Afghan President Hamid Karzai kicked off his re-election campaign with a September 12 press conference in Kabul. Many of his opponents or their representatives have also begun to carry their messages to various provinces (VOA, September 12).
Despite the full-throttle campaigning, there are questions about the fundamental legitimacy of the October 12 election itself. Can the balloting really be free and fair if there is no guaranteed security or international monitors? This question became more prominent when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that it would not send a delegation to observe the Afghan presidential election. The OSCE has monitored elections in East Timor, Cambodia, and Bosnia, but it considers Afghanistan too risky for its representatives to carry out “meaningful” observation activities (BBC, September 1).
An OSCE observer team is important for at least two main reasons: First, foreign monitors scrutinize the balloting to establish the credibility of the election itself. As the first of its kind in Afghanistan, the October 12 election will establish a standard for future elections. Second, the government formed through this election will need the approval of foreign observers to establish its credibility. Karzai suffers from the latter problem.
It is widely believed that the Karzai government lacks a popular mandate. He first came to power on the basis of the Bonn agreements. Later he was “elected” by the emergency Loya Jirga (grand assembly) as the interim president. Given the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, both selection processes are questioned by people who consider Karzai’s government to be foreign-installed. This time around, the winner needs to be elected in a free and fair election in order to earn legitimacy. Already there is speculation that the United States overwhelmingly favors a Karzai victory. If he is elected as the next president without a foreign seal of approval, no matter how free or fair that election actually is, the legitimacy of his government will remain in question.
Aside from independent, impartial foreign observers, there are several local and international foundations that could provide suitable evaluations of the election process. A newly formed Afghan body called “Free and Fair Election Foundation for Afghanistan,” hopes to observe the more secure polling stations, located in the centers of some of the provinces. Due to a lack of security and resources, it cannot and will not observe all the polling stations across the country. The Asia Foundation will send a small team, but it will also be limited in its size and coverage (Pak Tribune, September 2).
The lack of security that deters international observers equally applies to the local participants. If the situation is not safe enough for foreign observers, how could it be safe for the voters and candidates? Quite a large portion of the country is not safe for traveling, and voting is not welcome in many places. In some provinces, such as Uquzgan, merely carrying a voter registration card is sufficient reason for assassination. In other regions, such as Nangarhar, women are discouraged from participating, and female election registrants have even been killed.
The UN deputy representative in Kabul, Filippo Grandi, recently acknowledged that voter intimidation and insecurity are rising in Afghanistan. While presenting a report jointly prepared by the UN and Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) at a press conference, Grandi specifically mentioned that the southern, southwestern, and eastern parts of the country are rife with “intimidation.” He also noted the population’s limited knowledge about the electoral process. The report recommends a “massive information campaign” to inform people about free elections, including the use of secret ballots. “Lack of information,” according to Grandi, “plays in the hands of those” who are against the election. He argued that election observers need to be present “in order to deter abuses” (VOA, September 5).
The UN-AIHRC report says that even the most basic conditions for a democratic election may not be present. In an interview with the BBC, AIHRC chair Dr. Sima Samar said that both voters and candidates are being threatened by powerful individuals. Furthermore, she says that some political parties are hesitant to announce their platforms due to their fear of reprisals (BBC, September 6). Already the chief justice of the Supreme Court has condemned Latif Pedram, one of the more outspoken candidates, for blasphemy. Specifically, Perdram had questioned polygamy in Islam and said that having more than one wife violates the rights of women. The Supreme Court has asked the Joint Electoral Commission to remove Pedram’s name from the ballot (Hewad, September 2).