Some of Afghanistan’s wiliest politicos outsmarted themselves in last fall’s parliamentary elections. As usually happens in that part of the world, they committed massive fraud to ensure that their allies would win seats. But — and this is what sets Afghanistan apart — the fraud was detected and corrected by Afghanistan’s own Independent Election Commission, which threw out about a quarter of the ballots and disqualified a number of candidates who thought they were entitled to seats.
The result was that Pashtuns, who are the dominant group politically, actually wound up being underrepresented. President Karzai, himself a Pashtun, was hoping he would have a solid parliamentary majority that would allow him to amend the constitution so he could run for a third term in 2014, but instead wound up facing the prospect of a parliament that would not do his bidding. Karzai then created an extra-constitutional court to review the election results and threatened not to seat the parliament on schedule — even though the election results had been duly certified by the Independent Electoral Commission. A potentially explosive situation was thus created that pit Pashtuns against other ethnic groups.
This led the U.S. and our NATO allies to come together to tell Karzai that he had better seat the parliament–or else. The same message was delivered to the president personally by the winning candidates. So, lo and behold, Karzai has now backed down and agreed to seat the parliament after all. The message of the story? Perhaps we should adapt Winston Churchill’s saying about Americans to Afghans: they eventually do the right thing but only after exhausting all the other alternatives. I do think this shows that Karzai is far from irrational or intractable; he was trying to juggle competing concerns and ultimately came down on what is, I believe, the right side.
The larger message is that holding elections in a war-torn country is not necessarily a smart idea. In Iraq, elections only exacerbated ethnic tensions without conferring any real legitimacy on a government that could not control its own territory. Much the same effect has been visible in Afghanistan, with the added complication that the elections have highlighted the pervasive corruption of the Afghan political class. There ought to be easier ways to choose a parliament, perhaps through a loya jirga — a grand assembly of elders. But at least the Afghan government has muddled through this crisis. For now.