Skip to main content
ABC News
Karzai’s Newest Power Play

Anyone who thought Gordon Brown’s proposed changes to the U.K. electoral system to a bit brash should have a look at Hamid Karzai’s most recent exploit. Ahead of Parliamentary elections in September, Karzai has used a series of loopholes to issue a Presidential decree that gives him the power to appoint all members of the main electoral oversight commission.

Established in 2004 after evidence of serious fraud in the Presidential election of that year, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) was designed to have a broad legal mandate, UN-endorsement, and independence from the political processes. With three international commissioners and two Afghan commissioners, the concept was similar to international observers, who could bring a measure of rigor to the process that was not present up until that point.

During the 2009 Presidential election, in which Karzai prevailed only when his rival withdrew from the runoff, the ECC fielded thousands of complaints regarding ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and so forth. Based on evidence of widespread fraud, the ECC ordered a recount of ballot boxes that had evidence of obvious fraud — a total of 3377 boxes, or 13 percent. In the end, more than 1.3 million votes, 28 percent of the votes counted on election day, were disqualified, bringing Karzai’s vote share below the 50 percent threshold that would have provided him with a first round victory.

There are several good reasons why the Karzai took this strategy:

1. The Parliamentary elections will be key for his power position: Initially scheduled for January of this year, the Wolesi Jirga elections were postponed until September out of fears for security and fraud. Karzai, in his weakest position politically in some time, undoubtedly wants to ensure as supportive a Parliament as possible. In particular, the fact that they rejected 17 of his 24 cabinet nominees has built significant tension between the institutions.

2. Direct retribution: The ECC authored a damning report that declared that there was “convincing evidence of fraud” in the election and rejected over a million of his votes. It did its best to force a run-off that could eject Karzai from power. So therefore, when he had the chance to kick out the commission members — chaired by Canadian electoral expert Grant Kippen — he took it.

3. Show of strength to Pashto supporters: Hamid Karzai leads a government that remains dominated by the former opposition to the Taliban, with powerful Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Though a Pashto himself, Karzai has the reputation of a sell-out, who through his good command of English and friendly relations with the so-called Northern Alliance, charmed the invading Americans into putting him in charge. Following the controversial 2009 election, Karzai wants to take steps that can convince skeptical Pashtos (among all Afghans in fact), that he is not a puppet of the NATO occupation.

4. New appointments can bring in supporters: In any political system, an important way to neutralize a rival is by bringing them into your administration (e.g. Obama & Clinton). With the ability now to promise leverage and access in exchange for support, Karzai can draw back former supporters, perhaps in key electoral areas for the fall.

5. The U.S., above all, wants to see violence reduced: Talk to anyone among the American presence in Kabul and they will tell you that the top priority is to see reconciliation between the contested government and key allies around the country. Ahead of the Obama administration’s mid-2011 withdrawal target, achieving electoral processes that meet international standards are simply not as important as promoting stable relations between the Kabul government and other power players in Afghanistan.

Karzai’s gamble here seems to have worked out, as the U.S. cautiously backed his decision — the language of which is based in the “Afghanization” motto that the Americans have been pushing for the last year or so. Breaking with European allies and the Canadians, who opposed the decision, the U.S. opted for the realist approach, even though it is in direct conflict with previous policy statements about the importance of free elections and the independence of electoral bodies.

So out comes the basic tension in Afghanistan — international players who want to get out as soon as they can, and Afghan counterparts that know this just as well. At the same time, there is a tension between the ideal western societal model of secular and representative government, free democratic elections, and robust individual rights and the realist understanding that little of this is even vaguely applicable in an Afghan context.

Nonetheless, if you are married to the concept that a strong central government in Kabul will stabilize Afghanistan, as the ISAF allies are, taking decisions that strengthen Karzai over democratic ideals makes sense. Yet it is also possible that this, among many other developments in the “Afghanization” process, will only serve to make the Karzai administration more indebted to tribal warlords and in the end weaken the Kabul government.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at