Inside the United Nations’ Kabul offices, senior officials have coined a phrase for how they are approaching Afghanistan’s September 18 parliamentary elections and the ongoing vote count: “constructive ambiguity.” The term, critics of the UN’s stance say, indicates that the organization is giving up on the Afghan democratization process.
By all appearances, the September 18 parliamentary elections, just like last year’s presidential vote, were tainted by ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks. Since polls closed two weeks ago, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has received over 3,000 complaints. Roughly half of them, according to election officials, could potentially impact the outcome of MP races. Preliminary results are expected on October 8 and final results by the end of the month.
Prior to the election, foreign political observers held up the parliamentary vote as a crucial democratization test. Now that it’s clear that this legislative election didn’t mark much of an improvement over previous votes, the international community seems satisfied to merely acknowledge the “achievement” of the vote being held, given the growing level of violence in the country associated with the Taliban insurgency.
A diplomat familiar with UN thinking lauded the “constructive ambiguity” approach, saying it gave the UN needed flexibility. It allows the UN to quietly prod the Afghan government to act more responsibly and transparently, while enabling the organization to keep its hands clean in a messy process, the diplomat explained.
The term can also be used to justify a hands-off approach to the ballot-counting process. For the first time in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban history, the UN is not taking responsibility for the vote’s credibility, or the conduct of an independent assessment. This position on the parliamentary vote tally stands in sharp contrast to the presidential elections in 2009, when the international community focused on the extensive ballot fraud (1.5 million votes out of a total of 3.6 million were cancelled in the end). Ultimately, disagreement over the seriousness of the electoral fraud during the presidential election prompted a shake-up of the UN’s top leadership in Afghanistan.
The fallout from 2009 also soured relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community. The president, according to insiders, is said still to be holding a grudge for being forced by donor states to prepare for a second round of polling. (The second round never actually took place, as Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew before polling day).
This time around, the UN, which leads the international community’s involvement in Afghan elections, apparently thought it expedient to be quiet. Back in April, the new head of the UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Staffan de Mistura, certified the merit of Afghan government plans for making elections more credible and transparent and recommended to donors to release funds for the electoral process. However, this time -- unlike the comprehensive monitoring it carried out in 2009 along with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) -- the UN declined to involve itself in monitoring the parliamentary balloting.
“There is a very strict rule which exists,” de Mistura told EurasiaNet.org on September 14. “If you are part of organizing elections and supporting the organization of the elections you cannot be part of the monitoring and observation. In other words, we start having what is called a conflict of interest.”
Asked about the monitoring role in 2009, de Mistura said “that was a mistake last year. The rule is if you are part of organizing it, supporting it, you are not part of observing it.” De Mistura also suggested that other international observer missions were ineffectual, adding, “By the way, foreigners do not speak the language.” Domestic observers are more appropriate, he stressed.
Most donor nations took a hint from the UN. Long before the process began this year, Western diplomats based in Kabul made it clear that their governments would not say anything critical of the elections. In particular, the EU, which deployed a high-profile 10 million-euro observation mission during the 2009 presidential election, merely sent an election assessment team (EAT) this time around. The EAT was widely seen as under-prepared for its task and is not expected to make a public assessment on the conduct of the voting.
Moreover, immediately following the controversial presidential election, the international community conditioned its financial assistance for the parliamentary elections on the implementation of electoral reforms. But as the legislative voting approached, this demand was shelved and donor nations provided approximately $150 million in support.
In the eyes of Afghan democratization advocates, the UN’s constructive ambiguity stance is a disaster. The most respected domestic election observer mission, FEFA (Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan) urged the international community to play a robust role in the post-election process.
Specifically, FEFA said in a statement that the international community needed to “denounce identified acts of fraud, regardless of their perpetrator, and provide technical assistance to the ECC and IEC [Independent Election Commission] in verifying the results of the elections and carrying out investigations.”
While the donor community is providing these electoral bodies with technical and financial support, this assistance has not enabled adequate transparency in counting and fraud mitigation, making it difficult even for independent observer groups to gauge the credibility of the process, say analysts. De Mistura has tacitly sought to downgrade expectations by repeatedly stating the elections are likely to be imperfect because “we are not in Switzerland. We are in Afghanistan.”
Some non-governmental activists have equated the UN stance with an act of surrender. Commenting in the Afghan magazine “Killid” on October 2, Thomas Ruttig, co-director and senior analyst at the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent think-tank in Kabul, suggested that the popularity of the “Switzerland mantra” is “because the West is mentally on its way out of Afghanistan already” and the elections “were its farewell performance; it has decided to play a role in the wings only.”
At a September 16 news conference, Abdullah Abdullah, the defeated presidential candidate in 2009, hinted that the international community was trying to distance itself from a job poorly done. “They are aware of the shortcomings and they don’t want to be associated with it,” he said.
But Abdullah added that history would not forget the international community’s bungling. “To show a hands-off attitude will not lessen the responsibilities which the international community has toward the people of Afghanistan, or of member states towards their own citizens, because, after all, this election is also being funded by the money from the international community,” Abdullah said.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.