Afghan Elections: Corruption Could Again Thwart Democracy

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Majid Saeedi / Getty Images

Afghan women vote at a polling station for the parliamentary elections on Sept. 18, 2010

Afghanistan should be the exception to the aphorism that democracies get the governments they deserve. Last Saturday, around 4 million Afghans braved bombings, violence, ambushes and threats to cast votes in parliamentary elections marred by a wave of Taliban violence that helped make the turnout the lowest in the four polls staged in Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster. But for what did they take those risks and, in a number of cases, sacrifice their lives?

Reports of widespread fraud surfaced even before polling stations closed for the day. One district received its specially designed, transparent and tamper-proof ballot box, but no ballots, indelible finger ink or even pens. In another district, observers were locked out of the polling station, where they watched through the window as election officials frantically filled out ballots in the name of their candidate of choice. Many stations never opened at all due to security reasons. Would-be voters milled around the predesignated centers, wondering if their ballots were being filled out elsewhere in the area by the same local power brokers who engineered the insecurity in the first place. In the days leading up to the elections, says candidate Mahbouba Seraj from the remote eastern province of Nuristan, "men were coming up to me with bags of voter-registration cards for sale." The prices ranged from $5 to $10 apiece.

When Seraj, a first-time candidate, registered this summer, she told voters that she would never buy their votes but that she would work for them. Now, after having observed the chaos unfurling throughout Nuristan on election day, she realizes that she was being naive. "It was total anarchy. Everybody was trying to manipulate this election."

With roughly 10 candidates running for each of the 249 seats in parliament and untold millions of dollars being spent on campaigning, illegal vote-buying and other fraudulent electioneering practices, it's not hard to imagine that the prize — a seat in a largely toothless legislature — is worth more than the $2,200 monthly salary and a security detail. One of the unintended consequences of widespread reporting of corruption in the Afghan government is that increasing numbers of Afghans are seeking a slice of the pie. Unchecked corruption is an indication of deep-seated pessimism about the future. Long-term investments are too risky when the Taliban are closing in, the Americans are eyeing an exit, and the government itself has given up all pretense of looking out for the people. A parliamentary seat certainly doesn't guarantee corruption — many candidates, like Seraj, appear to have run for office out of a genuine belief in democracy and a desire to help — but it can be assumed that a candidate willing to spend $10 a vote intends to recoup the loss once in power.

Still, if Afghans are guilty of short-term thinking, they are simply following the example of their Western benefactors. For the past nine years, the U.S. has approached the war in Afghanistan as if the mission could be accomplished within six months. That's resulted in shortcuts like alliances of convenience with regional power brokers who have consistently preyed upon the very populace the U.S. military is trying to win over to the Afghan government's side. In the name of security, the U.S. has all too often looked away when those allies dabble in drug smuggling, corruption and human-rights abuses. NATO allies are looking into fast-tracking talks with the Taliban in pursuit of a quick deal that would hasten the withdrawal of their troops from a war that has become deeply unpopular back home.

Afghanistan will continue to be a bleeding ulcer, to paraphrase the saying of former U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal, who was talking about one of the country's recent battlegrounds, until we start making the difficult decisions. That does not mean, necessarily, a continuing military engagement or an immediate withdrawal. Nor does it mean ditching President Hamid Karzai because we simply can't get along with him anymore. We will have to work with him and his government until democracy in Afghanistan is strong enough to allow Afghans a real choice in leadership. Karzai's critics have long feared that he would intervene in the parliamentary elections to ensure a rubber-stamp legislature. If that turns out to have been the case, it would be a slap in the face to those who risked or gave their lives in support of Afghans' right to choose their own government.

Fixing Afghanistan requires a long-term commitment to strengthening institutions that build security from the ground up and adhering to the rule of law no matter how inconvenient the consequences. It means holding our partners responsible for their actions and scrupulously ensuring that U.S. funds go to the communities for which they are intended rather than the pockets of warlords. And most important, it means investing for decades in education. Call it offensive nation-building. "At the base of democracy is education," Seraj told me. "If people cannot read or write, they cannot make informed decisions." She was fuming with rage over the conduct of the elections. "By bringing in democracy too soon we are opening the doors to corruption even wider than ever."

The long-term implications of institutional corruption, she warns, are manifold. For the past six years — since the election that instituted Karzai as President, rather than interim leader — Afghans have been asked to put their trust in a system of government that has repeatedly failed them. They deserve better. And Western security interests aren't served by avoiding the difficult choices because a corrupt and self-serving regime is hardly likely to prevail against extremists.