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Bombs, bullets and ballots in Afghanistan

Holding an election now, amid the violence of war, is fraught with risk. But not holding one would be worse.

August 07, 2009

Holding an election in a country at war is always a risky proposition, but perhaps more so in developing Afghanistan, where 70% of the population is illiterate, voter registration is problematic, and ballots for presidential and provincial council races reach remote areas by donkey. Taliban insurgents active in nearly half the country have called for a boycott of the Aug. 20 vote, a message they drove home this week with a rocket barrage on Kabul, the capital. Many Afghans who are fed up with the corrupt and ineffective government they got when they chose President Hamid Karzai in the first post-Taliban election five years ago wonder if voting is worth the risk this time. And yet an assessment by the independent International Crisis Group is correct that the "least bad option" would be for the Afghan government to proceed with the election on time and to try to ensure as credible a result as possible.

Despite widespread public frustration, Karzai is the front-runner in a field of about 40 candidates, and he is hoping to avoid a runoff by attracting more than 50% of the votes. That is, if the election happens; many Afghans fear Karzai will postpone it. Such worries are fueled by polls showing Karzai has lost ground to former government ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, and by rising violence around the homeland of his fellow tribesmen from the Pashtun ethnic majority. Yet postponement is unlikely -- Karzai is smart enough to know that halting the election for lack of security would reflect badly on his government, and cocky enough to believe he can win despite these hurdles.

Karzai was seen as Washington's favored candidate in 2004, and many Afghans believe the Obama administration would have prevented him from running again if that weren't still the case. In fact, U.S. officials have cooled to Karzai and made a point of meeting with other candidates as well. U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry asserted "absolute impartiality" and pledged that the U.S. government will work with whichever candidate wins.

The main challenge of the election will be to limit fraud and convince Afghans that the process is legitimate so that they keep coming back to the polls. An estimated 17 million people are registered to vote, though the number is questionable because of apparent duplications and seemingly inflated rolls of female voters in conservative areas that traditionally discourage women from participating in public life. British officials predict that about 70% of voters will be able to safely cast ballots, while U.S. officials hope a preelection military offensive will provide security for a higher turnout. With few international observers to monitor the polls, it will be up to the candidates' supporters to watch for fraud in the voting and ballot count. Given all the uncertainties, the best outcome for building confidence in fair elections might be for Karzai to end up in a runoff. That might help convince Afghans that they, not Washington, picked the winner.

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