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Afghanistan’s 2014 Run-Off Election: An Observer’s Account

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The Pulse

Afghanistan’s 2014 Run-Off Election: An Observer’s Account

An independent observer of the 2014 Afghan general elections offers his impressions of Afghanistan’s 2014 run-off vote.

Afghanistan’s 2014 Run-Off Election: An Observer’s Account
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: This article focuses on Afghanistan’s presidential run-off election that took place on June 14, 2014. A similar account is available for the general presidential and provincial elections that took place on April 5, 2014 here.

On June 14, 2014 a two-member team of “international observers” with the Independent Election Commission (IEC), comprising Ms. Lucile Martin and I, visited a total of 13 polling centers in Kabul at which votes were being cast or counted for the presidential run-off election. In addition to observing and documenting polling procedures, our team was keen on capturing the atmosphere of polling day, and contrasting it with the presidential and provincial elections of April 5, 2014. The following notes briefly reflect my experiences observing the second chapter of Afghanistan’s historic elections.

Polling Day

The intention from the beginning was to observe polling centers in rural districts north of Kabul (to contrast with the April 5 experience). Once again, however, the logistics proved challenging, forcing my team (and other such international teams) to remain confined to Kabul’s inner and outer neighborhoods. In addition, and unlike the previous experience, we started the day at 9:30 a.m.; this was a precautionary measure designed to avoid any early morning attacks.

The route we selected was comprised of the following neighborhoods and districts (I provide an ethnic breakdown wherever possible): Qala-e Fatullah, with a mixed Pahtun, Tajik, and Hazara population; Kart-e Parwan, with a mixed Pashtun, Tajik, and Sikh population; Kart-e Sakhi, with a predominantly Hazara population (and smaller numbers of Tajiks and Pashtuns); Dar ul Aman; Bagh-e Qazi, with a predominantly Hazara population; Dasht-e Barchi, with a predominantly Hazara population; 6 Darak, with a mixed population; Makroyan, with a mixed population; Wazir Akbar Khan, with a mixed population; and finally, Taimani,with a mixed population.

The team’s experience got off to a disheartening start. The roads of Kabul were empty and queues at polling centers were next to non-existent, indicating a lower turn-out. We reached the Zarghonar School in Qala-e Fatullah at 9:50 a.m. and were struck by the international observer and media presence there; there were at least two other international teams and/or media groups present, along with plenty of candidate observers. Along with the Habibia High School in Dar ul Aman, these two centers were considered high profile enough to warrant the considerably higher attention – the former Interior Minister, Mujtaba Pathang, and Mansoor Faqiryar, captain of the national football team had voted at the Zarghonar School. There were three stations for men and four stations for women; the log-sheets indicated 764 male and 250 females had voted thus far (confirming the overall 3:1 ratio).

Our team then visited Naderiya School and Haji Mir Ahmad Mosque in Kart-e Parwan at 10:30 a.m.. At the former venue, the team did not encounter a single voter at the center’s six polling stations. Discussions with IEC staffers confirmed a lower turn-out (as evidenced by the log-sheets; 676 male and 110 female), but staffers were quick to indicate that it was still morning and they expected more voters to cast their votes over the course of the day. At the latter center IEC staffers were professional and maintained their vigilance over the ballot boxes despite very few voters trickling in sporadically. The majority of candidate observers, however, were seen smoking and chatting downstairs, without much care for their responsibilities. No international and/or Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) observers were present at either venue. Curiously, on two occasions, voters asked staffers and candidate observers whom they should vote for. This allowed for some staffers and candidate observers to suggest to voters that they should vote for a specific candidate (fellow observers informed me that they witnessed similar incidents at other polling centers across the city). Once again, the female turn-out was low with only 104 ballots cast.

