Unresolved Afghan election could undercut U.S. efforts

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 22, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghazni province had half an election in September. Ethnic Pashtuns stayed home, thanks to intimidation by the Taliban insurgency. A rival group, the Hazara, went to the polls in droves, seeking political power as an antidote to their historical repression.

When the voting and nonvoting was over, the Hazara had swept all 11 parliamentary seats from the volatile province in southeast Afghanistan, according to the still preliminary results.

While it might seem like a local power struggle to most Westerners, the election results in Ghazni threaten to further undercut the U.S.-led mission to stabilize Afghanistan and hand over control to Afghan security forces by 2014 as agreed at a NATO summit last week.

Barred from parliament, Ghazni's Pashtuns are warning that their people will have little choice but to move closer to the Taliban, a Pashtun-dominated movement.

"The final results of the Ghazni election will further deteriorate the security of the province and more Pashtuns will support insurgent causes," Kheyal Mohammad Hussaini, who wasn't re-elected to the parliament, said by telephone from Ghazni.

What happened in Ghazni is in dispute. While Pashtun candidates say their votes were stolen, there's little doubt that polls in the province were among the messiest of a very messy campaign.

Nationwide, 1.3 million ballots, about a quarter of the total, were disqualified. Reports of ballot stuffing and payoffs were rife.

The vote took place more than two months ago, on Sept. 18, but final results aren't expected until later this week at the earliest.

In Ghazni, a province of about 1.1 million people famous for its Islamic shrines, 115 out of 272 polling centers failed to open or had their results invalidated, said Fabrizio Foschini, of the private Afghanistan Analysts Network. The vast majority were in Pashtun-dominated districts. In one district, Andar, only three votes were tallied, Foschini said.

For Afghans who often risk their lives "on a daily basis, you want to do it for something more worthy than an election" that isn't considered valid, he said.

"On a local level, it will be a huge propaganda issue," Foschini said, with the Taliban telling local Pashtuns who were kept out of government, "You must be with us."

A Western diplomat said such fears are overblown. He said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun who complained publicly about the Ghazni results, is likely to balance the outcome by appointing Pashtuns to top provincial posts.

The diplomat, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, also said that Afghanistan's watchdog Electoral Complaints Commission did its job by disqualifying fraudulent votes. "The system worked."

Daoud Sultanzoi, who was among the Pashtun incumbents who went down to apparent defeat, sees it differently. Sultanzoi, whose family has represented Ghazni since Afghanistan established its first parliament 70 years ago, said thousands of his votes were wrongfully quarantined.

At 12:45 a.m. on Sept. 19, Sultanzoi said, an election official called him, telling him he'd been re-elected. Less than seven hours later, he said, the same official told him: "I don't know what to tell you. They've removed all your votes from the database."

The one clear outcome of Ghazni's election is political empowerment — to the extent Afghanistan's parliament has power — for the Hazara. They trace their lineage to Genghis Khan, and have long been marginalized and brutalized by the country's other ethnic groups.

The election was a chance for recoupment for the Hazara, who supported Karzai in his disputed re-election last year, only to see promises of more government appointments go unfulfilled.

The Hazara benefited from a system in which the top 11 vote-getters province-wide — three seats were reserved for women — were elected. They're loath to give up their gains, dismissing suggestions for a re-vote in Ghazni.

"Our people accepted democracy and accepted elections, so we should accept the results of the elections as well. . . . People have decided who should be their representatives, and who should not," said parliamentarian Shah Gul Razayee, a delicate white shawl draped over her head and shoulders.

Non-Pashtuns, she said, should be able to represent Pashtuns.

Ali Akbar Qasimi, who likewise was re-elected, said there's no legal basis for a re-vote and, and with no security in Pashtun areas, it wouldn't help. "If the Pashtun candidates cannot go to the districts, and talk to the people . . . no matter if they hold the election again, they won't be elected again," he said.

The disputed parliamentary vote has garnered far less attention in Washington than last year's presidential election here. But analysts said it could further set back attempts at democracy.

"Now everybody says parliament won't matter. . . . It's bad, because the parliament was actually starting to have some cohesiveness" as a check on executive power, Foschini said.

(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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