Ballots, bullets and choices

Carlotta Gall reports:

April 12, 2009

Allies Ponder How to Plan Elections in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Inside the office of the Afghan interior minister is a map showing that nearly half the country is a danger zone. Ten of Afghanistan’s 364 districts are colored black, meaning they are under Taliban control, and 156 are colored to indicate high risk.

The map raises a difficult question: How, in such an environment, can Afghanistan hold countrywide presidential elections in less than five months?

This is difficult, not just politically, but ethically, because we’re talking about holding an election that will absolutely get some people –election workers, voters, likely both– killed. If the Taliban have their way, this could be an especially bloody election. That some people will die is a given, but how much blood is too much?  And how can a calculation to this effect even be made?

During the 2005 parliamentary elections, the joint disarmament and electoral commissions had to OK candidate disqualifications, and the former chose to allow a lot of people usually referred to with some combination of the words “war,” “lord” and “criminal”  stand for election. The idea was to let  these individuals run so they wouldn’t retaliate during or after the elections, to bring in potential spoilers and tie their futures to that of the legislature.

Only thirty-four potential candidates were disqualified based on ties to illegal armed groups. Violent reactions from even these thirty-four were anticipated but never materialised, suggesting that the disarmament commission might have been too cautious and squandered an opportunity to keep some real bad guys out of the new legislature. Then again, what if the commission had gone in the opposite direction and there had been widespread violence and chaos?

This time around will be no easier, given that this will in every respect be a wartime election, and a not a post-conflict one.

On the political front, poorly-timed elections can be disastrous and drain legitimacy from new and weak institutions. If a huge swath of the Afghan citizenry is disenfranchised, the winner of the election will have a weak democratic mandate, representing not the the choice of the country at large, but rather only those areas where ballots could be cast. Afghanistan is already cut in two (at least) and an election in which the south can barely take part could make that division even starker and more of  an obstacle to future peace.

As things stand now, the elections will go ahead. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that violating the constitution and delaying the election would play into the hands of both a deeply flawed and increasingly embattled executive and an anti-democratic insurgency, but I also wonder if the potential worst case scenario for not delaying wouldn’t be even more disastrous.

Any thoughts? I’m an outsider looking in, with no answers.

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