Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Is A Peaceful Transfer of Power Possible In Afghanistan?

Photo: S. SABAWOON./ Published: 04/5/2014 12:16:53 NY Daily News

Original article:

The process to check thousands of ballot boxes in the Afghan presidential election run-off is now underway after several delays, the United Nations mission in the country confirmed, calling for local commitment to complete the audit without any more postponements.

In a written statement, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) “urged the full commitment of the parties for the unprecedented and vital endeavour that should be completed without any further delays and interruptions.”

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), under whose authority the audit is being carried out, with international supervision, resumed the process on 3 August, following the Eid holiday, but without the participation of representatives of one of the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah.

“After today’s consultations, we expected that the process of the audit will continue smoothly and without any interruptions,” Ján Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and UNAMA head said on Saturday, in a press conference alongside IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani.

In a statement today, Mr. Kubiš added that he fully understands that Dr. Abdullah, and his opponent, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, would need reassurances concerning the audit process.

“It could not be otherwise given the high stakes and widespread mobilization of supporters they were both able to achieve over two rounds of voting,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 200 full-time international observers – hailing from the European Union and including its Election Assessment Team and the American non-governmental organizations National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and Creative, as well as Asian Network for Free Elections, are now in auditing warehouses in the capital.

According to a UN proposal, which has been agreed to by both candidates, they joined IEC audit teams to scrutinize some 23,000 boxes of ballots from the 14 June run-off using a 16-point checklist to look for things such as inconsistencies in marking the boxes or obvious patterns.

That information will then be reviewed by the IEC Board of Commissioners in open meetings –in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and UN advisors – where they will decide to accept, recount or invalidate the results.

UNAMA has said that these “extraordinary international mobilization and transport efforts” are meant to provide Afghans with “unprecedented reassurance that the popular will which they bravely expressed on 5 April and 14 June will be known and respected.”

The proposal for the audit varies from past polls, where election officials relied on sampling and trends to extrapolate the extent of possible fraud.

Auditing every single audit box is a “unique opportunity,” said senior UN international elections expert, Jeff Fischer, who directly advises the IEC Board on international best practices.

“It meets international best practice, is consistent with the Afghan constitution and laws, and will produce a robust, credible and thorough audit that detects and eliminates fraudulent ballots while protecting valid votes,” he said.

The audit is led from the UN side by the UN Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (UNDP ELECT II) project, which has spent the last four years promoting the capacity of Afghan electoral institutions.

I do not know enough about the two candidates–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai–to try to determine whose positions and policies are in the best interests of the Afghan people. This is exactly why we have elections, to let people who will be directly affected decide for themselves. Whoever wins (whether Ahmadzai’s victory is upheld or overturned by the audit process) certainly has their work cut out for them. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, corrupt, insecure and culturally fragmented countries in the world.

Despite all these challenges–despite threats from the Taliban and lacking a history of effective democratic governance–about 40% of eligible voters turned out for the second round “run-off” elections held on June 14th. It is the job of an  independent and international auditing body to determine who will ultimately win the election. An unprecedented full audit of all votes is currently underway–the success or failure of this experiment could resonate in many forthcoming elections in the developing world.

The question remains, however, if either side is willing to accept defeat. Recently, candidate Abdullah’s camp has voiced discontent with the purportedly independent audit process:

The United Nations, which is assisting with the audit, and the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced a decision on the criteria for invalidating votes and tried to resume the audit on Sunday, but Mr. Abdullah’s team refused to participate, citing further objections to the criteria. Mr. Kerry made phone calls to both candidates on Friday, with little apparent progress.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager released an audiotape on which he said Vice President Karim Khalili could be heard directing his followers to support Mr. Ghani in the runoff. An aide to Mr. Khalili has denounced the tape as fake, according to the independent television news channel Tolo TV.

In the tape the speaker, who sounded like Mr. Khalili but had not been independently verified as such, said that the international community, the election commission and the president all supported Mr. Ghani for president. He even suggested that Afghanistan’s allies would tolerate the use of any means to achieve such a result.

“Our international friends have promised us that by using any means and using any opportunity, the election outcome must turn in favor of this team, even if these opportunities, even if these means are against electoral mechanisms,” the voice said.

Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, said the tape proved that the election fraud had been planned to return a victory for Mr. Ghani.

“This evidence was released today to inform our countrymen that our president, other government elders and the so-called election commission are instruments,” Mr. Arsalai said. The election was a public process, he said, calling it the right of the Afghan people, not the president or the commission chief. “We have a responsibility to let people know that their rights are being violated,” he said.

After lengthy last-minute negotiations, and clarifications issued by the United Nations on the criteria for disqualifying fraudulent ballots, Mr. Abdullah’s team announced it had provisionally agreed to attend the audit on Monday.

