Regaining the Public Trust
Omar Samad – Despite the recent repudiation of elections by the Afghan Taliban’s fugitive leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and despite the increased bloodshed experienced by Afghans this year, there is a growing public desire to see the election process move forward and a historic and peaceful transfer of power and legitimate order.
Signs of growing enthusiasm are not only detected among the political elites and interest groups, but also in civil society, youths and women groups, the private sector, rural community councils, and in the way new and traditional media are covering the issues.
If we assume that next year’s presidential and provincial elections will take place as planned, one of the main challenges that Afghanistan will face is security, and making sure that enough polling centers are open across the country to assure the viability of the exercise. Another test will be maintaining the positive momentum that is rising, investing as many Afghans as possible in the process, and making the vote as inclusive and transparent as possible.
This effort not only requires widespread public awareness programing, but also overcoming the public trust deficit that exists toward Afghan political and electoral institutions. Above all, it requires political will by the country’s leadership not to hinder the process or constitutional order.
Thus far, it appears that the newly formed Independent Election Commission (IEC), responsible for managing the elections, is making a sincere attempt to regain the public trust and avoid a repeat of the 2009 electoral debacle.
The head of the IEC, Yousuf Nuristani, in an in-depth interview with TOLOnews this week, conveyed several key points that give hope and are essential to the successful management of elections:
He assured the public that the IEC would remain impartial and independent. He stressed that the IEC would strictly follow its mandate. He acknowledged that mistakes were made in past elections and that he would not allow their repeat. He asked for dialogue and cooperation with all other stakeholders, including political parties and civil society to prevent fraud and irregularities. He proposed reforms that would allow for stronger monitoring and reduce fraud. He stressed his own credentials as a person who believes in the democratic process.
Nuristani has raised the bar for electoral oversight and now has to deal with three types of pressures:
The other IEC commissioners, most of whom have little experience in electoral technicalities and run the risk of being pressured by powerful political circles whose aim is to subvert the process. The Election Complaints Commission (ECC), a five-member body to be selected in the next few days, which will have the final say on complaints adjudication. It is critically important that the selection of ECC members is based on clear qualification criteria, void of ethnic or political bias. If the ECC is seen as either unqualified or prejudiced, then the overall process will unfold either before or after elections are held. To give it more weight, having civil society’s representative present in the selection committee is a must. Powerful political circles and individuals whose interests may lie with the cancellation or postponement of elections, violation of the constitution, or underhanded electoral fraud.
As Mullah Omar’s Eid message clearly indicated last week, any hope that may have existed for Taliban participation in the elections should be dashed. The message stipulated that not only do the radicals within their ranks continue to want to impose their will on the population through power-sharing deals with other ethnic groups, but that their supporters outside the country are leery of seeing a democratically elected government emerge in Afghanistan.
Contrary to the wish of most Afghans, the message also made it clear that the Taliban will go to any length to prevent a continued U.S./NATO presence, albeit small and for a non-combat role, in the country post 2014.
Another sign of forward-moving impetus in the country’s political life is its political dynamism. Political actors realize that time is not on their side, and they need to interact, form teams, and eventually build coalitions that could introduce candidates for the presidential election by early October, when the nomination process will be complete. Forming these teams and coalitions will not be easy unless some contenders are ready to lower their expectations of being at the top of a ticket, and instead focus on agreeing to work on common reform agendas.
To offset this political drive, Taliban diehards have and will continue to use psychological tactics, including the use of violence, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations, to dampen the enthusiasm that is emerging in the country. We have seen several troubling examples of such tactics lately with attacks on members of parliament and their families.
With a segment of society disinterested in the political ruckus, the Taliban are aiming to either draw them to their side or enlarge the pool of neutral observers, and by doing so undermine the 2014 elections.
It is now up to motivated political elites and institutions such as the IEC and ECC to build up the nascent momentum, counter the Taliban narrative, and rebuild the public trust through legitimate decisions and practices. The Afghan people, as well as the international community that has invested heavily since 2002, are watching. The country’s political actors cannot afford to lose either or both.
Ambassador Omar Samad is currently Afghanistan senior expert in residence with the Center for Conflict Management at the U.S. Institute of Peace.