Analysis: Flawed polls weaken Afghan leader's grip

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his credibility shattered after two deeply flawed elections in a year and the West’s patience worn thin, could unwittingly guarantee the end of his decaying government by insisting foreign troops leave.

Karzai’s government faces a crisis of legitimacy after a presidential vote in August 2009, in which a third of his votes were thrown out as fake, and a parliamentary election in September again hit by “considerable fraud.”

Final results were declared last week in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces but a new parliament is unlikely this year and prosecutors are investigating dozens of fraud cases.

Analysts paint a grim picture of a floundering government, at once reliant on the West and eager for foreign troops to leave, and of allies increasingly frustrated by corruption and shoddy work building democratic institutions.

“The Karzai administration has pretty much expended all of its political capital,” International Crisis Group (ICG) senior Afghanistan analyst Candace Rondeaux told Reuters.

All this comes at a time when Karzai has asked U.S. and NATO leaders, who have propped up his government with billions of dollars in aid, equipment and cash since 2001, to start drawing down their troops and end combat operations by 2014. But that could spell Karzai’s end.

“Without outside support, the Karzai government would collapse, the Taliban would control much of the country and internal conflict would worsen, increasing the prospects of a return of the destructive civil war of the 1990s,” the ICG said this week in a bleak assessment.

Such considerations will weigh heavily when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews his Afghanistan war strategy this month, as will rising casualties and doubts about the readiness of Afghan security forces to take over.

“The international community has been very elastic about the process of democracy in Afghanistan, and it is a good question how far this can be stretched before the whole pretext snaps,” said Norine MacDonald, president of policy research group the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).

Hopes of a peaceful, negotiated settlement and the rebuilding of Afghan institutions like the judiciary and security forces shattered by three decades of war grow fainter by the day.

“With his legitimacy in question and his hold on power more tenuous by the day, Karzai now spends much of his time juggling the competing interests of his family, regional commanders, wealthy powerbrokers and international stakeholders,” the ICG said in its “Afghanistan: Exit vs Engagement” report.

“This precarious balancing act in which corruption and patronage reign supreme has neutralized the president’s potency and hindered government reform,” it said.

That description of Karzai was mirrored by diplomatic cables, released this week by Wikileaks, which described Karzai as “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts.

Karzai, once regarded as essential, is now seen as a liability, ICG says, although Washington still supports Kabul’s “kleptocratic elites” for short-term intelligence purposes at the expense of long-term capacity building.

Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, are caught in the middle.

“There is no question there is an interest in Afghanistan in elections at the grassroots level, and in the younger generation,” ICOS’s MacDonald told Reuters.

“At the same time, those who strain to retain power will not hesitate to manipulate the process to legitimize their grip, and the international community does not have the political will or skillset to outrun them,” she said.


The September 18 election is a case in point. Final results were due on October 30 but were delayed while a U.N.-backed election watchdog pored over thousands of complaints.

Election officials had already thrown out almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast. They said last week a new parliament might be formed within a week but that seems a distant hope.

Several of Karzai’s ministries are being run by caretakers after the last parliament rejected some of his cabinet picks. Confusion reigns in Ghazni, the province where instability and technical issues meant final results weren’t declared.

“Despite all the pushback on fraud after the presidential elections, we see again a fundamental question being raised about the legitimacy of the entire parliamentary structure,” MacDonald said.

“As a result one can credibly say we have a presidency, a cabinet and a parliament with fragile constitutional standing at best,” she said.

Ghazni is an interesting paradigm of the wider electorate.

For now, the sitting 11 Ghazni MPs are keeping their seats until the mess is sorted out, but the process has left Karzai’s government looking unrepresentative and an unworthy partner.

The current MPs include six Pashtuns -- the country’s biggest ethnic group of which Karzai is a member -- and five ethnic minority Hazaras. Before results were put on hold, it appeared all 11 winners in Ghazni would be Hazaras.

“Any manipulation or engineering with our votes will bury democracy and legitimacy in Ghazni forever,” said Abdul Qayum Sujadi, one of the 11 “successful” Hazara candidates.

Some say each Afghan election is worse than the previous one and that Washington and the United Nations, in particular, were just happy to put it behind them.

“The message is clear and by now a familiar one: ‘The process was messy, it has been dealt with, everybody move along now, there is nothing to see here’,” said Martine van Bijlert of Afghanistan Analysts Network.

Karzai’s tenuous grip on power also suggests much-vaunted peace talks with the Taliban are doomed. Karzai and NATO officials have said preliminary contacts have been established.

“An enduring negotiated settlement is not likely unless the government that makes the deal has a greater degree of legitimacy and more internal resilience than the Karzai administration currently has,” the ICG said.

Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jonathan Thatcher