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Troubling Questions About the Afghan Election

August 20, 2009

Afghans head to the polls today.

Christian Brose at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog outlines
a few worst case scenarios.

One worst case outcome is the Iran scenario — a disputed election result, allegations of fraud, and a drawn-out political fight laced with street protests and sporadic violence. This could be set off by either a narrow Karzai win or a suspicious Karzai blow-out (Ahmadinejad style). One could imagine days, even weeks, of protests by the losing candidates’ supporters demanding a recount, or a revote if none is declared, ultimately leading to an unpopular Karzai dispatching the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces to do battle with his political opponents under the banner law and order.

This scenario is bad enough, but it could get even worse. What if the Iran scenario turns into what might be called the Samarra scenario? That is, a single, shocking blow to the political body that exacerbates already fraught ethnic and sectarian tensions, sparks a paroxysm of violence and revenge killings, pushes the state to the brink of failure or beyond it, and pitches Afghan society into full-scale civil war — similar to what Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra did to Iraq in early 2006, when the resulting Sunni-Shia violence nearly sent the country over the cliff?

Today’s coverage of the election-day security situation in the Global Post begs a different question: what if hardly anyone votes?

Election day in Afghanistan began with a bang. Several of them, actually. Multiple IED explosions in Kabul caused little damage, but made the point that this time, the opposition was not making idle threats when they vowed to disrupt the elections for president and provincial council.

All over the capital, polling centers stood nearly empty.

“Maybe everyone is drinking tea, or sleeping,” said Abdul Mubir, manager of a polling centre in the Kart-e-Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul. “They may come later.”

Blaming low numbers entirely on security though strikes me as a straw man. A BBC World Service survey yesterday classified 63.5% of the country as “totally secure”; only 2.5% of areas are “totally insecure.”Assuming those numbers aren’t completely specious, and that turnout rates remain low, what else could explain this, and what does it mean for the legitimacy of the democratic process? And is this itself, indeed, not in some ways also a worst case scenario?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.