For much of this fall, the most pressing question in world affairs—preoccupying leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—was how to sort out the messy aftermath of Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 election. As charges of massive voting fraud mounted, so did the stakes. Would Hamid Karzai, the incumbent president, be allowed to cling to power under a cloud of suspicion that he’d cheated his way to victory? How badly would such an outcome undermine already flagging support in Europe and North America for ongoing military sacrifice in Afghanistan? Near the centre of the controversy and uncertainty was a disarmingly low-key Canadian, whose job was to tell Afghans, and the world, if the election had been stolen or not.
From his manner, Grant Kippen, chairman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), seems an unlikely sort to play such a pivotal part in an international crisis. In the crowd of flamboyant Afghan politicians and big-ego diplomats dispatched to Kabul, Kippen stands out by standing back. Seemingly unflappable, doggedly methodical, he guided the ECC through weeks when many observers doubted that the results of its investigation would be allowed to carry the day. Speculation swirled that Karzai would be permitted to triumph no matter what—a suspicion that suddenly looked more than plausible when Peter Galbraith, a U.S. diplomat, was fired from a top United Nations job in Afghanistan after charging that his UN superior was biased in favour of Karzai.
But, in the end, even Karzai accepted the ECC’s finding of widespread fraud, which forced the now-planned Nov. 7 runoff vote. If he feels vindicated, Kippen doesn’t deny he also felt the heat along the way. “You can easily get caught up in all sorts of discussions, and rumours are always rife in a place like Afghanistan,” he told Maclean’s. “But to us at the ECC, the critical success factor was just making sure we did our job.”
Given half a chance, Kippen tends to direct an interview about that job back to the dry terrain of checklists and procedures. But he knows from experience that in Afghanistan, and other new democracies, refereeing a vote means adjusting to the unexpected, not just following a rule book. He’s been a trusted figure in Afghanistan since 2003-2004, when he travelled the country in a grey Toyota minivan, working for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, teaching the basics to fledgling political parties. He oversaw the complaints process after the 2005 Afghan parliamentary elections, before going on to serve in similar roles in places like Pakistan and Moldova. When preparations began for Afghanistan’s crucial summer 2009 presidential election, all that experience made him a natural choice to return to head the UN-mandated ECC.
The backdrop for the Aug. 20 vote was rising Taliban violence and declining global credibility for Karzai. Back when he won Afghanistan’s landmark 2004 presidential election, his reputation abroad, particularly in Washington, was burnished. Karzai was the face of democracy in a country that was supposed to be a good news story, compared to violent Iraq. Five years later, though, bloodshed in Iraq had abated, at least temporarily, while a revived Taliban insurgency and a corrupt regime in Kabul made Afghanistan look like the bigger problem. Still, Karzai was seen as the front-runner in the summer campaign.
And the first reports on the Aug. 20 vote seemed to confirm that his grip on power remained secure. Preliminary results from the Afghan government’s Independent Election Commission said he’d won 54.6 per cent of the vote, far more than Abdullah Abdullah, his top rival. But the IEC is viewed as having a pro-Karzai bias by groups like Human Rights Watch. And Kippen’s ECC, which is independent of the IEC, quickly started receiving a flood of fraud complaints. By early September, he was travelling to the provinces of Kandahar, Ghazni and Paktika to look into charges of rampant cheating. Kippen declared there were “obvious irregularities.”
How tough his ECC would dare to be, though, was a matter of debate. Americans and Europeans were worried about what would happen if the vote was shown to have been hopelessly crooked. At a high-level meeting in Paris on Sept. 3, envoys from 27 countries and agencies agreed to stay neutral in public on the election outcome. But officials also reportedly emphasized the need for Karzai to repair his image—not the possibility of another vote. Kippen sidesteps questions about any pressure he might have felt. “All I can say is that we were very determined to do our job regardless of what the overall environment was,” he says. “We had to come back to the fact that we had a very specifically and narrowly defined mandate under law.”
That mandate was to get to the bottom of complaints—everything from stuffed ballot boxes to hundreds of votes being registered at polling stations where few voters turned out. But with thousands of complaints filed, the task facing the ECC staff of about 300 appeared overwhelming. In rough terms, Kippen says, out of about 25,000 polling stations in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, returns at around 3,000 looked suspicious. After consulting with international players and the Afghan political actors, he settled on a statistics-based approach to auditing the results.
Ballot boxes from a sample of about 300 suspect polling stations would be hauled to a Kabul warehouse and opened, with plenty of Afghan and international observers watching. Everything from the seals to the ballots themselves would be inspected. Had the boxes been tampered with? Did the marks on ballot papers look so much alike that they must have been made by one or two fraudsters, rather than hundreds of voters? The findings of the audit would be extrapolated across the whole election. If Karzai’s popular vote dropped below 50 per cent, the ECC would order a runoff vote.
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