Next, the team visited No. 19 Jamal Meena School and No. 13 Jamal Meena School in Kart-e Sakhi at 11:10 a.m.. There was no security check at the first school; security officials allowed the team to enter without conducting a proper body-search, which was disturbing. Shortly after entering the premises we learned that there were a number of ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) staff present. Prior to our arrival, a candidate observer had complained of staffers influencing voters to vote for specific candidates. Both IEC staffers and ECC officials told the team that this was not the case and that the observer was creating trouble; the EEC officials mentioned to our team that the issue had been resolved and everything was in order. The log-sheets at the center indicated a significantly higher turn-out than in previous centers, with 1119 male and 772 female votes cast. The security check at the second school was far more thorough, with security officials taking note of the team members’ names and affiliation. A FEFA observer was present at the venue, and IEC staffers and observer candidates were very forthcoming in offering any assistance to the team. Once again, the team did not witness a single voter voting and female staffers explained that turn-out was very low (383 female votes) because of purported attacks in Dar ul Aman and Kart-e Sanghi districts.

At 12 noon, the team reached the Habibia School in Dar ul Aman. There was a significant local media presence at the center. FEFA/Election Watch Organization of Afghanistan (EWA) and international observers were present, too. Security was high, possibly on account of Ashraf Ghani having voted here earlier during the day. Unlike on April 5, the center witnessed a higher turn-out with 1463 male votes cast, but a surprisingly low number of female votes (only 283 votes). Discussions with IEC staffers and candidate observers revealed that long queues had amassed at the center during the morning.

At 12:25 p.m., the team visited the Jafariya and Bibi Siddiqa Mosques in Bagh-e Qazi. The former polling center was in a state of quiet, with no voters present. Log sheets at the center’s five polling stations indicated 550 male and 227 female ballots cast. A FEFA observer was present at one of the female stations. IEC staffers and candidate observers at the latter center mentioned to the team that we were the first international or local observers to visit. The number of votes cast at this center was extremely low, with 198 male and 51 female ballots. The women’s section did not have any candidate observers from the Ghani camp. Staffers explained the low turn-out on account of explosions during the morning. By now our team observed that candidate observers for Abdullah typically outnumbered their counterparts 2:1.

After a brief lunch break, our team proceeded to Dasht-e Barchi. At 1:45 p.m. our team reached the Madrasa Khatamal Anibar. Yet again, very few voters were present. At first the IEC staffers and official in charge were reluctant to let our team check their log-sheets. My sense from the conversations is that the IEC official was unsure of international observers’ role and was suspicious of our motives – perhaps he felt we were singling out the center and the neighborhood. We explained that we were international observers and we were merely documenting numbers, and harbored no ill intention, upon which we were granted permission. Female staffers urged us (and by extension, international observers) to be present at centers from the very beginning of the process through to its close. They commented that merely visiting centers for brief periods of time did not benefit the overall process. The organization at this center was considerably superior to other centers, suggesting IEC staffers were well-trained.

At 2:15 p.m., the team reached the Setare School in 6 Darak. Polling at the single men’s station had closed 35 minutes earlier at 1:45 p.m. leading to considerable confusion. Staffers and candidates explained the station had exhausted its assigned ballot papers (the log sheet indicated 600 ballots had been cast). Upon arrival at the center, the team witnessed staffers using one of the female stations (and their log sheet) to register male voters still wishing to register their vote. When asked why they were not using the additional ballots assigned to their center, the staffers indicated they had not received any. They further indicated that they had mentioned the status to their superiors at the IEC and were awaiting additional resources. The center had an unusually high number of male security officers present, who were not necessarily casting votes (they did not have their fingers inked). There have been reports circulating that security officers have sometimes attempted to influence voter behavior, particularly among women. A European Union observer team arrived at the center shortly after us but seemed disinterested in engaging with the staffers, candidate observers, or voters.

At 2:35 p.m., the team reached the Abdul Hadi Dawi School in Makroyan. Here, very few candidate observers were present. The number of female votes cast was much higher than in previous centers – 553. A woman voter complained that IEC staffers were encouraging people to vote for a specific candidate. The male vote count stood at 903.

At 2:50 p.m., the team reached the Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Mosque in Wazir Akbar Khan. The total number of ballots cast at this center was significantly lower – 243 male votes and 139 female votes. Unlike in other centers Ghani and Abdullah, observers were seated separately and appeared not to be mingling. Discussions with observers from the Ghani camp led to us exchanging friendly banter. Earlier, the same observers were reluctant to converse with me, suspicious of my questions and motives.

