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Corrupt Afghan elections spread rot in Central Asia

After four days working as an international election observer in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the perfect hopelessness of Afghanistan's experiment in liberal democracy dawned on me.

After four days working as an international election observer in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the perfect hopelessness of Afghanistan's experiment in liberal democracy dawned on me. 

Now, after repeated postponements and 4,000 complaints, the results are expected to be announced at the end of October. But what I saw during the run-up to the election puts it in doubt whatever the vote tally.

One of the clearest signs came during a meeting at Mazar-i-Sharif's regional assembly, a rambling dusty building barricaded behind high walls and guarded by soldiers. Election candidates were arrayed on couches, discussing their anxieties with members of the electoral complaints commission and the security services. One of the main items up for discussion was "the buying and selling of candidates", as the official programme noted. No one batted an eyelid.

One official noted that "people come to these elections with cold hearts". He added matter of factly that candidates interested in buying off elections staff were ignoring lower-level officials and focusing on "the polling centre directors because they are the ones who dispatch the results". Local actors repeatedly told me that candidates, election officials and voters had already been bought and sold even before voters arrived at the polls. As the voting neared, Taliban affiliates confiscated voter ID cards and assassinated polling officials. On election day, hundreds of voting centres remained closed and a daylight curfew was imposed in areas under the control of Taliban shadow shura councils. It all contributed to a record low turnout (an estimated 25 per cent of registered voters), 32 dead and 95 injured. Videos shot on camera phones showed election officials stuffing ballot boxes under the gaze of complicit local policemen.

Despite condemning the elections and threatening to cut voters' fingers off, the Taliban also appeared to have infiltrated the process - a journalist seeking an appointment with Taliban members was directed to an interlocutor who worked in Mazar-i-Sharif's supposedly super-secure central ballot collection warehouse. Although corruption originated with local elites, it percolated throughout society. Many people viewed the elections as an opportunity to feed at the trough. Votes sold for anywhere between $10 and $100 (Dh367). One candidate's wealth earned him the nickname Abbas Dollari - not in the bazaars or cafes but among the electoral commission staff. The complaints commission batted away calls for investigations by claiming "insufficient evidence". In rural areas, Afghanistan's ethnic and clan-based feudal system meant that local power holders obliged residents to vote in blocs.

"We pay a salary of 50 to polling stations officials and 120 to 140 Afghanis [Dh12] to the polling centre head," an elections official said. "But of course, someone can come and offer them more. And those [candidates] who paid more will get a higher result." When I visited Turialay Reziakyar, one of the candidates present at the Mazar-i-Sharif regional council meeting, in his well-fortified compound, he told me: "I've received so many death threats that I live in fear of leaving the city to campaign in the countryside."

As with Iraq, Afghanistan's stabs at democracy are part of a larger project to create a functioning modern state built along western lines and connected to the international banking and corporate system. But the army of consultants involved in this decade-long struggle have little experience of Central Asian clan culture or Islam. Their well-padded salaries and laboriously recreated western lifestyles in Kabul have isolated them from any but the most westernised of Afghan urban society.

As hopes fade that President Hamid Karzai's corruption-riddled government can stabilise the country, a new scenario envisions the partitioning of Afghanistan into a Pashtun-dominated southern part governed by the Taliban and a Tajik-majority north hosting a significant western military presence. The idea was first floated by the former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, and is reportedly gaining traction in policy making circles.

That quick-fix solution could have the side effect of further destabilising neighbour Pakistan, a country with 40 million Pashtun citizens. Already a nuclear-armed failing state, the consequences of a dismantled Pakistan would be horrible for the region. But Mr Blackwill sees potential advantages, arguing that "the spectre of de facto partition in Afghanistan might even produce the change of heart in the Pakistani military's attitude to the Afghan Taliban that successive US administrations have failed to achieve".

The obvious downside for Washington would be the further strengthening of its regional rival Iran. Tehran has maintained cordial relations with Pakistan even while giving the nod to Chinese and Indian infrastructure projects that are loosening Pakistan's stranglehold on the transport of goods to landlocked Afghanistan. The great loser in the regional equation would be Pakistan, whose ISI intelligence services built the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Already suffering from the aftermath of the flood, and fighting an insurgency by Pashtun and Baloch tribes, Islamabad's civilian leadership has been under unprecedented strain.

And instability is already blooming across Central Asia. Afghanistan's northern neighbour, Tajikistan, has been rocked by car bombs, explosions and ambushes of the army since the summer in a wave of violence unprecedented since the conclusion of its civil war in the 1990s. Afghanistan's failure to transition to democracy is not just damning for the country itself. It threatens to open the doors of instability across the entire region.

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and photographer based in Istanbul and Kabul

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