It seems to me (and this is just speculation) that the Abdullah camp, by calling into question not only the technical aspects of the audit process but the legitimacy of the whole operation, is setting itself up for an “out” should the audit results be against his favor. This is to say nothing of Dr. Ahmahdzai, who would surely cry foul play should his “victory” be found to be illegitimate.

Aside from a fully independent and internationally monitored audit of all votes, there is little more that can be done in the name of legitimacy. I fear for the sake of the Afghan people, however, that “legitimacy” in the eyes of the two candidates is tied to their own victory–two positions which are clearly mutually exclusive.

The people of Afghanistan showed great bravery by turning out to vote on two separate occasions, risking their lives in order to enable a system they are unfamiliar with. I hope I am wrong, and that both candidates will respect the results of the audit. If not, it is the duty of the international community to ensure that the legitimate winner takes power in a peaceful manner. The U.S. has a big role to play in this peaceful transfer, as the resources it provides Afghanistan (security, economic development, humanitarian, etc.) should provide considerable leverage.

As I said before, whoever ends up as the President will surely have their hands full; Afghanistan has a long march towards modernization. Transferring power peacefully through legitimate democratic elections is only the beginning of what is sure to be a difficult and nonlinear modernization process.

Update: It appears both candidates have agreed to a “power share” deal, where the losing party in the audit will get substantial positions within the government. It sounds good in theory, I hope they both stick to this plan when the results come in.

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Conflict Watch: Geneva 2

After a brief snafu over Iran’s presence, the Geneva 2 peace talks are set to get underway tomorrow (1/22). While it is difficult to be excited about the possibility of meaningful change coming out of this conference, the fatalism surrounding the talks is downright counter-productive:

It has been 18 months since a previous international peace conference in Geneva ended in failure, and all other diplomatic initiatives have also proven fruitless.

“At best, Geneva 2 will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on,” said one Western diplomat.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimization to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table.

“And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

But Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, sets a lower bar for success. “We should think of this as a kind of ‘getting to know you,’ as a kind of sounding out the parameters of the possible here,” Joshi says, “what can be accomplished in terms of limited humanitarian access, for example.”

Normative Narratives is a place to discuss what we think “should happen”–there is no room for cynicism or fatalism here. Having both sides at the table (the SNC and the Assad regime), Geneva 2 presents an opportunity to set the stage for meaningful change in Syria. Meaningful change, of course, requires concessions from both sides. In the context of a civil war, agreements needs to be externally verifiable and include repercussion for reneging on said agreements.  Here is how that change could play out:

1) Bashar Al-Assad commits to having open elections on schedule (May 2014, or if that date is not possible as soon as the U.N. deems such elections feasible), allowing for international peacekeepers and elections committees to oversee the vote. Any interested party could run in these elections; the precondition stated by S.o.S John Kerry, that only parties agreed upon by both the regime and the opposition may run, would restrict the field of candidates to non-existent. Let the Syrian people decide what they want, and ensure their voices are heard.

There are logistical and security problems with holding an election in a country mired in Civil War, in which a third of the population is either internally displaced or has fled the country. These are major issues to be worked out by the U.N. between now and when elections are to be held.

2) In return for a commitment to Presidential elections, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and Bashar Al-Assad agree to a nationwide cease-fire. There are potential problems with this solution; Will both sides honor the deal? Can the SNC retain any legitimacy with the opposition if it agrees to such a deal?

While these concerns are legitimate, they continue a fatal theme that has (in part) allowed the Syrian Civil War to persist. This theme is the marginalization of the vast majority of Syrians (who want a ceasefire and elections), while placing the greatest emphasis on the desires of the most violent parties of the war. By agreeing to a ceasefire, it will become clear which factions of the opposition are committed to a democratic Syrian state, and which factions only wish to seize power / setup an Islamic state.

Assad has reason to agree to a ceasefire as well, even if he is not at risk of losing the war. With a third of the population displaced, and an estimated loss of 35 years of development gains, Assad has a long way to go if he has any hope of becoming the legitimate democratically elected leader of Syria.

3) Assad has used the narrative of “fight terrorists” to justify his brutal crackdown on the opposition. A ceasefire would force Assad to put his money where his mouth is. It can be assumed that ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) would not honor the ceasefire. Let those factions continue to pose a security threat, and force Assad to fight them (instead of sitting back and laughing at rebel in-fighting). This would also put to rest the claim that Assad is actually backing ISIS to undermine his legitimate opposition:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian president of trying to hijack the agenda. “Nobody is going to be fooled” by Assad’s attempts to portray himself as the protector of Syria against extremists, Kerry said, “when he, himself, has been funding those extremists.”

It is a charge that the rebels have been leveling for months, that the Assad regime covertly backs the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a tactic to undermine any legitimate opposition.

