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Afghanistan/Iraq: Expert Questions Election Validity In Conflict Areas

PRAGUE, June 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Jarrett Blanc is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow and a visiting scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, where he is researching elections conducted amid civil conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with him about the challenges of conducting elections in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq or in postconflict environments like Kosovo.

RFE/RL: Is it possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Jarrett Blanc: No. The idea is almost necessarily paradoxical for a few reasons. One is that elections are necessarily dependent on the rule of law. They are legal institutions. And so, where the law does not exist or the law is not enforceable, then elections are quite limited in what they can achieve. And from a security perspective, you have to expect that if a government is unable to protect its citizens on the average day, it is going to be unable to protect its citizens on the especially tense election day.

"The only thing that we can...have is the greatest of respect at the...courage [Iraqis] have shown in [voting] in the face of tremendous threats -- and great sympathy...for the fact that the elections were not...better designed strategically to contribute to a termination of the conflict."

RFE/RL: If it's not possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones, this suggests that the very nature of the election would be empowering one or another faction that is involved in the conflict. So does this mean that elections in conflict zones contribute more to the conflict than to conflict resolution?

Blanc: I'm not sure that it necessarily contributes more to conflict as opposed to conflict resolution. I think, though, that your question is leading in exactly the right direction -- which is that you have to think about the election within the broader context of the conflict and not imagine that you can recreate the political dynamics of a country simply because you're going to have an election. The people who are armed -- who are fighting the war -- are still going to be there. And if you haven't strategized about how the election is going to either contribute to terminating or contribute to worsening the conflict, you're probably not going to have a particularly good strategic outcome.

RFE/RL: Let's take a step back and look at sources of insecurity in elections within conflict areas. Perhaps we can divide them into three different categories. There are ongoing conflicts -- that is, combat situations. There are postconflict situations. And then there is insecurity that comes from the failure of the rule of law. How does each of these different sources of insecurity hamper the goal of fostering democracy through the ballot box?

Blanc: If we start with your first category of ongoing conflict, we need to remember that civil war and elections are essentially political activities with the same aim -- which is control of state power. And so, the way that an ongoing conflict hampers the objective of an election in a broad sense is that it is trying to achieve the same thing. The armed combatants are trying to take control of state power. And chances are they are not going to respect the results of the election. They are going to respect the results of the conflict.

RFE/RL: Would you define Afghanistan as an ongoing conflict or as a postconflict situation? How does that threaten future elections and the establishment of democracy there?

Blanc: Afghanistan is complicated partially because the different regions of the country are so different. But I would say that altogether it is still a conflictive situation. I think that in terms of the number of battle deaths per year, it meets most academic definitions of a civil war. And there hasn't been a recognized termination of the war. In other words, the majority of the combatants have not agreed to end the war on certain terms. And so I think that, for that reason, it is probably still a conflict situation or an ongoing civil war.

RFE/RL: In the case of Iraq, there have been elections which were hailed as a success because of a large voter turnout. But in the aftermath of those elections, there hasn't been any breakthrough on power sharing. What are your thoughts about the possibility of those elected officials in Iraq coming together on some kind of a power sharing agreement?

Blanc: It's possible but I don't think it is particularly likely. I think that if you look at the dynamics of the civil war in Iraq, the bad news is that, comparing it to other similar conflicts, the chances are that we are going to see a civil war that escalates -- gets worse and probably increases its regional component -- before you see the level of exhaustion that would be necessary to come to a negotiated solution. In theory, could the elected members of the [Iraqi] parliament, representing their communities [and] representing the armed factions to which they are close, come to some kind of an agreement and then hope that the armed factions will abide by and enforce that agreement? It is possible. But I don't think it is particularly likely.

RFE/RL: What criticisms do you have about the U.S. approach to democratic transition in Iraq?

Blanc: The U.S. strategy of benchmarks is misguided. And it is misguided because the benchmarks describe a political settlement that seems just and equitable to us. But we don't have direct contact with virtually any of the combatant forces in Iraq. We don't talk to Ayatollah al-Sistani. We don't talk to the military leaders of Sadr's armies. We don't even know who the Sunni military leaders are, let alone talk directly to them. The idea that a solution that seems equitable to us necessarily addresses the red lines of the combatants, I think, is very naive.

RFE/RL: How does the security situation on the ground in a postconflict environment like Kosovo impact the goal of establishing democracy?

Blanc: It really varies a great deal on what was the conflict and how was the conflict ended. For example, in Kosovo, where the conflict ended with both a fairly general agreement and with an overwhelming international peacekeeping force, you are able to conduct reasonably good elections where the outcome of the election is not necessarily determined by the military strength of the combatants. Where the postconflict situation, or the postconflict settlement, is more tenuous -- and I'm thinking here, perhaps, of Lebanon -- then the best you could hope for is probably some kind of power-sharing arrangement that is sealed by the election as opposed to a genuine expression of popular sovereignty.

