Not so fast, Karzai

Meet the Canadian who uncovered fraud, and sent Afghanistan back to the polls

Not so fast, KarzaiFor much of this fall, the most pressing question in world affairs—preoccupying leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—was how to sort out the messy aftermath of Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 election. As charges of massive voting fraud mounted, so did the stakes. Would Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, be allowed to cling to power under a cloud of suspicion that he’d cheated his way to victory? How badly would such an outcome undermine already flagging support in Europe and North America for ongoing military sacrifice in Afghanistan? Near the centre of the controversy and uncertainty was a disarmingly low-key Canadian, whose job was to tell Afghans, and the world, if the election had been stolen or not.

From his manner, Grant Kippen, chairman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), seems an unlikely sort to play such a pivotal part in an international crisis. In the crowd of flamboyant Afghan politicians and big-ego diplomats dispatched to Kabul, Kippen stands out by standing back. Seemingly unflappable, doggedly methodical, he guided the ECC through weeks when many observers doubted that the results of its investigation would be allowed to carry the day. Speculation swirled that Karzai would be permitted to triumph no matter what—a suspicion that suddenly looked more than plausible when Peter Galbraith, a U.S. diplomat, was fired from a top United Nations job in Afghanistan after charging that his UN superior was biased in favour of Karzai.

But, in the end, even Karzai accepted the ECC’s finding of widespread fraud, which forced the now-planned Nov. 7 runoff vote. If he feels vindicated, Kippen doesn’t deny he also felt the heat along the way. “You can easily get caught up in all sorts of discussions, and rumours are always rife in a place like Afghanistan,” he told Maclean’s. “But to us at the ECC, the critical success factor was just making sure we did our job.”

Given half a chance, Kippen tends to direct an interview about that job back to the dry terrain of checklists and procedures. But he knows from experience that in Afghanistan, and other new democracies, refereeing a vote means adjusting to the unexpected, not just following a rule book. He’s been a trusted figure in Afghanistan since 2003-2004, when he travelled the country in a grey Toyota minivan, working for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, teaching the basics to fledgling political parties. He oversaw the complaints process after the 2005 Afghan parliamentary elections, before going on to serve in similar roles in places like Pakistan and Moldova. When preparations began for Afghanistan’s crucial summer 2009 presidential election, all that experience made him a natural choice to return to head the UN-mandated ECC.

The backdrop for the Aug. 20 vote was rising Taliban violence and declining global credibility for Karzai. Back when he won Afghanistan’s landmark 2004 presidential election, his reputation abroad, particularly in Washington, was burnished. Karzai was the face of democracy in a country that was supposed to be a good news story, compared to violent Iraq. Five years later, though, bloodshed in Iraq had abated, at least temporarily, while a revived Taliban insurgency and a corrupt regime in Kabul made Afghanistan look like the bigger problem. Still, Karzai was seen as the front-runner in the summer campaign.

And the first reports on the Aug. 20 vote seemed to confirm that his grip on power remained secure. Preliminary results from the Afghan government’s Independent Election Commission said he’d won 54.6 per cent of the vote, far more than Abdullah Abdullah, his top rival. But the IEC is viewed as having a pro-Karzai bias by groups like Human Rights Watch. And Kippen’s ECC, which is independent of the IEC, quickly started receiving a flood of fraud complaints. By early September, he was travelling to the provinces of Kandahar, Ghazni and Paktika to look into charges of rampant cheating. Kippen declared there were “obvious irregularities.”

How tough his ECC would dare to be, though, was a matter of debate. Americans and Europeans were worried about what would happen if the vote was shown to have been hopelessly crooked. At a high-level meeting in Paris on Sept. 3, envoys from 27 countries and agencies agreed to stay neutral in public on the election outcome. But officials also reportedly emphasized the need for Karzai to repair his image—not the possibility of another vote. Kippen sidesteps questions about any pressure he might have felt. “All I can say is that we were very determined to do our job regardless of what the overall environment was,” he says. “We had to come back to the fact that we had a very specifically and narrowly defined mandate under law.”

