The South Asia Channel

Crisis of Confidence in the Afghan Election Process

On Saturday, June 14, Afghans went to the polls for a second time to choose their next president in a run-off election between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Within hours of the polls closing, Abdullah's team knew that something had gone horribly wrong for their side. Much like the 2009 election, initial reports indicated significant voting irregularities, including massive amounts of ballot stuffing. In 2014, however, the crisis of confidence in the election process is not between the two candidates themselves, but between Abdullah and current President Hamid Karzai.

The 2009 election was also a contest primarily between Abdullah and Karzai -- Ghani received only 3 percent of the vote. Right after the election, Abdullah alleged that polling stations in the south had a very low turnout -- about 10 percent of voters -- and yet, the "official returns were inflated to show that up to 40 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, with all results in favor of the incumbent." Back then, Abdullah withdrew from the election and did not contest the results in a runoff -- Karzai did not secure the 51 percent necessary for an outright win -- stating that there was no point in him taking part in an election "where the odds [were] illegally stacked against him." He even went so far as to say: "We will not take part [in a runoff], because of the wrongdoing of the Independent Election Commission and the abuse of power by the government."

Although there were complaints of fraud in the first round of elections in April, Abdullah came out on top with a nearly 14 percent-lead over the second runner up, Ghani. Ghani, a former senior World Bank official with internationally-accepted impeccable credentials, has been a formidable opponent with a serious following and good plans for the future. If anything, the campaign season between them has been heated at times but the overall discourse has been cordial and professional. As such, Abdullah did not contest the first-round results and the stage was set for a runoff between two well-respected, well-intentioned, and exceptionally well-qualified men.

But just over 24 hours after the runoff election polls closed, Abdullah demanded an investigation into and the dismissal of the Independent Election Commission's (IEC's) deputy, Zia Ul-Haq Amarkhail, linking voter fraud to him and his staff. According to a senior Abdullah supporter, the Kabul police apprehended Amarkhail's staff as they tried to remove a large number of ballots, allegedly needed in Surobi district due to shortages. The next day, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, a respected politician and the IEC Chairman, came out in support of Amarkhail, dismissing the need for an investigation. Yet it is interesting to note that Abdullah's allegations of fraud have not been directed towards Ghani's campaign team; rather, they are aimed squarely on the election body handpicked by Karzai.

Despite pleas from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Ghani to give the IEC time to conduct its count and review complaints, Abdullah is not accepting the second round election antics. In fact, it appears that he considers the IEC anything but ‘independent,' and in many ways an instrument that remains loyal to the wishes and manipulations of Karzai. If it turns out that Karzai is indeed influencing the IEC, and its sister organization, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), the international community's hopes that this election will mark Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power will fall far short of its over-optimistic expectations.

Allegations of "industrial level fraud" suggest that entire provinces, particularly in the east, have been inflated in favor of Ghani. According to an Afghan official familiar with the specific complaints in the east, the election returns in Paktia, Paktika, Khost, and Kunar provinces are so inflated that they reflect twice the registered voters in these provinces. In many regards, the situation is near identical to the 2009 elections, in which 1.2 million ballots were discarded as fraudulent -- most of them in favor of Karzai. At that time, Abdullah's reaction was quite passive; this time, however, he is being more assertive.

While Abdullah has not levied fraud allegations against Ghani himself, the former finance minister is taking great exception to Abdullah's aggressive stance. According to Ghani's spokesman: "If Dr. Abdullah is not announced as unconditional winner, then the country might be led toward a crisis."

Karzai, for his part, is not budging an inch. He did not yield to any of Abdullah's demands for election reform in 2009 and does not appear willing to consider any adjustments to the IEC/ECC in 2014. Perhaps, he was counting on Abdullah to react in a similar fashion and, if the election results favored Ghani, bow out of the elections quietly. Thus far, this seems highly unlikely.

Or maybe, he is counting on Abdullah's team to challenge the results in an unconstitutional way, giving Karzai room to disqualify him as a candidate and either award the elections to Ghani or deem them invalid and continue to rule for some time. Although hypothetical, these possibilities are the talk of Kabul these days and many are concerned that Afghanistan is heading to a constitutional showdown.

In the coming days, we will see massive demonstrations by civil society groups and disenfranchised voters, the size and scope of which Afghanistan has not seen in recent time. Abdullah's supporters are already dissatisfied with the process and in demonstrating early, they are hoping that the pressure on the IEC/ECC will increase to the point that they "do the right thing" and discard fraudulent ballots, particularly in provinces with twice as many votes than registered voters, the candidate said at a press conference on Wednesday.

During the same press conference, Abdullah added that he has lost trust in the IEC and the election process and, as a result, is suspending his engagement with the committee and withdrawing his election monitors. Additionally, he called for the election-counting process to be halted immediately (without the presence of the election monitors). While he did not describe the exact process that he'd like to see in place, Abdullah hinted that the U.N. should be involved to ensure impartiality.

Unfortunately, this crisis of confidence in the election process is the tip of the iceberg. On one hand, nobody could accept the results of, what rumors have is, a greater number of votes than the estimated number of residents in certain provinces. But on the other, Karzai's inability to address some of Abdullah's concerns or, more importantly, his inability to prevent or his complicity in the fraud is calling into question whether or not he has Afghanistan's best interest at heart. And although he has remained out of the limelight during the election process, Karzai still yields significant influence over the outcome.

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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