RFE/RL: How does the failure of the rule of law impact democratic transformation in countries that are recovering from recent conflicts? And what impact can the election laws themselves have?

Blanc: In a way, we're mixing two problems. One is the failure of the rule of law from a perspective of election security -- and whether elections can be genuine expressions of popular sovereignty. There are instances here -- for example, a number of instances in Africa, in Nigeria, in South America, in Guyana -- where the state simply doesn't have good control over the security situation. And so, party-based violence or election-based violence can end up corrupting the result of the election. That's one set of problems. Another set of problems are the specifics of an election law and whether an election law is designed in order to produce a genuinely representative result.

RFE/RL: If we look at Afghanistan in this same way, the language of the electoral laws -- particularly with the parliamentary elections -- what we see happening in the Afghan parliament is that some members of parliament who are alleged to be war criminals have been declaring amnesty for themselves. There is a lot of frustration among ordinary Afghans about the idea that people who should be put on trial for war crimes are now lawmakers who are giving themselves immunity from prosecution. There also are questions about tribal voting blocs in Afghanistan that support strongmen of their ethnicity, or even from different clans within ethnic groups. What are the lessons that Afghanistan and the international community can learn from the way the Afghan elections have been conducted?

Blanc: You've identified a couple of very interesting problems with the Afghan process. Some of them probably could not have been addressed. And some of them could have been addressed a little better than they were. The one that I think could not have been addressed is this issue of the failure to disqualify people who are warlords or have committed war crimes. The international community and the government of Afghanistan simply do not have the kind of security control, military control of the territory, that would make those kinds of disqualifications possible. We could do that in Bosnia[-Herzegovina]. We could do that in Kosovo because there was an overwhelming international military force to enforce the decision and make sure that protests didn't get out of hand. If you tried to disqualify these actors in Afghanistan, you simply would have thrown the entire political process off track. So if you want to have that kind of control -- if you want to be able to completely reshape who are the leaders of the country -- you need to invest the sort of military force that makes that possible. And that is something that has never happened in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: What problems do you see with the way Afghanistan's election laws have been written?

Blanc: The Afghans chose a fairly unusual system of representation called a "single nontransferable vote." Suffice it to say that it is not particularly widely used in the world. And one of the reasons that it is not particularly widely used is that it has a strange paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it makes party formation difficult. And on the other hand, it very strongly rewards parties that do manage to organize themselves and get a little bit better organized than their competitors. And I think that you are seeing that now in the assembly. They simply do not have the level of party discipline. Each individual member is an independent actor. That makes it very difficult to get policy through. And it makes it very difficult for the voters to hold individual representatives ideologically accountable -- have you done what the party platform said you were going to do? One very unfortunate result of the system of representation that they chose is that about 70 percent of the votes cast in the parliamentary election went to candidates who didn't win. So only 30 percent of the votes went to winning candidates. And it is not hard to understand why people might be frustrated, or feel unrepresented by a parliament that is made up of winners with only 30 percent of the popular vote.

RFE/RL: Your criticisms about Afghanistan's election laws and the way they were implemented suggest that rather than contributing to conflict resolution, Afghanistan's elections could be enhancing conflict between paramilitary factions or militia groups.

Blanc: In principle, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that simply because the leaders or people who are linked to armed groups are in the assembly, that the assembly or the election cannot contribute to some sort of pacification process. In a way, I think it is the opposite. So long as you don't have the military force to address the militia problem, it might be -- at least in some situations -- better to have people inside the tent than outside of the tent. If you don't have the leaders of the militia in the assembly, it is quite possible that the assembly just doesn't mean anything.

RFE/RL: Any final thoughts about the lessons of the elections in Iraq and what impact the democratic process can have on the future of the conflict there?

Blanc: For the people of Iraq, the only thing that we can all have is the greatest of respect at the repeated courage they have shown in going out to vote in the face of tremendous threats -- and great sympathy and regret for the fact that the elections were not, to my mind, better designed strategically to contribute to a termination of the conflict. At this point in the conflict, I'm not convinced that a political process like an election can mean very much. Probably, it is going to take a little bit of time -- either some sort of negotiated solution or, unfortunately, an exhaustion of the civil war, before we can meaningfully start talking about what elections can contribute again.

RFE/RL: What final advice would you give to Afghanistan about the way the next elections are conducted there?

Blanc: In Afghanistan, I think the situation is more ambiguous. Over time, we might see that Afghan governments -- including [those empowered as] a result of the [last] elections and the result of future elections -- might be able to slowly negotiate improved conditions and a reduction in conflict. I think you've seen that in parts of the country already. I hope that the Afghans will consider whether some of the technical decisions they made in the first set of elections should be revised before the second set. This issue that I mentioned earlier about the system of representation would be one of them.


Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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