The South Asia Channel

Was the Afghan Election Stolen?

Recent developments have diminished the trust of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) in the public mindset and further weakened the institution's credibility and impartiality. Public trust in the IEC reached a new low following a press conference in which the IEC Chairman, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, announced that the voter turnout was above 7 million only two hours after polling had closed. The basis on which this figure was calculated is highly problematic as election staff from all thirty-four provinces could not have had enough time to report their data to the IEC. Moreover, the trouble with the IEC's 7 million-plus figure was that it crossed the record voter turnout of 6.9 million in the first round of the presidential election. As the first round fielded nine presidential candidates and the provincial council elections, it was expected that the combination of the two would generate a higher voter turnout. Critics therefore called into question the IEC's seven million-plus number as the second round of the presidential election did not have provincial council elections and only fielded two presidential candidates. 

The gap of approximately one million votes has been perceived by presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah's camp as the IEC's attempt to artificially inflate the voter turnout as a means to create the necessary numerical space to stuff ballot boxes in favor of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani-Ahmadzai. The IEC's inflated figure has gained notoriety since Abdullah's lead over his competitor was 887,494 votes after the first round of the election, meaning that at least a million votes are needed to swing the election. Bridging this gap would be a significant challenge as low voter turnout was reported by a prominent domestic observer organization, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), whose director, Naeem Ayubzada, openly called the IEC's figures "inflated" and remarked that voter turnout was between 5-6 million. In terms of electoral fraud, the chairman of FEFA, Nader Nadery said it appeared that "fraud has happened in different parts of the country but we just don't know the scale of it." 

A second development which tarnished the legitimacy of the IEC transpired when its Secretariat Chief, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was stopped by the police chief of Kabul for attempting to transport unused ballot material out of the IEC headquarters after polling had ended. His attempt was broadcast live on Afghan television and the incident sharpened widely held fears of electoral fraud. In the aftermath of this development, neither the IEC nor Amarkhail could offer a reasonable explanation to clarify his actions thereby generating suspicion that the unused ballots were intended for fraudulent use.

The IEC's initial refusal to suspend or investigate its head of secretariat resulted in Abdullah's team to cease its cooperation with the IEC and called for U.N.-led mediation. Furthermore, Abdullah's team appears to have devoted its resources to unveiling Amarkhail's (and by extension the IEC's) role in electoral fraud. The latter came to light on 22 June during a press conference from the Abdullah camp where they played intercepted mobile phone conversations that allegedly implicated the Secretariat Chief discussing ways and means to trip the electoral process in favor of the rival presidential candidate. While the audio recordings have not been verified for their authenticity, their release has intensified the political crisis and has cast a fear that tensions might escalate and lead to violence. Since this incident unfolded, Amarkhail stepped down from his position and "strongly rejected" the accusations made against him. Making matters worse, new reports indicate that Amarkhail quietly left Kabul on a flight bound for Dubai. It is unsurprising that such precarious events have failed to inspire confidence or rebuild trust for the IEC in the public's viewpoint.

I had the opportunity to serve as an International Observer for the presidential run-off election in Afghanistan. I received my accreditation as an International Observer from the IEC, which granted me access to all polling centers in the country. The logistics component was organized by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) for which I am very grateful. On June 14, 2014, I visited a total of six polling centers in Kabul to observe the presidential election's run-off vote. 

In Kabul, the polling centers that I visited included the Abdul Alim Mustaghi High School in District 6 near Karte-3, the Habibia High School in District 7, the Quran Waetrat Mosque in Dasht-e-Barche, and the Ittefaq Mosque in Daste-e-Barche, the Durrani High School in Tehmor Shayi, and the Alfattah High School in Makroyan.

On the morning of polling day we received security advisories suggesting that insurgent attacks could take place early in the day to create fear amongst voters thus affecting voter turnout. As a result, my start was delayed by a couple of hours. These advisories were not unfounded as a FEFA colleague and I heard an explosion, which was later confirmed as a rocket attack at a polling center in a neighboring district. Apart from this experience, I did not encounter any other violence that day. 

Polling center opening times and procedures

Two polling centers opened late. It was confirmed by the IEC officials and presidential candidate observers at the Abdul Alim Mustaghi High School and the Ittefaq Mosque that these centers opened at least ten minutes late, each. A clear explanation was not provided despite several attempts to determine why the polling centers opened behind schedule.

The procedures put in place by the IEC meant that each polling center would have a varied number of polling stations for men and women. Polling stations for men were usually higher than that for women (mostly a four to three ratio). The only exception was the Ittefaq Mosque polling center which had an equal number of polling stations for men and women: two each.

Technical procedures established by the IEC authorized a limit of 600 ballot papers per polling station (in six booklets of 100 each). This meant that ballot papers could run out at some polling centers if replacements did not arrive on time from the IEC and voter turnout was high. It also required that the logbooks used to record voter registration numbers had to be numbered from 1-600 to correspond to the maximum number of voters permitted to vote at a polling station. At the Durrani High School, a polling station was using a logbook that was printed incorrectly. Instead of being numbered from 1-600, the logbook jumped from 1-94 to 481-600. The gap from 95-480 was filled manually on the extra pages of the same logbook but a second (also printed incorrectly) was required as the first logbook ran out of space. The IEC official reported this problem to his superiors and they instructed him to continue the voting process. A formal method of reporting this problem to the IEC did not appear to be in place, even though the IEC official claimed otherwise as this inconsistency was handwritten in a regular notebook. In contrast, the logbooks at all other polling stations were numbered correctly.

