KABUL — Although many foreign election monitors have left Afghanistan following a recent string of high-profile attacks in the capital, analysts say their presence may not be the key to a successful vote on Saturday.
More important, analysts say, will be how many of the 265,000 registered Afghan monitors show up on election day and the resilience of the Afghan people in defying threats from the Taliban to disrupt the elections and take vengeance on those who vote.
“It chips away at the credibility (of the election), but it’s not a death blow at all,” Graeme Smith, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan, said of the departure of many foreign observers.
Avoiding the widespread fraud and ballot-stuffing reported during the 2009 election is critical now, as voters prepare to participate in the first democratic change of power in the country’s history and elect a president who will oversee the departure of all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Experts say avoiding the mess of the 2009 election — in which the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, quit in disgust rather than participate in a run-off with President Hamid Karzai — also is key to future international assistance.
There is a great deal of money at stake for a country that relies almost exclusively on international assistance to fund its government: One stipulation of the nations that pledged $16 billion in continuing aid at the 2012 Tokyo Conference was that this year’s election be “free, fair, transparent, and inclusive.”
“International powers have said in private to various candidates that if it is a stolen election, there’s a lot of things that won’t get paid for,” said Kate Clark, an analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “You can’t steal an election and expect financial aid.”
Though foreign observers play an important role in keeping tabs on Afghanistan’s elections, it is Afghan observers who are the most crucial piece of the monitoring regime, Clark said.
“The key people are the locals — there are more of them and they can get out more,” Clark said, referring to areas of the country considered too unsafe for foreigners.
But will they?
Jandad Spinghar, director of Afghanistan’s leading domestic election observer group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), says his organization feels under increasing threat after two recent attacks on the Afghan government’s election commission. Several of the foundation’s senior observers have resigned under threat and the group has greatly increased security at its Kabul office, he said.
The monitors’ concerns were underscored by a Taliban statement released Wednesday that warned Afghans to stay away from the polls and that polling stations, voters and election workers would be considered legitimate targets for attack.
“FEFA is a player in the electoral process, so we have concerns we might also come under attack,” Spinghar said.
Due to changes in the make-up of the Electoral Complaints Commission, the government body tasked with resolving election disputes, there will be less of a foreign role in adjudicating the results of the vote.
In 2009, three foreigners served on the five person complaints commission, but this year, all members are Afghans handpicked by Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban and is barred from running for a third term. The Independent Election Commission also is made up of Karzai appointees, and some experts say the political nature of the appointments of both bodies increases the chances of fraud.
“Even the IEC is sometimes not impartial — the election commission feels enmity towards the observers and might not allow observers to be present inside (some of) the polling stations,” Spinghar said.
Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission, the Afghan government’s election organizing body, said he’s confident in a high turnout and a credible election.
“We are working to conduct the election and be sure that the majority of people participate and the majority accept (the results),” he said.
Having fewer international monitors on the ground may have a limited impact on preventing fraud in the election, but some see their presence as a boost to confidence in the results, both for Western countries Afghanistan relies on for aid and for Afghans.
Spinghar worries that having fewer international observers could have a psychological effect on both voters and candidates.
“They should not break their commitment; they have to stay on their commitment, otherwise the Taliban will succeed,” he said.
According to the Independent Election Commission, more than 330 foreign observers from 16 organizations have registered as election monitors. That’s down sharply from the 1,200 who participated in the 2009 presidential poll, according to The Associated Press.
Among the international election monitoring and advising groups that pulled out of Afghanistan recently was the National Democratic Institute, one of whose monitors was among nine people killed in a March 20 attack on the heavily fortified Serena Hotel in Kabul.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also had pulled out its observers, but has since decided to send back roughly half of its 15-person election advisory team, according to a spokesman. Democracy International has not pulled any of its 18 staffers from Afghanistan, but has decided against sending 10 additional observers, Jed Ober, Democracy International’s director of programs, said.
“Given the situation in Afghanistan right now, we didn’t think it was prudent to bring in additional observers,” he said.
Although the recent violence has scared away foreigners, it does not seem to have dampened election enthusiasm among Afghans in Kabul, where people stood in lines for hours to register to vote and often strike a defiant tone when asked if they are worried about violence at the polls.
“There is violence; there are threats to the lives of our people. But for God’s sake and for the sake of our nation, we must vote,” Zia Ahmad Follazi, a 53-year-old teacher from Kabul, said. “We are not afraid.”
Voter enthusiasm as well as a vigorous and truly competitive campaign makes Clark optimistic that Afghans can avoid the acrimony of the 2009 presidential election.
“I’m hoping this time will be better because there has been a genuine campaign; lots of campaign rallies, lots of interest in the media,” she said. “It’s not a sham competition.”
Of course, in some districts with a heavy Taliban presence, the outlook among voters is much different. While more polling stations are expected to be open than in 2009, roughly 10 percent of the 7,300 polling stations across the country will be closed due to security concerns. Afghans must dip their fingers in blue ink to show they have voted and among the Taliban threats is amputating the digits of anyone with an ink-stained finger.
Speaking by telephone from Sangin District, one of the most violent corners of Helmand province, tribal leader Hajji Musa Khan said residents there want to vote but that he and many others there will sit out the election because of threats from the Taliban.
“If they capture someone with ink on their finger, they should be happy if only their finger is cut off,” Khan said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Josh Smith and Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.