Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in his final speech to the Wolesi Jirga (Parliament) on 15 March 2014, took a strong stance warning foreign countries against interfering in the upcoming presidential elections, asserting that local electoral bodies and Afghan Security Forces were fully capable of ensuring the safety and integrity of the election. However, with the elections set for 5 April 2014, Karzai’s reassurances have done little to help growing fears about the security, and ultimately, the legitimacy of the elections.
In order for elections to be considered free and fair they require inclusivity, transparency, credibility and legitimacy. In Afghanistan, the challenges of state-building have been paramount and the country continues to grapple with inefficient government institutions, particularly those at the sub-national level, weak rule of law in the majority of the provinces, growing poverty and lack of sustainable development, and rising levels of violence. To guarantee that the presidential elections in Afghanistan will be free and fair under these conditions is naive to say the least. How can inclusivity be expected in the elections when there are only 12 million registered voters out of approximately 27 million citizens? And when registration of voters in remote and insecure districts has remained well below those living in major city centres?
How can transparency be ensured in the elections when public officials have been seen directly supporting and rallying for candidates, even allocating government resources to their preferred candidates? How can the credibility of the elections be ensured when the majority of the population continues to lack basic knowledge of their civic rights as the Independent Election Commission has lagged in extending its civic education activities to all parts of the country? Moreover, how can credibility be expected when the majority of voters remain uninformed of candidate platforms since campaign offices and activities have been kept out of supposed high risk areas in provinces such as Helmand, Nuristan, Kunar, Zabul, Oruzgan, Paktika and Khost? These issues will undoubtedly culminate and call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections if they continue unmitigated.
Ensuring security is also a critical determinant. The Ministry of Interior recently reported that 408 polling centres, out of 7,168, have come under significant security threats. So far, there are reportedly 62 districts in 15 provinces that face increased levels of violence. According to the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), districts in Balkh, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Parwan, Kapisa, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Khost, MaidanWardak, Jawzjan, Sari Pul, Kunduz, Paktia, Takhar and Faryab are considered high security risks. TEFA fears that such threats will prevent residents from casting their ballots (‘Insecurity to bar voters in 62 districts: TEFA’, Pajhwok Afghan News, 9 March 2014). Moreover, The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), which is the largest institution observing the elections, reported in its ‘First Observation Report on Campaign Process of 2014 Presidential Election’ that insecurity, at the hands of the insurgency, has been the main worry amongst campaign workers.
The Taliban have warned that they will ‘use all force’ to disrupt the elections. In a statement released to the media on 10 March, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called the elections ‘an American conspiracy’ and told all Afghans to reject the elections and stay away from polling Since the commencement of election activities, camping-related attacks have become common, with several attacks and assassinations carried out. How then can the ANSF be expected to guarantee the safety of voters, candidates, election observers, election personnel and polling stations? Most importantly, how they be expected to ensure the integrity of the elections? In the absence of security, polling stations will not only become vulnerable to insurgency attacks but also to rigging and ballot-box stuffing, as was witnessed in the 2009 presidential elections.
The upcoming presidential election and its potential to establish a legitimate government hold paramount importance to Afghans from all ethnic, religious and professional backgrounds. As such, all eyes are on the elections, with many acknowledging that it is improbable to expect a completely free and fair process. Yet they hope that its results would at least reflect the aspirations of the majority. This for Afghans denotes a successful election which would mark the first peaceful transfer of power from an incumbent to an elected successor and ensure continued international support and aid. On the other hand, an unsuccessful election would be one that sees the majority of the population rejecting election results and opposing the new government which would then lead to a loss of international support, threaten the future of democracy in the country and potentially give way to internal violence.
With the withdrawal of foreign troops drawing nearer, and the transition of security and economic responsibilities falling on Afghan shoulders, the absence of a political consensus around the election will invariably cloud the future of the country.