Commentary Magazine


Topic: elections

The Challenge for Afghanistan’s Next Leader

Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

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Afghanistan’s election Saturday was a triumph–but we should not exaggerate its likely impact. Granted, it was inspiring to see so many Afghans, an estimated 7 million of them, braving the threats of the Taliban to exercise the franchise. This was a grassroots endorsement of democracy and a rebuke to anyone who thinks people in Afghanistan or other poor countries are indifferent to how their government is selected. To the contrary, Afghans desperately want a say in selecting their leaders–as the election so powerfully demonstrated. 

That the Taliban failed to disrupt voting, moreover, was a tribute to the Afghan security forces, 350,000 strong. They had the lead role in protecting ballot booths and they seemed to have performed very capably.

But let’s not get overly euphoric. Recall that in Iraq President Bush welcomed each election which took place, claiming that the very fact of voting would help to restore order and allow American troops to leave responsibly. It didn’t work out that way. In fact in Iraq elections reinforced, rather than resolved, sectarian divisions.

How things work out in Afghanistan remains far from clear. Now that ballots have been cast, there is a major challenge to count them fairly. Fraud is still possible in the counting stage. Beyond that there is the paramount issue of who will emerge on top in the voting. 

The three leading candidates are said to be Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and Zalmai Rassoul. All three men, who have served at various times in Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, are qualified for the top job and reasonably friendly to the United States. All three have indicated they will sign the Bilateral Security Accord that Hamid Karzai negotiated. But there is a huge question as to whether any of them will be up to the job of improving one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional governments on the face of the earth and defeating one of the most potent insurgencies in the world.

The success or lack thereof of this election is ultimately going to be judged not based on whether the balloting was reasonably fair (although let us hope that it has been), but on whether the resulting government can get results for the people–namely to improve the abysmal delivery of services and to curb rampant corruption. The fact that all three leading candidates for president have had to cut deals with warlords to get ahead suggests it will be tough for any of them to break with the corrupt power structure which has looted the country over the past decade and driven many ordinary Pashtuns into the arms of the Taliban as the less-corrupt alternative. But maybe, just maybe, there is a Konrad Adenauer or Alvaro Uribe lurking in the mix.

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Predicting the Outcome

Predicting the outcome of elections is big business. In the early days it was left to political professionals who would rely on their gut instincts to “feel” how  the campaign was developing. This is not dissimilar to Wall Streeters who can “read the tape” to sense which way particular stocks will move. In the mid-20th century scientific polling developed, but with occasional spectacular failures. The Literary Digest poll in 1936 predicted an Alf Landon victory over FDR. Landon carried only Maine and Vermont. Everybody was wrong about the outcome of the 1948 election, epitomized by the picture of a triumphant Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its premature headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

In recent years, Intrade has allowed people to bet real money on the outcomes of elections, in effect measuring the gut instincts of the many. It currently has Obama’s chances at 57.3 percent and Mitt Romney at 42.3 percent.

And, of course, political science professors try as well to read the tea leaves. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia is probably seen more often on television than other professor. He currently has the race at 237 electoral votes safe, likely, or leaning to Obama, 206 to Romney, with 95 in the tossup category.

Two professors at the University of Colorado, Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry, have developed a prediction model based not on polling or gut instincts, but on economic factors in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia:

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Predicting the outcome of elections is big business. In the early days it was left to political professionals who would rely on their gut instincts to “feel” how  the campaign was developing. This is not dissimilar to Wall Streeters who can “read the tape” to sense which way particular stocks will move. In the mid-20th century scientific polling developed, but with occasional spectacular failures. The Literary Digest poll in 1936 predicted an Alf Landon victory over FDR. Landon carried only Maine and Vermont. Everybody was wrong about the outcome of the 1948 election, epitomized by the picture of a triumphant Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its premature headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

In recent years, Intrade has allowed people to bet real money on the outcomes of elections, in effect measuring the gut instincts of the many. It currently has Obama’s chances at 57.3 percent and Mitt Romney at 42.3 percent.

And, of course, political science professors try as well to read the tea leaves. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia is probably seen more often on television than other professor. He currently has the race at 237 electoral votes safe, likely, or leaning to Obama, 206 to Romney, with 95 in the tossup category.

Two professors at the University of Colorado, Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry, have developed a prediction model based not on polling or gut instincts, but on economic factors in each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia:

According to their analysis, President Barack Obama will win 218 votes in the Electoral College, short of the 270 he needs. And though they chiefly focus on the Electoral College, the political scientists predict Romney will win 52.9 percent of the popular vote to Obama’s 47.1 percent, when considering only the two major political parties. . . .