That mandate was to get to the bottom of complaints—everything from stuffed ballot boxes to hundreds of votes being registered at polling stations where few voters turned out. But with thousands of complaints filed, the task facing the ECC staff of about 300 appeared overwhelming. In rough terms, Kippen says, out of about 25,000 polling stations in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, returns at around 3,000 looked suspicious. After consulting with international players and the Afghan political actors, he settled on a statistics-based approach to auditing the results.

Ballot boxes from a sample of about 300 suspect polling stations would be hauled to a Kabul warehouse and opened, with plenty of Afghan and international observers watching. Everything from the seals to the ballots themselves would be inspected. Had the boxes been tampered with? Did the marks on ballot papers look so much alike that they must have been made by one or two fraudsters, rather than hundreds of voters? The findings of the audit would be extrapolated across the whole election. If Karzai’s popular vote dropped below 50 per cent, the ECC would order a runoff vote.

Figuring out exactly how this complex process would unfold left plenty of room for suspicions to mount. Personalities far more forceful than Kippen’s came into play. On Sept. 30, the UN fired Galbraith after he accused Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, the UN special representative to Afghanistan, of playing down the seriousness of cheating by Karzai’s backers.

Yet even in this moment of high drama Kippen didn’t pre-empt the ECC audit process by commenting publicly on the extent of fraud. “He didn’t get sidetracked into all the other debates,” says Leslie Campbell, regional director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute’s programs for fostering political reform in the Arab world. “He just kept his eye on the ball—the fairness of the election and the integrity of the vote.”

It was Campbell—another Canadian who works on spreading the practical skills that make democracy happen—who had first recruited Kippen to help train political parties in Algeria and later Afghanistan. Before then, Kippen was a fixture in Ottawa, having worked as an aide in Pierre Trudeau’s Prime Minister’s Office and as director of organization for the Liberal party. Campbell said Kippen’s understated manner is suited to countries where locals might resent being dictated to by outsiders. “Grant doesn’t have the arrogance,” he says, “that a lot of UN officials and other international officials seem to carry.”

But that doesn’t mean Kippen is a push-over. On Oct. 19, the ECC announced that nearly a quarter of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent and another vote would have to be conducted. Planning for the runoff vote on Nov. 7 began almost immediately. Kippen slipped away for a few days’ rest in Dubai, his first break since he came back to Kabul last January, other than a holiday last June in Greece where he was joined by his wife, who has remained at their home in Ottawa, and his two university-student sons.

Kippen, 54, says the ECC work has been “a meat grinder” and the cause of “many sleepless nights”—but he still hasn’t run out of optimism about Afghanistan. “To listen to the stories people tell, what they’ve endured,” he says. “Everything from being kidnapped and tortured, to being threatened, to suffering great family tragedy. They are resilient and keep pushing forward. They want security, they want opportunities, a chance to have a decent job, for their kids to grow up and be educated. It’s very inspiring.”

Asked about his daily routines in Afghanistan, he touches matter-of-factly on dangers, and light-heartedly on very modest pleasures. The threats have worsened: five years ago he drove around Kabul in an ordinary van; now he needs an armoured vehicle with personal security guards. He likes a ravioli-like Afghan dish called mantou, but also stocks up on big cans of Tim Hortons coffee when he visits the doughnut shop at the Canadian military base in Kandahar.

He’ll oversee the ECC’s investigations of the inevitable complaints likely to flow from the Nov. 7 runoff vote. Then he plans to return to Ottawa, perhaps in December. As for the future, he says he hopes to remain involved in some way in Afghanistan. Those who know his work say he’s needed. “Over the last five years,” says Scott Gilmore, exectutive director of the non-profit organization Peace Dividend Trust, “Grant has quietly been one of the most influential Canadians working in Afghanistan.” Quiet, yes. But after he played an indispensible role in this fall’s election turmoil, no longer unnoticed.

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