Voter fraud

The use of fraudulent voter ID cards in small numbers was detected at a few polling centers. At the Habibia High School and the Ittefaq Mosque, two voters and one voter respectively, attempted to cast their ballots using voter ID cards that were allegedly issued in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Closer inspection of these voter ID cards revealed an entirely different design template to the voter ID cards issued by the IEC. The most serious design inconsistencies revealed the absence of voter photographs, the omission of the IEC's seal, and missing unique nine-digit serial numbers. The look and feel of these cards was notably different as they were printed on regular printing paper with a white background -- as opposed to the IEC issued cards that are thicker and have a different color. 

In a different case of fraud, one vigilant IEC staffer at the Quran Waetrat Mosque pointed out an Afghan voter ID card that he had cut into pieces. The staffer had destroyed it because the card had been tampered with to replace the photograph of the voter. The IEC officials and staffers at these polling centers did not allow the bearers of these fraudulent ID cards to vote. However, only the IEC staffer at the Ittefaq Mosque confiscated the tampered ID card and handed over the non-IEC card to the Afghan National Police who seized it for further investigation. This meant that the two voters who came to the Habibia High School could walk over to another polling center and try their luck at voting again. In other words, responses to fraudulent voter cards were inconsistent by the IEC.

IEC complaints 

During the monitoring of polling stations, a couple of IEC officials complained about the attention given to international observers due to their disinterest in conducting procedural checks. For instance, at the Quran Waetrat Mosque, an IEC official expressed his disappointment with members of a particular European observation group, whom he claimed were more interested in taking pictures of themselves but not conducting procedural checks at any of the men's polling stations. He questioned the presence of international observers and asked why they were needed if they were not doing their job properly. He then pointed out to FEFA's observers whom he said had arrived at 6 AM and were actively conducting their work as domestic observers. Likewise, IEC officials at one of the polling stations at the Habibia High School commented that although they received international observers frequently, a number of them did not conduct the expected checks and instead used the opportunity to click pictures without interacting with election officials or staffers.

Voter turnout 

Driving between the polling centers, the driver of my car remarked: "Kabul is more quiet today than during the days of the Taliban." This sentiment highlighted the empty roads and an eerie silence that also reflected a lower voter turnout than was expected. The logbook at the Abdul Alim Mustaghi High School at showed a low voter turnout in the morning. Lower voter turnout was also observed at the Durrani High School in the afternoon, when they had registered only 508 out of a possible 1800 votes with only an hour left to go before polling closed. However, marginally higher voter turnout could be seen at the Habibia High School, where, according to the logbook, 988 out of a possible 2400 men had voted when I visited. 

A visibly higher voter turnout was recorded at the Quran Waetrat Mosque mid-morning when the logbook showed that 1713 out of 2400 men had voted. The Ittefaq Mosque registered a high voter turnout of 980 men out of 1200 around noon. Finally, the voter turnout at the Alfattah High School was also high as at 1550 out of 1800 voters had cast their vote by afternoon. In order to accommodate the higher voter turnout at that polling center, IEC officials opened an additional polling station at 1:00 p.m., which had recorded 29 votes.

As the preliminary results of the run-off vote have yet to be released, this analysis cannot compare voter turnout to the first round of the election held on April 5, 2014. However, the lack of voter queues outside polling stations when they opened early in the morning, together with the trickling in of voters during my observation of the polling centers, and the accounts of fellow election observers pointed to a noticeable slump in voter turnout. 

The overall voter turnout in Afghanistan's presidential election was a symbolic act of defiance. Afghans voted in large numbers for their next president despite acts and threats of violence by the Taliban, an enemy they are intensely familiar with and which has cost them so much. An overwhelming majority of Afghans expect the IEC to fulfill its responsibility to deliver an honest election without fraud. To lower that expectation is to condone electoral theft and legitimize its occurrence simply because of the ease of the argument that conflict persistence in Afghanistan sanctions a lessening of electoral standards. Stealing an election in a Western democracy would never be tolerated, so why should it be acceptable for Afghans?

The problem with tolerating electoral fraud (no matter how modest) in Afghanistan is that it does immeasurable harm not only to the electoral process but also to the outcome because it overtly diminishes the purpose of the franchise. Electoral theft is a serious criminal offence and its perpetrators deserve to be prosecuted and punished if found guilty. Moreover, if the primary electoral institution in any country is found to have stolen the voice of a nation it amounts to nothing less than treason. It is reckless to believe that a fraudulent election can deliver political stability anywhere. Millions of Afghans have exercised their right to vote and their voice must be respected, no matter what the end result. 

Nishank Motwani is a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales in Canberra who is researching the regional dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan. He has master's degrees in Strategic Studies and Diplomatic Studies from the Australian National University.

 

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