligible voters.
Ms. Van Bijlert writes that 3.6 million votes were cast in this election, by far the lowest of the four elections held since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. The first presidential election in 2004 saw 7.4 million ballots cast, and the first parliamentary election in 2005 saw 6.4 million. This election's total was 43 percent lower than the last parliamentary election.
"The declining trend signifies several things, most prominently a growing disillusionment and disengagement with the process, and the impact of a worsening security situation; but also factors such as a decrease in the number of ballots distributed (during the first presidential election 18 million ballots were printed) and a decrease in the number of polling centers. Basically there were less opportunities to cast ballots – either through a genuine vote, or through the various forms of electoral fraud," she writes.