On September 18, over 5 million Afghan men and women braved Taliban threats to vote in their second-ever parliamentary election. More than 2,500 candidates, including over 400 women, contested 249 seats in lower house of parliament. The elections were a litmus test for Karzai to regain legitimacy after last year's fraud-marred polls and an opportunity for the Obama administration to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan that the president might springboard into justification for the withdrawal of 100,000 American troops stationed in the country.
The elections did not go smoothly. Massive fraud, low turnout, violence in Pashtun-dominated regions, and government interference have called into question the legitimacy of the vote. More than 4,000 formal complaints were filed with the U.N.-backed Election Complaints Commission (ECC), with more than half of those serious enough to affect the final results. On October 20, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results, canceling 1.3 million votes, discounting results from 650 voting centers, and ordering a recount of votes in 500 vote centers in all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
Afghan election officials continue to try to sort out the mess. On November 21, Afghanistan's election watchdog disqualified 19 winning candidates for alleged fraud, including seven close allies of Pres. Hamid Karzai, most notably Hashmatullah Karzai, the president's cousin, and Ahmad Wahid Tahiri, brother of Karzai national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta.
Ahmad Zia Rafat, spokesman for the ECC, told a press conference that the disqualified candidates did not have the right to appeal, and suggested other winning candidates might be disqualified. The disqualifications add to a string of controversies that have undermined the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections and have delayed the vote results for two months now.
Losing candidates continue to stage protest rallies in the capital and the provinces. Hundreds of disgruntled candidates have formed a new coalition, calling the vote "illegitimate and illegal" and warning of national protests if their complaints are not addressed.
Video and audio recordings documenting fraud and irregularities have appeared on Afghan television and radio networks. The latest and most significant was a secretly recorded telephone conversation in which Ismail Khan, former governor of Herat Province, said to an election official: "I hope that the next results you announce will be all of the people that I have named for you."
Government pressure on the ECC is increasing. The office of Afghanistan's attorney general issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the ECC to allow the body to investigate election complaints or it would suspend commission officials. The commission rejected the warning on the grounds that it would contravene the ECC's independence. (Article 156 of the constitution mandates that the ECC is the only authority responsible for assessing election complaints based on article 61 of the election law.) A commentary in opposition daily Jawedan read, "Country's Attorney General an Instrument to Pressure Independent Election Commission." Mohammad Yunis Qanuni, speaker of the lower house, said the parliament had "deep concerns" about the Attorney General's Office's interference. Western observers agree that Karzai is using the Attorney General's Office as a tool to change the results.
There are reasons for the Karzai administration to try to influence the vote results. The preliminary results indicate a shift of power in the new parliament. Pashtun candidates have lost perhaps 20 seats. In the majority-Pashtun province of Ghazni, for example, all eleven seats went to candidates from the Hazara minority. Security problems and poll closures in violent Pashtun areas may have undercut Pushtun representation. The current tally for Pashtuns elected stands at 90, making the country's largest ethnic group a minority in the 249-member lower house.
More problems may be on the horizon. Karzai may refuse to accept the results. There are rumors, denied by Qanuni, that Karzai struck a deal with Qanuni to discount the vote and reinstate Qanuni as head of the house for another five years. Other reports suggest Karzai may call for new elections in certain provinces where the turnout was very low or where security prevented voting. This may lead non-Pashtun candidates to boycott or resort to violence.
What does this mean for the United States? First, political instability may further complicate U.S. and NATO's plan to begin transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces next year; and, second, a parliament dominated by non-Pashtun minorities will also try to block Karzai's peace efforts with the Taliban.Ahmad Majidyar is a senior research associate at AEI.