The news from Afghanistan is not good: “Karzai has 54% of Afghan vote as fraud claims rise.” That could allow Karzai to claim victory, although the Independent Election Commission wants to do a recount of disputed ballots that could take “two or three months.”
Given that our war in Afghanistan depends in part on establishing legitimate governmental institutions, this is a serious blow—but hardly a fatal one. To some extent, Karzai is the victim of rising and perhaps unfair expectations. Fraud has been around as long as there have been elections. Even in the U.S., it was not unusual, until quite recently, for party bosses and ward heelers to arrange the outcome of elections in smoke-filled rooms. Lyndon Johnson, among many other notables of American political history, never would have risen to the top had he not stuffed ballot boxes during some of his early congressional and Senate races in Texas—a sordid history amply laid out by Robert Caro in his magisterial, multivolume biography. Fraud is much less prevalent in the U.S. today, but it is still very much around.
In other parts of the world, the problem is much more acute. The U.S. is allied with a number of rulers—Hosni Mubarak comes to mind—who violate the norms of liberal democracy on a scale far beyond anything that has transpired in Afghanistan. Electoral fraud wasn’t even an issue in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, because regimes ruled by brute force. Certainly if anyone is worried about the future of Afghan democracy, Hamid Karzai is a pristine democrat compared with Mullah Omar. Afghanistan is to be commended for its achievement in holding two presidential elections since the overthrow of the Taliban. And this latest election was quite competitive, with candidates such as runner-up Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani actively campaigning and freely criticizing the incumbent without fear that they would be killed in retribution. In this part of the world, that should count as a substantial achievement.
And yet, fair or not, expectations have been raised in Afghanistan since 2001, to the point where it would be hard to imagine that Karzai could have any legitimacy if he were declared the winner based on results that were widely thought to be fraudulent. If Karzai is a true statesman with the future of his country uppermost in his heart, he should announce that he will refuse to assume another term based on tainted results and demand a second-round runoff with Abdullah Abdullah, while urging his followers not to commit fraud on his behalf.
I am not positive whether under Afghanistan’s law it would be possible to preempt months of recounting, but if it were possible to proceed to a runoff right away, that would clearly be in the best interests of the country. As we’ve seen in Iraq, periods of uncertainty and turmoil at the top (think back to 2006 when Ibrahim Jaafari was being forced out as Iraq’s prime minister but a replacement was not yet agreed on) only lead to greater violence and gains for the insurgency.