“All of us know that the regime does not attack places held by ISIS,” says a Western diplomat. “There is an alliance of convenience between the two. It makes clear to the world where the defense against extremists lies.”

ISIS would also have to be countered from the Iraqi side in order to push this group to the margins.

4) A cease-fire would compromise the SNCs ability to take up arms again, by alienating the group from many of the opposition fighters on the ground. If Assad reneged on either the cease-fire or holding transparent elections, the SNC would be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is therefore imperative that this deal is backed up by a commitment by the UNSC (including Russia and China) and NATO forces to intervene in the instance of meaningful deviations from this road-map to democracy.

Without such a commitment, the cost of reneging for Assad would be non-existent, while (as mentioned above) it would be disastrous for the SNC. Furthermore, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would need to be setup immediately to ensure Assad does not punish those opposed to him once they lay down their arms, while also establishing an environment conducive to transparent elections.

Lots of commitments between parties who do not like or trust each are needed in order to make this plan a reality. However, in the context of a “hurting stalemate”, growing regional instability, and gross human rights violations, there is no stomachable alternative. The international community has put in a great effort to make Geneva 2 a reality. The SNC has continued to put its faith in the international system, despite years of empty promises and inaction. The Syrian people cannot afford a meaningless convention, with a best-case-scenario of increased humanitarian access.

The world owes it to Syria to aim big, and make a full-faith effort to establish a ceasefire, expand access to humanitarian aid, and create a road-map to transparent democratic elections. I believe I have mapped out a good starting point, one that requires concessions from both sides and is mutually beneficial. If I can think of these ideas, one can only hope that diplomatic officials could come up with a realistic / workable solution.


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Conflict Watch: Pakistan; Modernization v. Vested Interests, Effective v. Formal Democracy

Today, Pakistani’s are voting in a milestone election. Before diving into specifics of how effective Pakistani democracy may be, some background on the lead-up to the election:

The election is Pakistan’s 10th since 1970 but only the first where a civilian government has served a full five-year term and is poised to peacefully hand power to another political administration.

Unlike previous elections, in which the military’s Inter Services-Intelligence Directorate had been widely accused of vote manipulation and intimidation, there was little evidence of involvement in this campaign by the military, which has ruled Pakistan directly for more than half its 66-year history.”

“The election has evoked a rare sense of enthusiasm for politics in Pakistan. Some 4,670 candidates are fighting for 272 directly elected seats in the national Parliament, while almost 11,000 people are battling for the four provincial assemblies. Aside from more traditional politicians, candidates included astrologers, openly transgender candidates, former models and the first female candidates in the tribal belt along the Afghan border.

Also standing for election are dozens of candidates from Sunni sectarian groups, some with links to violent attacks on minority Shiites.

But the sense of a vibrant, if flawed, democracy has been tempered by Taliban attacks throughout the campaigning. The militant movement’s ability to derail wide tracks of the campaign, particularly in the mountainous northwest, is being taken as a signal that it has evolved beyond its nihilistic guerrilla roots and has become a powerful political insurgency bent on upending Western-style democracy in Pakistan.

In a statement on Friday, the Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud ordered his commanders to attack the “infidel system” of democracy, warning that teams of suicide bombers would hit targets across the country.

At least 17 people were reported killed in attacks across Pakistan on Saturday, including a gunfight and an attack on a polling station in the western province of Balochistan, and two explosions in the northwest, including Peshawar, that left several people injured. The deadly bombing in Karachi appeared directed at a candidate from the Awami National Party, one of three secular-leaning parties that have borne the brunt of Taliban attacks in the last month that have killed at least 110 people.”

But after a slow start to polling, large numbers of voters emerged by midmorning, including many women. About 300 burka-clad women stood in line outside the Lady Griffith High School, where policemen warned photographers not to take their picture.”

“There were also signs of irregularities that have tainted some past votes. At least one party, Jamaat-e-Islami, withdrew its candidates from Karachi and Hyderabad to protest against alleged rigging of the elections at different polling stations of the city.

“The votes of J.I. are being frightened and harassed by MQM armed activists in different parts of the city,” said Muhammad Hussain Mehanti, the party’s chief in Karachi, referring to the party MQM, which has traditionally dominated the city. He called for a peaceful strike on May 13 as a sign of protest against alleged rigging in the polls in the city.

Prominent officials of both Mr. Zardari’s PPP party and Mr. Sharif’s PML-N party lodged accusations of vote rigging in Karachi, saying they would reject results in the city.”

While time will tell whether the claims of J.I. party have any truth, and violence surrounding the elections is troubling, overall the elections seem to be going very smoothly. It would be naive to think that nobody would try to play “spoiler” in the first true democratic election Pakistan has ever had.

But Pakistani’s, who have “election fever” remain undeterred. It will be interesting to see what the overall voter turnout is once the election is over. Modernization and democratization cannot be imposed from the outside, they have to come from the will of the people, and it seems that Pakistani’s have fulfilled this important prerequisite for sustainable democracy.

