A few days ago I posted a report here on the disturbing prospect that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was about to issue a decree eliminating foreign members from his country’s Electoral Complaints Commission. Reports from Kabul today confirm he has done just that.
Karzai’s reasons for taking this outrageous step are not mysterious. Last year, the ECC, headed by Canadian Grant Kippen, thoroughly investigated Afghanistan’s presidential election and found clear evidence of extensive fraud by Karzai’s campaign. Nobody I’ve spoken with who has experience with Afghanistan’s politics thinks the ECC would have acted so professionally had it been made up of only Afghan members.
Karzai won anyway last fall when his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of a run-off vote when the incumbent president refused to make quick reforms to ensure that, on the second try, the balloting would be fair. Even so, Abdullah credited the ECC for giving hope to Afghans who want real democracy. Someday.
In last week’s posting, I urged the Canadian government to protest Karzai’s brazen bid to eliminate this vital check on electoral corruption. And Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon did issue a mild statement on the possibility of a presidential decree to gut the ECC.
“We are concerned by early reports that the decree diminishes the level of expertise of the Electoral Complaints Commission,” said Cannon. “During the previous election the ECC, led by Grant Kippen, played a crucial role in efforts to have a credible election.”
Clearly nothing Canada or any other foreign government said publicly or behind the scenes swayed Karzai. There remains, however, an outside chance he might still be thwarted.
In a telephone interview today, Kippen told me Afghanistan’s parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, now has 30 days to reject or accept the decree. “They don’t have to say yes,” he said. “There is an opportunity here.”
It would be in the best interests of Afghan parliamentarians to quash the decree. They are up for re-election next September. Any vote held without an independent ECC to look into the inevitable accusations of cheating, and lend legitimacy to the ultimate results, will reduce the democratic credibility of the jirga’s members.
Kippen’s job as head of the ECC that probed 2009′s controversial presidential election ended last month. Now back home in Ottawa, he said Karzai’s decree puts Canada and other countries that have tried to support democracy in Afghanistan in a bind.
Yet he doubts Ottawa will be very outspoken in protesting Karzai’s latest dubious step. “I think the Canadian government won’t want to do anything that will preclude supporting the government of Afghanistan,” he said.
Maybe that’s prudent. But at some point Canada, as a major donor and military contributer to Afghanistan, must demand better from Karzai. That goes for the other Western countries deeply involved, too. Popular support in Europe and North America for the war against the Taliban is weak enough without adding yet more new, justified doubts about whether the Kabul regime is worth the trouble.
The Dutch coalition government recently collapsed over the issue of its Afghanistan commitment, meaning Dutch troops will be pulled out by the end of the this year. Who will replace them? The New York Times reports that the Afghan National Army is far from ready to lead in taking the fight to the Taiban. What does that mean for the U.S. and Canadian plans to withdraw and turn over the combat roles to Afghans?
Against this bleak backdrop, it’s astounding that Karzai risks tarnishing his reputation further by undermining a key institution in his country’s embryonic democracy.
Late this afternoon, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon issued a statement and also sat for an interview with Evan Solomon on the CBC’s Power & Politics. While it’s good that Cannon is commenting on this issue, his extreme caution doesn’t exactly convey a sense of urgency.
He qualifies his comments by saying he has “yet to receive the official translation of President Karzai’s decree amending Afghanistan’s electoral law.” That’s hard to understand. The decree was issued last week and solid translations are circulating. I’ve seen one.
Cannon says he’s “troubled by early reports that the decree could diminish the level of independence of the Electoral Complaints Commission.” Early reports? Could diminish ECC independence? Early was a fair description of my blog post last week. What we have today are definitive reports, in places like the New York Times, the BBC, and the Wall Street Journal, of a clear threat to ECC autonomy. No need to hedge.
The foreign minister is somewhat better on next steps. “Along with our international partners,” he says, “Canada has been engaged in encouraging the Afghan government to implement the necessary electoral reforms ahead of [next September's] polls. Canada will be discussing this latest development with our allies.”
That’s the right idea on both points: the looming event is next fall’s Afghan parliamentary vote and the key is to rally all the countries active in Afghanistan against Karzai’s retrograde decree.