Afghanistan's Anti-Corruption Efforts Should Begin with Election Reform

As the United States prepares to send more troops to Afghanistan, the need to clean up that nation's endemic corruption takes on renewed urgency. But an anti-corruption campaign coming on the heels of an election that was itself corrupt would have little credibility or impact. The widespread fraud that marred the August elections must be tackled first. An independent and impartial review of the electoral process is urgently needed before parliamentary elections are held next year. If yet another election fails the Afghan people, prospects for establishing a credible, stable government will be severely damaged--perhaps beyond repair.

The magnitude of the fraud that occurred during the Aug. 20 elections was startling. On election day, problems emerged throughout the country, but they were most acute in the southern and eastern provinces where security problems are greatest In these provinces a large number of ghost polling stations emerged--voting sites that never opened but nevertheless reported thousands of ballots cast to the tally center in Kabul.

As a result of an audit conducted by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), a joint Afghan and international body, more than one million votes--one out of every five ballots cast--were excluded because of fraud. The ECC's findings undoubtedly underestimated the elections' problems, since its audit examined only one aspect of electoral misconduct--ballot box stuffing. Other forms of electoral wrongdoing, such as the misuse of government resources, proxy voting and biased news coverage by state-owned media, were noted by observer groups.

Millions of Afghans voted in the election, often at substantial risk to their personal safety. They deserve a full account of what went wrong. An independent commission, co-sponsored by the international community and government of Afghanistan, should be provided broad authority to examine how the fraud occurred, identify who was responsible, and make recommendations for reform. Such a commission would need to look into the role that election commission staff may have played in facilitating the fraud. In many instances, staff appear to have committed the fraud or conspired with those who did. Yet, a culture of impunity persists and no election staff have been arrested for wrongdoing. A commission should also examine the international community's role in the electoral process. Controversy has surrounded the international community's involvement since two senior UN representatives in Afghanistan traded allegations of impropriety.

One model for such a review is the Independent Review Commission on Kenya's 2007 flawed elections. That UN-backed commission, chaired by former South Africa Supreme Court Justice John Kriegler, also included Kenyan and international election experts. It had a wide-ranging mandate to examine all aspects of the electoral process and recommend reforms. The panel recommended far reaching changes in Kenya's electoral system, including altering how election commissioners were appointed and election staff recruited, revising procedures for registering voters and counting ballots, and proposing an improved process for resolving election disputes. The government of Kenya endorsed the commission's proposals, which are now being implemented.

While some Afghan election staff undoubtedly engaged in misconduct, many were appalled by what occurred. These Afghans, who worked under difficult conditions trying to make the elections a success, would welcome the opportunity to testify before an independent panel. International consultants who worked closely with the election commission are already sharing thoughts, through a vibrant chain of emails, on what went wrong and why. These insiders could perform a valuable role in not only identifying where the system is most vulnerable to abuse, but also in suggesting how administrative procedures could be strengthened to prevent future misconduct.

In his recent inaugural address, President Hamid Karzai pledged new initiatives to combat entrenched corruption. By endorsing the proposed commission, the president would give concrete expression to his commitment and demonstrate the sincerity of his pledge. His ability to mobilize public support behind reform efforts and the credibility of the government would also be bolstered.

An independent review of Afghanistan's elections also would benefit the international community. The UN helped raise over $300 million to pay for the election. If that investment is to have any meaning, the international community needs to explore what went wrong and vigorously protect future financial commitments. Most importantly, the international community needs a credible Afghan partner to improve the nation's governance and pursue reconstruction. Afghanistan's government, at the national and provincial levels, has been tainted by electoral corruption. It can most credibly start a new anti-corruption campaign by addressing the serious problems that plagued the recent elections and holding to account those who were responsible.