Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why have elections in Afghanistan?

How not impressive were the most recent elections in Afghanistan? Logistical difficulties and Taliban threats kept turnout probably well below 50%. Whole sections of the country, particularly the Pashtun south, barely got to vote at all. Women's participation plunged in an atmosphere of intimidation. Both candidates claimed they won in the aftermath. The main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed fraud. Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, had to stomp on women's rights to pull in Uzbek votes from the North, and get a human-rights-abusing Uzbek warlord to campaign for him.

And on top of this, since the latest reports have Karzai ahead with 42%, a runoff is in the offing, so we get to do the whole thing again in a few weeks!

Maria Kuusisto in Foreign Policy magazine argues that the fact that elections were held at all was "a positive development," but admits:

Karzai's reelection as president is unlikely to improve the Afghan government's effectiveness. Since 2004, Karzai has appointed a set of controversial politicians and warlords to influential federal and provincial positions, and given them a free hand to run their respective ministries and areas. This situation has prevented the implementation of urgently needed reforms and development programs, while fuelling mismanagement and corruption. Karzai is unlikely to be able to break free of this cycle -- of bad appointments and bad governance -- because he owes his reelection to the support of another set of political thugs.

As Nancy Soderbergh argued persuasively in her book The Prosperity Agenda, democracy promotion is nice but first it's critical to get a basic measure of prosperity on the ground. Holding an election for who shall run a government that can't control most of its territory, is ridden with warlords, and has few functioning institutions is a fairly futile exercise, doubly so if the population has no security and can barely even feed itself. Far better to pump those resources into strengthening Afghan institutions and prosperity, with the hope of more effective elections down the line.

UPDATE: Jean McKenzie on the NYTimes Op-Ed page argues the entire vote was a sham:

[I]t was intended to convince voters in New York, London, Paris and Rome that their soldiers and their governments have not been wasting blood and treasure in their unfocused and ill-designed attempts to bring stability to a small, war-torn country in South Asia.

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