When election fraud is met by congratulations
By Stephen Gowans
It has become standard practice in many parts of the world for opposition candidates to decry as fraudulent election results that favor the incumbent. Charges of vote fraud are routinely levelled against governing parties that win elections contested by opposition parties backed by Western governments.
For example, after (and even before) Zimbabwe’s last set of elections, the governing Zanu-PF party was accused of vote fraud, but the evidence for the opposition’s claim was gathered by organizations funded by the United States, a major backer of the opposition movement. Washington makes no secret of its desire to drive the incumbent president, Robert Mugabe, from power, by hook or crook, not because he’s corrupt, despotic or a human rights abuser, as Washington alleges, but because he has done what all foreign leaders back to Lenin have done who have fallen astray of Washington – failed to honor contracts and safeguard private property. (That’s not to say Mugabe and Lenin are alike in any way other than having committed what in Washington’s view is the supreme crime.) A cooked exit poll is not beyond the motivations and capabilities of US and British-backed anti-Mugabe forces, but that’s largely beside the point. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF did poorly in the election, and Mugabe, himself, failed to win a first round victory in the presidential election. If Zanu-PF rigged the vote, it blundered badly.
Similarly, the outcome of the last Iranian presidential election, which saw the return to power of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was denounced by the opposition as a fraud. The charge was taken up by Western politicians, journalists and a substantial fraction of the Western left, despite the opposition’s failure to produce a single jot of credible evidence that the election was stolen. Worse, the sole methodologically sound public opinion poll taken prior to the election – funded by the international arm of the Republican Party, the IRI – predicted that Ahmadinejad would win by a wide margin – wider, it turns out, than the margin he actually did win by. This was a case of widespread distaste for Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Islamic Revolution leading to the collective dulling of critical faculties. To be sure, if one hated Ahmadinejad and fundamentalist Islam (or fundamentalist religion, period), witnessing Iranians embrace secular Western enlightenment values was bracing indeed. The only problem was there was no evidence it actually happened.
We might expect, then, that charges of vote fraud will be routinely levelled against governing parties that win elections contested by opposition parties backed by Western governments, and that the Western media will accept the charges uncritically. This happens regularly.
But what of cases in which the weight of evidence points to an incumbent, backed by the US government, winning an election by fraud? How might we expect Western politicians, Western media, and even the UN, to react? One would predict that they would try to cover it up, and failing that, minimize its significance. Conspicuously absent would be the indignant denunciations that attend the electoral losses of parties backed by Western governments.
In Afghanistan’s August presidential elections, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, who had initially been installed in his position by the US government, failed to win a first round victory. This we know now, largely owing to the efforts of the UN’s former number two man in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, who blew the whistle on extensive fraud perpetrated by the Karzai-appointed Independent Electoral Commission.  Also involved in the fraud, according to a recent New York Times report, was the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. 
Galbraith charged that the Karzai appointed electoral commission abandoned “its published anti-fraud policies, allowing it to include enough fraudulent votes in the final tally to put Karzai over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.” Galbraith estimated that “as many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent.” But when he “called the chief electoral officer to urge him to stick with the original guidelines, Karzai issued a formal protest accusing” Galbraith of foreign interference. Galbraith’s boss, Kai Eide “sided with Karzai”, effectively concealing the electoral fraud.  Eide told Galbraith that “the UN mandate was only to support the Afghan institutions in their decisions, not to tell them to hold an honest election.” 
At the centre of the fraud were ghost polling centres (1,500 inaccessible locations that were physically impossible to confirm the existence of), a corrupt election commission,  and the president’s brother. Ahmed Wali Karzai, “a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal (drug) trade” receives “regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency.” He “orchestrated the manufacture of hundreds of thousands of phony ballots”  and “is also believed to have been responsible for setting up dozens of so-called ghost polling stations — existing only on paper — that were used to manufacture tens of thousands of phony ballots.” 
In other words, the UN was involved in an attempt to cover up vote fraud, while the CIA, through the president’s brother, was at least indirectly involved in perpetrating it.
Some US news analysts, dismissing the affair as of little consequence, insist the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, stood no chance against Karzai in a fair vote anyway. But an honest account of the initial vote “would have had Karzai at 41% and Abdullah at 34%,”  putting Abdullah within striking distance of victory in a run-off election. Abdullah, however, refused to participate, arguing that there was no reason to believe the run-off would be any less corrupt than the initial vote. He has a point. While Karzai’s electoral commission was asked to eliminate “the ghost polling centres and to replace staff who committed fraud,” Karzai increased the number of centres and rehired the authors of the initial fraud. 
The sole concern of officials in Washington – who, when their favored candidates abroad fail to win elections, present themselves as champions of fair elections and lead the charge to have the allegedly fraudulent election overturned — has not been that the Afghan election was stolen, or that Abdullah withdrew because the prospects for a fair run-off were slim. On the contrary, with Karzai winning another term as president only because Abdullah withdrew over legitimate fears the run-off election would be unfair, the official US response has been to “congratulate President Karzai on his victory in this historic election and look forward to working with him.”  Instead, Washington’s sole concern has been the exposure of electoral fraud, and its effect in undermining the legitimacy of their man in Kabul (who never had much legitimacy in the first place.)
Contrast the US reaction with the sharp Western criticism of Robert Mugabe after Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew from the run-off round of Zimbabwe’s last presidential election, claiming the conditions were not conducive to a fair vote. The difference is as wide as night and day.
Where are the stern lectures, the US-government and ruling class foundation-assisted nonviolent pro-democracy activists, the blanket mass media coverage of Afghanistan’s stolen election, the denunciations of Karzai as a dictator – all which attend the defeat of US-backed opposition movements in elections where the charges of fraud have become routine and the evidence for fraud bare to non-existent?
The reaction to electoral fraud, then, depends on the answer to a single question: Does Washington back the beneficiary of the alleged fraud or not? Or more fundamentally, does the beneficiary promote the sanctity of contracts, private property, free trade, free enterprise and free markets? If the answer is no, the reaction will be one of indignation and outrage, even where the evidence of fraud is thin to absent. If the answer is yes, the reaction will be muted, even where the evidence of fraud is voluminous and incontrovertible. Between Zimbabwe and Iran on the one hand, and Afghanistan on the other, official outrage, and therefore the outrage of the media, and therefore the outrage of the people, including a substantial part of the left, has been inversely proportional to the weight of evidence that fraud has actually occurred.
Washington cares not one whit about democracy — only about the interests of the corporations, investors and banks that dominate its policy-making. If “democracy” comports to those interests, well and good. If not, there are no phoney allegations of electoral fraud Washington is not prepared to take a hand in propagating, and no genuine electoral fraud it is unwilling to live with.
1. Peter W. Galbraith, “What I saw at the Afghan election,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2009.
2. Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, “Brother of Afghan leader is said to be on C.I.A payroll,” The New York Times, October 28, 2009.
3. Galbraith, October 4.
4. Peter Galbraith, “Karzai was hellbent on victory. Afghans will pay the price,” The Guardian (UK), November 2, 2009.
6. Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen, October 28.
8. Galbraith, November 2.
10. Statement of U.S. Embassy in Kabul, reported in Michael Muskal, “U.S. congratulates Afghan President Karzai on another term in office,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2009.