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Afghanistan Braces for Parliamentary Elections: Q&A with Rand Corporation’s Olga Oliker

September 15, 2010

Afghans are set to vote in the country’s second parliamentary elections on September 18, when close to 2,500 candidates will contest the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. In Asia speaks with Rand Corporation Senior International Policy Analyst and Truman National Security Project Fellow Olga Oliker about what’s at stake, election day security, lessons learned, Afghanistan’s new generation of leaders, and more. Ms. Oliker recently spoke on an Asia Foundation-sponsored panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on the subject of Afghanistan and women.

Q: Human Rights Watch warned last week that Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections could be “severely compromised” because of insurgent attacks on candidates and poor government security. What is your reaction to this prediction?

I think that’s a very realistic warning. The August 2009 presidential elections were marred by violence and threats of violence. The result was that large numbers of Afghans stayed away from the polls. The low turnout, the violence, and the widespread allegations of fraud contributed to a poisonous atmosphere that called into question the credibility of the election. This time around, we have already seen violent acts meant to intimidate candidates, their supporters, and voters as a whole. One response has been to close certain polling centers – ones that presumably it is felt cannot be secured. This, of course, was also done last August.

Q: How important are these elections? What is at stake?

These elections, like all elections in Afghanistan and other countries transitioning (or trying to transition) toward a more democratic system, mark a test of the institutions that will make that system possible. Successful, transparent, accountable elections indicate a certain maturity of the system, while the inability to hold such elections indicates how much work remains to be done and in what areas. While it is no secret that in Afghanistan electoral politics remain nascent – and it would be foolish to expect otherwise at this stage, as it often takes decades for a real political process to develop – the ability of insurgents to keep people from running and voting is a deeply sobering indicator. Similarly, if there are reports of substantial fraud, as there were last year, so as to indicate that no progress has been made, the credibility of the developing system will be called into question. All this said, we must also bear in mind the simple political reality of these elections, as they will put in place a new parliament – a new set of legislators that can play an important role in an evolving Afghan government. The last parliament, for example, backed President Karzai on some things and blocked him on others, which is how the balance of power is meant to work. When the Afghan people are able to elect legislators that can represent their interests in government, and are able to see those legislators debate policy and have a real impact, it marks genuine progress, of a necessary but not sufficient sort. Finally, it is worth noting that with a substantial number of younger candidates, this election has the potential to bring a new generation of leadership to positions of real influence in Afghanistan.

Q: What lessons did the Karzai administration and/or the international community learn from last year’s presidential elections that will be critical as this election unfolds?

Despite the significant violence of last year’s presidential elections, Afghan security forces were able to coordinate fairly effectively in their efforts to provide election security. I think that is one of the small successes of that election – while they were not able to provide the level of security desired, what they did do was effective and professional in many cases. It is to be hoped that this can be repeated and improved upon. It will also be interesting to see how international and Afghan officials and analysts discuss any allegations of fraud that may emerge, as such discussions were paramount in the aftermath of the presidential elections. Because of the large numbers of candidates and electoral districts involved, such allegations will take on a local flavor very different from the battles of last year. More importantly, large-scale allegations of fraud (and allegations of large-scale fraud, for that matter) in this election that mirror those of the last election could further damage the credibility of Afghanistan’s electoral system, and call into question its ability to make progress and learn from mistakes.

Q: In the lead-up to the elections, some of the 406 women candidates have reported increased threats against them, and last month, 10 campaign workers for female candidate Fauzia Gailani were kidnapped – five bodies were later found dead. In a country where women already face intense security and equality challenges, what does this election mean for them?

At a time when the interests and needs of women in Afghanistan are often shunted aside, and take a back seat to security, it is all the more crucial that individual women stand up and insist that they be counted among Afghanistan’s leadership, and that their voices be heard. Globally, evidence suggests that more women in government roles can help lower corruption and improve development, helping make sustainable security possible. In Afghanistan, where corruption is one of the country’s greatest blights, development one of its greatest needs, and insecurity a consistent challenge, women in leadership roles could really make the difference. However, every woman who runs for office or takes on a prominent role in Afghanistan is in danger – she and her family can be and almost certainly will be targeted by intimidation and even violent attack. The courage that the women who stay in the race show cannot therefore be overstated. Women political leaders in Afghanistan are real heroes – they are taking on tremendous personal risk to fight for their people.

It is also important to note, incidentally, the importance of making it possible for women to vote, as well as run for office – safe access to the polls and security at the polls are important for both women and men, but the challenges are different for women and men and the specific problems that make it difficult for women to vote need to be addressed. For example, female poll workers and security personnel are needed. How well Afghan election authorities handle these challenges will be another test of commitment and capacity.

Q: There is much debate over the strength and independence of the Afghan-led Election Commission which oversees election logistics. For the outcome of these elections, how important is the Afghan people’s perception that these institutions can deliver free and fair elections?

Indeed, the current parliament fought the president on the makeup of the Electoral Complaints Commission (the elections watchdog agency), demonstrating how an independent parliament can work. The extent to which the Afghan people feel that their votes matter is critical to their belief that their government can work, which, in turn, is the most crucial component to the government’s success. While elections in Afghanistan are highly unlikely to be free and fair by any western standard, progress toward greater transparency and accountability to the people of Afghanistan is of fundamental importance. If the people of Afghanistan do not feel their vote matters, then they will not feel that the effort to build democracy in their country is working. Again, this is a matter of a necessary but not sufficient condition – elections do not make a democracy. Indeed, one can take important steps toward developing democracy well short of national level elections. But once such elections are announced and held, it becomes critical that they continue and improve.

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