Next steps after Afghanistan's run-off vote is scrapped

How will Karzai's win become acceptable—and what will be the steps to make sure the same farce doesn't happen again.

News that Afghanistan’s planned Nov. 7 run-off presidential election has been canceled after the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah, main rival to incumbent President Hamid Karzai, casts a new light on a story in this week’s Maclean’s about Grant Kippen, the Canadian who heads the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission.

The story tells about how Kippen, under intense pressure and world scrutiny, patiently investigated the Aug. 20 election, which Karzai initially appeared to have won. His ECC doesn’t run elections, but acts as a referee after the balloting when the inevitable complaints about cheating arise.

It was Kippen’s work that forced the Nov. 7 run-off by documenting extensive fraudulent voting, largely by Karzai’s backers. Now, with Abdullah’s exit, Karzai appears poised to cling to power without going through any process that lends his continued rule full democratic legitimacy.

Abdullah complained that Karzai refused to takes steps that would have made the Nov. 7 run-off fair. That would have included rapidly reforming Afghanistan’s so-called Independent Election Commission, the body that was in charge of the Aug. 20 fiasco. The IEC is headed by Azizullah Ludin, a Karzai appointee criticized by Human Rights Watch for, among other things, his obvious pro-Karzai bias.

Naturally, international attention is now fixed on the immediate steps needed to make Karzai’s win minimally acceptable. Some sort of power-sharing with Abduallah might help. But a longer view is also demanded to make sure the same dangerous farce isn’t acted out next time Afghans are called to the polls.

So here’s a suggestion, one that perhaps the Canadian government could promote: the untrustworthy Independent Election Commission that administers Afghanistan’s voting should be reformed along the lines of the trustworthy Electoral Complaints Commission that investigates after the fact.

The ECC is headed by two Afghans and three internationals. The foreign commissioners, including Kippen, are appointed by the UN. The numerical dominance of outsiders inevitably causes some resentment. (In fact, one of the Afghan commissioners quit last month, late in the ECC’s investigation of the Aug. 20 voting, when it became clear Kippen and the other internationals were serious about exposing fraud by Karzai’s side.)

It would be much better, of course, if Afghans could run their own impartial electoral agencies without direct UN oversight. But this round of presidential elections has proven that isn’t yet the case. Better then to acknowledge the need for neutral outsiders to take on prominent, if not dominant, roles in running Afghanistan’s voting for the next few electoral cycles. There’s just too much riding on establishing something approaching respectable democratic process to allow a repeat of the present shambles.

Kippen told me his ECC has been training many Afghans in the delicate work of looking into complaints after elections. The commission employs about 300, and just 18 of them are foreigners. Thus, the ECC might prove to be a training ground for impartial Afghans who could staff a full electoral apparatus in the future. As Canada looks for a practical role in Afghanistan beyond combat, this might be one promising place to focus aid aimed at building the Afghan government’s capacity to run its own show.