Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Preview of Tomorrow’s Election in Afghanistan

It seems like only yesterday we were previewing the heated elections in Iran that soon turned into chaos as demonstrators took to the streets in protest. In the end, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad controversially won.

While the results were disappointing to most in the world, it was interesting to see how the democratic system played out in the Islamic Republic.

Tomorrow there will be another closely watched election in Iran’s neighbor to the east, Afghanistan, where NATO forces have been fighting since 2001 and democracy is still in a very infant stage.

So we thought we would answer what could be some Frequently Asked Questions about the campaign in this distant land.

What Similarities Are There Between Elections in Afghanistan and America?

While this is only Afghanistan’s second presidential election - and the first ever truly contested presidential race - the top campaigns are using some tactics that Americans are very familiar with. They’ve had presidential debates, campaign ads on television and radio, and even campaign memorabilia.

While the top candidates - incumbent President Hamid Karzai, former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former Planning Minister Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani - have not been able to travel to many parts of the country for security reasons, they have been able to connect with voters through other forms of communication.

Television and radio are widespread, and many Afghans are paying close attention to the race with these media. Just take a look at this TV ad for the Abdullah campaign:

There has been some attempt to contact voters via telephone, but only about 5.5 million citizens have cell phones or land lines. That’s not very helpful considering over 15 million citizens are registered to vote this year.

And although internet is not widespread - less than a million Afghans have access to such technology - all three of the top campaigns have reasonably flashy websites that resemble those of our own politicians, complete with biography, issues, and - most importantly - contribution pages.

And some campaigns have taken the cue for “professionalization” of their campaigns by hiring political consultants. Ghani, for example, hired former Bill Clinton campaign manager, James Carville. The cajun consultant talked to Stephen Colbert about it recently.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Yes We Afghan - James Carville
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests

Finally, Afghan voters have one extraordinary characteristic in common with their American counterparts - they identify more with their country than their ethnicity, something not as common in other Islamic countries. Richard Sexton of relayed this poll in a post last week.

How Are Elections in Afghanistan Different?

There are a great number of differences between the U.S. system and the Afghan system. One of the more noticed peculiarities of the Afghan elections so far is how they’ve been moving ballots across the country. A few days ago it was reported that donkeys had become a significant source of transporting ballots to polling stations.

Meanwhile, one U.S. soldier writes a fascinating blog post about his time helping Afghan troops assisting the movement of ballots in the volatile northeastern region.

“…on our way to pick up the ballots yesterday, we got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we’re still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield. Armor is a good thing to have when the element of surprise is not on your side. The firefight was a nice way to welcome our recently-arrived replacements to the joys and adventures of life in Afghanistan.

We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don’t venture…and are not going to venture for this election. The Afghan National Police (ANP) refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case we’re not helping.”

In the end of the post, he writes “I’m just thankful I get to be here to see how this thing turns out.”

Another obvious difference is that it’s - for all intensive purposes - a four-way race. The winner tomorrow will have to secure a majority to avoid a run-off - something that doesn’t appear entirely likely based on the polls so far.

Even more significant, many voters don’t seem to want to change their support when a run-off comes.

Of course, depending on the events of the election, some voters may still change their minds.

What Threats Are There to the Election?

The most obvious threat is the possibility of violence. The Taliban has not only boycotted the elections, but they’ve been increasing their terrorist efforts to disrupt the democratic process. In fact, six poll workers have died since yesterday alone.

The other threat is corruption. Karzai supporters - including his half brother, Wali Karzai (head of the Kandahar province provincial council) and Sher Mohammad Akhundzada (a member of Afghanistan’s upper house) have not only been accused of involvement in the opium trade, but also of buying votes for the incumbent President.

While election observers will be on hand throughout much of the country, about 30% of the nation will not have observers because of security threats. Some say that after the results are tallied the situation could be similar to the aftermath of elections in Iran earlier this summer.

Who is Most Likely to Win?

The polls taken so far, and the media reports of corruption, seem to point to a Karzai victory - if not tomorrow then at least after a run-off. Sexton says that the polls might “better approximate the Afghan public sentiment than the results will” because of the corruption issue, but either way, it would appear Karzai will likely be the winner.

Of course, the polls might not be entirely accurate. After all, there will be over 15 million votes cast tomorrow, and only 5.5 million Afghans have telephones. So if other candidates stand to benefit from a higher proportion of voters without phone access, we could see a different outcome. We’ll really just have to wait and see.

Do you have any other questions about the election tomorrow? Leave a response with your question and we’ll try to answer it!

No comments: