Hamid Karzai Didn't Need to Steal the Election

Relations are quickly fraying between Kabul and its allies over what appears to be President Hamid Karzai's outright election theft. The Obama administration has told him not to declare victory, the U.N.-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has called for a partial recount, and good-government watchers are professing disappointment. Karzai is hardly the first president to want a victory badly enough to cheat. But the confounding thing is that he hardly needed to: he would have won legitimately even if he hadn't.

It's hardly clear—and we may never know—whether Karzai issued the vote-rigging orders himself, or whether the president's overzealous henchmen merely perpetrated the fraud on his behalf. But in any case, reports (from poll watchers, ECC investigators, and concerned citizens) show that he benefited from widespread vote-rigging. Karzai's provincial officials—from governors to district heads and police chiefs and their allied local warlords—are thought to have engaged in ballot-stuffing, intimidation, and other fraudulent shenanigans, particularly in the largely ethnic Pashtun south and east of the country, where the president, also an ethnic Pashtun, should have been the favorite son. The ECC has received more than 2,500 complaints of electoral irregularities, some 700 of which it deemed serious enough to affect the election's outcome.

So it was no surprise when the vote tallies began rolling in. This week the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, the body that organized the Aug. 20 vote and is largely seen as being pro-Karzai, announced a sweeping victory for the incumbent. With 92 percent of the votes counted, he had captured 54 percent, just shy of the 55 percent he won in the country's first-ever presidential election in 2004. His nearest opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, won 28 percent. As a result, the U.N.-sponsored ECC announced this week that its investigation had discovered "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," and the group ordered a partial recount in polling stations where more votes were cast than the expected number of voters. It also said it had already discarded 200,000 fraudulent votes. Clearing up the mess and declaring a winner could take weeks, commission officials say.

It's true that the widespread reports of tampering at the provincial and district level were not the only reason to doubt the validity of Karzai's rather easy romp past the magic mark of 50 percent of the vote—which allowed him to avoid a second-round runoff with his nearest challenger. Most Afghans agree that he is simply not that popular anymore. He certainly is not the same fresh and promising candidate who won the race handily five years ago. Back then, most Afghans had high expectations for the future and saw him as a unifying figure who could deliver foreign aid, security, and development. But his political fortunes have dipped drastically since then. His popularity has suffered as many Afghans accuse his government of mismanagement, if not incompetence, corruption, cronyism, and failure to deliver what he had promised.

Yet most Afghans would have voted for him warts and all, seeing no viable, unifying alternative in a country split along ethnic and regional fault lines: a preelection poll by a U.S.-government supported last group month put Karzai ahead of Abdullah, 44 percent to 26 percent. Abdullah, an ophthalmologist by trade, is too closely associated with the ethnic Tajik Northern Alliance militia that fought in the early 1990s Afghan civil war that laid to waste to much of Kabul. (Its senior commanders, now warlords, still control northern Afghanistan, Abdullah's main support base.) Karzai, too, cleverly chased those northern ethnic voters by striking morally questionable electoral alliances with the former Northern Alliance commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik who ran as his vice presidential candidate, and with notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. He also cut similar deals with the other main minority group, the Hazaras, promising cabinet posts and provincial appointments, the carving out of new provinces, and even a new portrait (of a Northern Alliance commander) on the Afghan currency. Those alliances put Karzai, the scion of a Pashtun tribal leader, in a strong position. As the incumbent who dominated television time and the Afghan with the most name recognition, he was essentially a sure thing for a second-round runoff victory.

But apparently that wasn't good enough. Seeing their lucrative jobs and perks on the line, Karzai's minions in the field decided not to leave anything to chance. They were not about to allow a relatively free and fair vote in which Karzai, the tarnished incumbent, would have to win in a second-round matchup with Abdullah, whose popularity had been rising. The Taliban's brutal intimidation campaign in the south and east played into the hands of Karzai's anxious officials. With voters largely staying home out of fear, or perhaps even disinterest, and with electoral monitors frightened away, the field was wide open for officials to stuff ballots into the boxes of polling stations that saw few voters, or that hadn't opened, or didn't even exist, except on paper.

Karzai may not have been privy to his officials' plans. But the fact that he was unable to control their actions on Election Day says a lot about his ability to lead the country against an emboldened Taliban insurgency and a host of security, governance, social, and economic woes. If Karzai's officials can't deliver the Afghan people a legitimate election, it's no wonder that they can't deliver what most Afghans want most: security, good government, justice, and development.

Instead, what could have been a clean, if not easy, second-round victory for the president is turning into a political embarrassment of major proportions, further tarnishing the credibility of his administration and, in Afghan eyes, of democracy writ large. The American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, told Karzai bluntly this week: "Don't declare victory." Indeed, a premature victory speech while the opposition is still crying foul could raise the ugly and destabilizing specter of Abdullah's angry and disappointed followers taking to the streets to protest what they see as a stolen election. But now that Karzai has a first-round victory seemingly at hand, it will be hard, if not impossible, for the U.S. and its allies to the urge him to do the right thing and accede to a runoff. It's a pickle he never had to get into.