Afghanistan: President Karzai Modifying Election Law in His Favor
A EurasiaNet Q & A with Grant Kippen, former Chairman of the Electoral Complaints Commission
President Hamid Karzai has taken action to substantially curtail the independence of Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission before parliamentary elections scheduled for this September.
The ECC gained prominence in 2009 after it uncovered widespread fraud during the presidential elections last August. Citing "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," the ECC forced the invalidation of over a million votes cast in favor of Karzai. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Though Karzai eventually secured reelection, the voting irregularities considerably damaged the president's image, as well as undermined the image of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In February, calling for the removal of "foreign interference" from the Afghan electoral process, Karzai used a loophole in the constitution to force through legislation that allows him to appoint all five board members of the ECC. Prior to the introduction of the new rule, the United Nations had appointed three of the five board members. Thus, the ECC essentially came under presidential control, a development that stands to significantly diminish its ability to play a non-partisan role in Afghanistan's democratic development.
The Canadian chairman of the previous ECC, Grant Kippen, a veteran of Afghan electoral processes, remained unflappable during the August elections despite "considerable domestic political pressure and interference" from Karzai's government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Now, in an email interview with EurasiaNet, Kippen, who is now in Canada, speaks out for the first time about his frustrations, describing government pressure and noting that the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC) did not follow the law.
EurasiaNet. What do you think was the contribution of the Electoral Complaints Commission to the electoral process and the credibility of the August 2009 presidential elections?
Kippen: For me personally, I think the greatest contribution to the process was that the ECC did its job properly as it is defined under the election law. We had over 3,000 complaints that were investigated and adjudicated during the elections process, which was no small feat. ? Contrary to how many people perceived the ECC, we were an Afghan electoral body where the vast majority of the staff were Afghans, which should be an enormous source of pride for the Afghan people.
EurasiaNet: The new electoral law introduced by President Karzai has a controversial clause that ends the right of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (the top UN official in Afghanistan) to appoint three members to the ECC and gives the president the sole right to appoint members. What is your view of this change? Will it impact the credibility of future elections?
Kippen: While it is important to recognize and respect the sovereignty of the government of Afghanistan to enact its own laws, it would be misleading to think that "Afghanizing" the ECC will automatically ensure a better quality complaints adjudication process. I think there are few people who would argue with the statement that there were serious problems with the electoral process last year. In order to address these problems, however, there should be an open, objective and public assessment completed about what went wrong. Only after that assessment can we properly identify the changes that should be made. Amending the election law prior to such an assessment is like putting a cart before the horse.
EurasiaNet: President Karzai argued that he was removing foreign interference from the elections in changing the law, pointing to the ECC's role last August. How do you react to this charge that there was interference?
Kippen: The ECC went to great lengths throughout the entire electoral cycle to ensure that all candidates and their campaign teams, both for presidential and provincial council [polls], were fully informed about the role and processes of the ECC. During the audit and recount, we met or had communications with both President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah's campaign teams on almost a daily basis, in addition to placing all our information in the public domain through our website and the media. While I can understand President Karzai's frustration with the ECC decision that resulted in a second round being required, the ECC was not subjected to any international pressure, but did have to deal with considerable domestic political pressure and interference. [One of two Afghan ECC commissioners] Maulawi [Mustafa] Barakzai's resignation was a direct result of domestic political pressure. Fahim Hakim, the ECC's other Afghan commissioner, was also subjected to intense domestic pressure.
EurasiaNet: The IEC clearly did not implement all the decisions of the ECC as it was legally bound to do and yet the international community, especially the United States and the UN, signed off on the process, saying the IEC had upheld the constitution and the laws. Didn't this set the stage for further erosion of these institutions and laws?
Kippen: It is unfortunate that the IEC did not respect the election law by fully implementing the ECC decisions. I would ask why the government of Afghanistan allowed this to happen.
EurasiaNet: There was a lot of talk on the need for electoral reforms following the presidential elections. What major areas did you think needed reform?
Kippen: I wouldn't want to prejudge such an assessment, but one of the areas for major reform is within the IEC itself, as they repeatedly during the elections last year failed to discharge their responsibilities as defined under the law.
Another area requiring major reform is educating all major stakeholder groups about their roles and responsibilities during the election process. By stakeholder groups I mean candidates, their supporters, public officials (national, provincial and district level; police, border police, governors, army, etc., ministry officials particularly at the provincial and district level). One of the major reasons for electoral violations was that many of the people within these stakeholder groups didn't have even a basic level of knowledge about the process itself.
EurasiaNet: Much attention has centered on the process of conducting elections and the flaws therein. Would you say that the problems are a result of a larger neglect of the entire electoral process and the lack of support given to the institutions in the period between elections?
Kippen: I completely agree. The four years between the 2005 [parliamentary] and 2009 [presidential] elections were squandered in terms of building up the knowledge and skill sets of people in the major stakeholder groups identified above. More attention and effort also needed to be spent on voter education, which was a recommendation contained in many of the observer group reports from 2005 (and [the first presidential elections in] 2004) but which was not funded or implemented.
EurasiaNet: Now there is talk of democracy perhaps not being the right form of governance for Afghanistan; talk of democracy being an "imposed" western notion. How do you view this?
Kippen: The whole point behind this process is to build strong democratic institutions and processes so that Afghans can build the kind of democracy that works for them. But first we need to make sure that these institutions and processes are independent and robust enough to allow Afghans to elect their representatives, as is their right under the constitution, without fear of intimidation or reprisal.
EurasiaNet: How do you look back at your contribution? Do you feel you were used to whitewash a bad process? Or do you feel you contributed to a more credible election? In the light of the charges leveled against the ECC, do you feel disappointed? Hurt? Misused?
Kippen: I am enormously proud of the work of the ECC, and in particular of the professionalism, dedication and contribution that all our staff (both Afghan and international) made last year. At the end of the day, the ECC did its job as defined under the election law (despite some fairly major challenges) and this should be a source of pride for all Afghans.
EurasiaNet: What are the long-term implications of this erosion of the credibility of the electoral process? On institutions? On governance? On the ongoing conflict?
Kippen: It just highlights the fact that building out sustainable democratic institutions and processes is a long-term endeavor.
EurasiaNet: What might be the best way forward from here?
Kippen: I think a new narrative is required to move forward. By this I mean that both the Afghan government and the international community need to develop a new approach and stop this blame game that has been going on since last fall. There needs to be a renewed focus and commitment to improving the process in advance of the next elections. The responsibility is a shared one.
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