“What is striking about our state-level economic indicator forecast is the expectation that Obama will lose almost all of the states currently considered as swing states, including North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida,” Bickers said.

You can take this for what it’s worth, but I will point out that this model has correctly predicted the outcome for every presidential election beginning in 1980.

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The Crumbling Spectacle of Putin’s Russia

The absurdity of this weekend’s Russian presidential election began in earnest on Sunday, when a Twitter account claiming to be that of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted at an identical Twitter account claiming to be that of Michael McFaul, accusing the latter of being fake. One of the two accounts obviously was fake, but it was difficult to tell. The real account’s name is @McFaul; the fake one used an uppercase “i” at the end. On Twitter, the two letters are identical.

But the scene–in which the real McFaul tweeted at the fake McFaul “This is a false account. You all obviously know I dont write that well in Russian!”–was the bizarre beginning to a bizarre election day. The fake account even tweeted some early criticism of the Russian elections, leading a pro-Kremlin television anchor to criticize the American interlopers who apparently didn’t even have the decency to wait until the elections were over to cast doubt on the process.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, 2012.

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The absurdity of this weekend’s Russian presidential election began in earnest on Sunday, when a Twitter account claiming to be that of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted at an identical Twitter account claiming to be that of Michael McFaul, accusing the latter of being fake. One of the two accounts obviously was fake, but it was difficult to tell. The real account’s name is @McFaul; the fake one used an uppercase “i” at the end. On Twitter, the two letters are identical.

But the scene–in which the real McFaul tweeted at the fake McFaul “This is a false account. You all obviously know I dont write that well in Russian!”–was the bizarre beginning to a bizarre election day. The fake account even tweeted some early criticism of the Russian elections, leading a pro-Kremlin television anchor to criticize the American interlopers who apparently didn’t even have the decency to wait until the elections were over to cast doubt on the process.

Welcome to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, 2012.

The rest of what took place yesterday, however, wasn’t quite so entertaining–though it was just as typical of what Putin has wrought:

And yet, all day Sunday, Moscow was flooded with news of violations in the city. In part, they were the result of more eyes. In many cases, the violations were so blatant that no pair of eyes could miss them. Instead of limiting themselves to the quiet tricks they’ve used before — stuffing ballot boxes before the voting begins, pressuring people at work to vote for Putin, fudging the numbers on the election protocols after the election monitors have gone home — whoever was in charge of the operation almost seemed to have made a conscious decision to go flagrant. Fleets of buses — workhorses of the carousels — clogged Moscow’s center. Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused in, their cities of origin plastered on the windshields, to vote. (The busing got so bad that, at mid-day, the head of the Moscow Election Committee had to issue a clarification: they were just giving people rides to the polling stations, he said.)

Elena Panfilova, the director of the Russian branch of Transparency International, reported a large mass of voters with absentee certificates — which allow you to vote outside your precinct — from faraway Tambov showing up at her precinct in suburban Moscow, where she worked as an observer. These absentee certificates were this election’s great innovation, giving the Kremlin armies of voters freed from their place of residence, and therefore making it impossible to make sure they only vote once. It seemed to be a massive plan: the Central Election Commission ran out of the certificates well before the elections started. There were 2.6 million of them.

The point of all this flagrant ballot fixing was to ensure Putin received more than 50 percent of the vote (he was eventually credited with 63) to avoid a runoff. A runoff would put Putin on par with his “rivals.” I put “rivals” in quotation marks because of another facet of Putin’s Russia: he wasn’t really running against anyone. Sure, there were other candidates. In addition to independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, Putin beat out Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This was the most highly anticipated Russian presidential election since 2000, when Putin beat out Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the more liberal-leaning Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

That election enabled Putin to officially succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin, who himself had an action-packed presidential election in 1996, in which he beat out… Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Grigory Yavlinsky.

It’s safe to say, then, that most of the non-Putin votes were protest votes. And speaking of protests, as I write this about 14,000 people have piled into Pushkin Square in Moscow, and many more are expected to show up for today’s protests. The scene–and it’s still early, as Sean Guillory, who tweeted this picture, notes–looks something like this:

Expect that crowd to grow. As I said last week, Putin is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy, in which not even the comfortable, educated middle class are interested in his authoritarian circus. The election was an embarrassment to them–as were December’s rigged parliamentary elections, as are the Kremlin’s puerile pranksters, who are believed to have been behind the fake Twitter shenanigans. Luke Harding says the question for those in Pushkin Square is “how to bring about the end of the regime?” A better question might be, how to facilitate the crumbling that has already begun?

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