Can Afghanistan Hold A Clean Runoff Election? The August presidential election was so marred by fraud it has raised questions about whether Afghanistan can do much to make the Nov. 7 runoff a credible vote. The credibility of the Afghan government is at stake and the Obama administration has delayed a decision on whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan.
NPR logo Can Afghanistan Hold A Clean Runoff Election?

Can Afghanistan Hold A Clean Runoff Election?

Workers transport ballot boxes on a trolley to be loaded on trucks at the Independent Election Commission compound in Kabul. Taliban fighters have warned Afghans not to take part in the country's Nov. 7 presidential runoff election. Altaf Qadri/AP hide caption

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Altaf Qadri/AP

Workers transport ballot boxes on a trolley to be loaded on trucks at the Independent Election Commission compound in Kabul. Taliban fighters have warned Afghans not to take part in the country's Nov. 7 presidential runoff election.

Altaf Qadri/AP

Afghanistan is scrambling to prepare for a Nov. 7 runoff vote to resolve the political stalemate following the blatant rigging of the August presidential election.

But there are deep concerns among U.S. officials, international observers and many Afghans that the hastily arranged runoff will suffer from the same kind of outright cheating by supporters of the two candidates.

And there is even more alarm after an announcement by Afghan election officials on Thursday that they will boost the number of voting centers, rejecting United Nations recommendations to cut the number of sites to help prevent fraud.

Here's a look at what went wrong the first time, the challenges of cleaning up the process in such a short time period and why the United States is so eager for the runoff to work:

Was the August election really that flawed?

The short answer is, yes. The United Nations-supported Electoral Complaints Commission ended up throwing out nearly a third of the votes cast for Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the August election, citing "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."

Observers reported all kinds of shenanigans. In some areas, there were more ballots cast than the number of voters who were registered.

Perhaps the worst problem was the "ghost" balloting sites — polling stations that never officially opened, but still managed somehow to return large numbers of completed ballots.

Is this one going to be any better?

"It's going to be very difficult," says Thomas Garrett, the vice president for programs at the International Republican Institute, who has monitored several elections in Afghanistan, including the August vote. "Afghan elections are very complicated and tough to implement with months and months to plan."

The runoff will be simpler than the original election, which had 41 candidates on the ballot, in addition to provincial council races. This time, there will only be two — Karzai and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.

But the government is trying to organize the runoff in only 18 days. Karzai, after weeks of intense pressure from the United States and other countries, agreed to a runoff on Oct. 20 and set the vote for Nov. 7.

Why the rush?

The tight timetable was chosen because the Afghan winter, which is just beginning to set in, will make large swaths of the country nearly inaccessible by mid-November.

But Afghans and foreign officials alike are also anxious to resolve the outcome as soon as possible. The Obama administration has delayed a decision on whether to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan in part because of the uncertainty about the legitimacy of Karzai's rule.

Will the runoff change anything?

U.S. officials hope so. The scandal has cast doubt on the entire U.S. strategy of trying to build a credible Afghan government that can eventually take primary responsibility for security inside the country.

A cleaner election could be the first step toward rehabilitating an Afghan government tarnished by widespread corruption and incompetence.

"It is a question of perception," says one U.S. official. "If we can get to a more accurate result, the Afghan people could feel that the government is far more reflective of the views around the country. That will achieve the result we're looking for."

But given how flawed the first vote was, it won't be easy.

"You're certainly not going to have an outcome in Afghanistan that you can say represents the Afghan people," says Benjamin Barber, a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank based in New York. "You will get a rearranging of tribal and local interests that might or might not end up with the same victor."

So what are Afghan officials doing to fix the problems from last time?

The U.N. had advised Afghan officials to decrease the number of polling sites to help reduce the number of "ghost" stations. But Afghan officials have apparently rejected that recommendation, saying they will open slightly more polling centers.

The United Nations has also said that about 200 of the 2,950 district election coordinators will be replaced because of allegations of tampering or other misconduct, but election officials have not confirmed this.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials say the efforts so far to clean up the process seem serious.

"The sense is that they've stepped it up," says one U.S. official. "The capability of any institution in Afghanistan is always a question, but the will does seem to be there to make it a much better process than what happened last time."

Will they succeed?

Nobody is expecting the election to be perfectly clean. The best-case scenario is that the result will be clear enough for most Afghans to accept the winner.

U.S. officials also point out that the one positive from the August vote is that the post-election investigation of the rigging was very thorough and identified some of the worst trouble spots.

"On the positive side, we know what to look for," says one U.S. official. "We can go where we saw the infrastructure of corruption that existed to sway those results."

Of course, the cheating could simply become more sophisticated this time around as well.

"The rigging was done so poorly and clumsily that it was so detectable," says Alex Thier, who runs the Afghanistan and Pakistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "If anything, you might see better rigging. It will be interesting to see whether the civil society monitors doing the training can train people faster than the ones trying to rig the election."

Maybe both sides will simply be too embarrassed to cheat the second time around?

It's hard to say. The fallout from the first election could possibly shame the two leading candidates into behaving better.

"Neither wins anything if the overall process is delegitimized," says Patrick Merloe, a senior associate at the National Democratic Institute, which sent a team of observers to the August election. "The two people competing for power here have the most to gain from instructing their people and signaling to the public that they won't tolerate fraudulent behavior."

Then again, initially Karzai was clearly reluctant to engage in the runoff, and the level of cheating suggests that his supporters were not confident he would necessarily win a free and fair election.

Also, with only two candidates on the ballot, the stakes are even higher this time.

"There is strong reason to believe that this runoff will be even more flawed than the original election, because the rules are gone and they've taken off the gloves," says Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who advised the United Nations on previous elections in Afghanistan. "I'm concerned the incentives for malfeasance are even higher today than they were for the original vote."

How many people will be watching for fraud this time?

There will be a lot fewer election observers for the runoff. International election monitoring groups will have a much smaller presence because they will not be able to bring in large missions from outside Afghanistan.

"There is not enough time to mount the logistical operation to put people across the country as we did last time," says IRI's Garrett. "We worked on that for a long time and we can't really assemble that in two weeks."

Garrett says that IRI is still trying to determine how many staffers it will have on the ground, but it will be many fewer than the 30 international observers and 70 Afghan partners they had in August.

Similarly, NDI, which deployed more than 100 observers for the August vote, will not be sending a mission in November.

What about local Afghan monitors? Surely many of those who observed the August vote would be available again.

There will still be a sizable presence of domestic Afghan monitors, but it will be significantly smaller than the team from August.

U.S. officials say they expect the number of Afghan monitors to top 4,000, which is just over half the number who participated last time, and perhaps approach 5,000.

Even if everything works more smoothly, are the Afghan people ready to participate in another election?

Observers will be watching the turnout levels very closely. Only 38 percent of eligible voters participated in the August vote, which is well below the levels from elections in 2004 and 2005.

Some Afghans stayed away from the poll because of threats by the Taliban to disrupt the election, and security concerns are likely to be a huge factor again.

Others chose not to vote because they distrust the government in Kabul and the entire election process. They are not likely to be any more reassured this time around.