The question now can turn from sustainable democracy to effective democracy—the existence of democracy on paper does not ensure it will work in practice. To this end, there are mixed signals for what to expect. I will base effective democracy on the following criteria; the ability of people to vote and run in elections, indiscriminate protection of human rights, an independent judiciary system, and the existence of independent media outlets. There are certainly others, but I had to draw the line somewhere for the sake of writing this piece. I left out military control, as the NYT article already highlights that the military has remained uninvolved in this election (perhaps too much so, as the military arguably should be providing security and not letting 100+ people die during the buildup to the election).

Ability of people to vote and run in elections: As stated in the article, “Some 4,670 candidates are fighting for 272 directly elected seats in the national Parliament, while almost 11,000 people are battling for the four provincial assemblies. Aside from more traditional politicians, candidates included astrologers, openly transgender candidates, former models and the first female candidates in the tribal belt along the Afghan border.” Clearly the right to run for office has been upheld.

As far as voting rights, while the system is not perfect, steps have been taken to make the voting process indiscriminate. “In January 2002, President Musharraf introduced a “joint electorate,” lifting the requirement to declare religion when registering to vote. Millions of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan were listed along with Muslims, and could vote in general elections.”

“Pakistan’s constitution sets aside 10 seats in Parliament for religious minorities, but they are not filled by direct elections. After general elections, each political party nominates candidates from minority communities for the seats based on the party’s proportional representation in the new Parliament.”

Women are also voting in this election, while expatriates will not have their votes counted. The system is not perfect, but it is certainly heading in the right direction.

Indiscriminate protection of human rights: In this sense, the country is not doing as well as it could be. Deaths surrounding the election (over 110), show that the right to life is not being protected indiscriminately. The Ahmadi community is particularly disenfranchised:

“Pakistan’s Supreme Court took up a petition against the practice last month, but neither Pakistan’s Attorney General nor the Election Commission replied to the court’s request to explain why Ahmadis were being listed separately. The listing could also allow religious extremists to easily identify Ahmadis in each electoral district, the Ahmadi spokesman said. In 2010, 86 Ahmadis were killed in attacks on worshippers in two mosques in Lahore.  Last year, at least 20 Ahmadis were killed in Pakistan”

Effective democracy must uphold the will of the majority and the rights of the minority. A national human rights institution (NHRI) passed parliamentary voting late in  2011, but has yet to be operationalized. Having such an institution in place would go a long way in making Pakistani democracy more effective. Assuming the election goes as planned, operationalizing the NHRI should be one of the first objectives of the new Pakistani government.   

Independent judiciary system:In Pakistan, neither the judiciary as an institution nor the individual judges are independent… Independence of judiciary is the hallmark of liberal democracies. On the other hand, our judicial process is based on arbitrary principles, from the appointment and removal of judges to the process of deciding the cases. And particularly, the absolute powers of the chief justices to grant cases to different benches.”

Independent media outlets:Since 2002, the Pakistani media has become powerful and independent and the number of private television channels has grown from just three state-run channels in 2000 to 89 in 2012, according to the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

Pakistan has a vibrant media landscape and enjoys independence to a large extent. After having been liberalised in 2002, the television sector experienced a media boom. In the fierce competitive environment that followed commercial interests became paramount and quality journalism gave way to sensationalism. Although the radio sector has not seen similar growth, independent radio channels are numerous and considered very important sources of information – especially in the rural areas.”

However, recent news that a NYT reporter was expelled from Pakistan on the eve of elections has to draw concerns about media independence. Certainly this one instance does not undo recent gains in Pakistani media independence, but it does question the countries commitment to media’s role in providing information transparently and indiscriminately.

There are many signs suggesting that Pakistan is ready for democracy. However, there are still hurdles to be cleared. The first is obviously a smooth transition of power following elections. After that, judicial reform should be pursued and a NHRI must be established. These two actions will ensure that human and civil rights are upheld indiscriminately. Additionally, the independence of media outlets, both domestic and international, should be reaffirmed (an official apology, explanation and invitation back to Pakistan for the expelled journalist would be a good start).

An effective democratic government must also protect personal and societal security. The newly elected leaders must figure out a way to reduce the homicide rate, which has been a problem since before the recent uptick in violence surrounding the elections began . 

What do my readers think? Is Pakistan ready for effective democracy? Will vested interests whom oppose democracy (for example, the Taliban) allow a peaceful transition to democracy? This is an exciting time for the sixth largest country in the world, with a population of 180 million people. A democratic transition in Pakistan could greatly shift the geopolitical landscape in the Middle-East and Southern Asia. I will try to update the Pakistani shift to democracy whenever a relevant story presents itself.

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