Finally, at 4:10 p.m., the team arrived at Mohamad Dad Mosque in Taimani to observe vote counting. At first I was refused entry to the site of the (male) counting by candidate observers. I explained my role as an international observer but was met with consternation. I then requested to speak with IEC staffers and/or the IEC officer-in-charge but was met with further refusals. Only upon suggesting that I was being forced to contact the IEC and TOLO News was I allowed entry. Counting was proceeding at two separate stations with only two candidate observers present at each, none of whom was from the Abdullah camp. One of the IEC staffers explained to me that no more observers were being allowed entry because the room was becoming too hot!

Counting at the two stations was neither systematic nor efficient, bringing into question the staffers’ professionalism. At the first station, the IEC staffers were laying out some of the piles of votes on a desk, others on the floor in front. The lead staffer was racing through the count, and seemed to lack proper regard for the process: he did not hold aloft each ballot to allow view of the IEC issued stamps or voters’ tick marks; the candidate observers did not object. Further, there was no clear system of categorizing “invalid/void” votes: it was clear to my team that while both ticks and signatures (often both together) cast in favor of X candidate were accepted as valid, the same was not applied to votes cast in favor of Y candidate. Counting at the second station was equally inconsistent. Again, there was no agreement on how to categorize “invalid/void” votes. When one observer pointed out a discrepancy, one of the IEC staffers suggested, jokingly, “how does it matter, they will all be recounted again at the IEC [headquarters].”

Brief Impressions from Polling Day

The overall voter turnout in Kabul was considerably lower than on April 5, 2014. While the absence of long queues at polling centers – as observed by most international teams across the city – is not in itself evidence of this claim, an examination of voter log-sheets will attest this. There were, however, several centers in Pashtun neighborhoods where polling stations exceeded their allocated ballot sheets. This indicates Pashtuns came out in large numbers to vote for Ghani (presumably), while Tajik and Hazara neighborhoods recorded lower votes cast (indeed, several observers are claiming Abdullah failed to mobilise new Hazara voters, for instance).

Second, although the electoral process has come a long way since 2009, logistical shortcomings persist. While some issues experienced during the April 5 elections were addressed somewhat – for instance, the ballot paper contingencies – on polling days, the IEC, Home Ministry and police will need to coordinate their operations better so as to ensure delivery of resources as and when required. Failure to deliver ballot papers to polling centers results in accusations of electoral manipulation leveled against the IEC and government. Perhaps more importantly, discrepancies between result sheet tallies and official IEC tallies need to be addressed. Following the April 5 elections, there were numerous reported cases of discrepancies between result sheets posted outside polling centers and the IEC tally. This resulted in loss of legitimacy for the IEC because the EEC basically accused the former of fraud. Measures need to be put in place to avoid such repetitions.

Third, the professionalism of IEC staffers, for the most part, was evident. Yet, staffers require more thorough training so as to minimize inconsistencies in management and conduct. More often than not, IEC staffers are unaware of the role of international observers, leading to suspicion and tension. The IEC and internationals also need to impress upon their staff the responsibility and value of neutrality – people do not appreciate attempts by staffers (or candidate observers) to influence their vote.

The Wider Picture

I begin by noting that several officials, analysts and observers I spoke with prior to polling day were anticipating lower turn-outs country-wide: voters are not enthusiastic, and security continues to be a concern, they observed. Contradicting this observation, the IEC indicates a voter turn-out of over 7 million with a 38 percent female voter turnout. If this figure is accurate, then both the overall turnout and female voter turnouts are higher when compared to the April 5 election. While it is too early to assess the veracity of early projections, there are some crucial observations to be made: first, and as I anticipated previously, the April 5 election may have had a ‘cascade effect’ on the run-off leading to an equal or higher overall turnout. Second, the results of the previous election forced Pashtuns to come out and vote in larger numbers; this is evidenced in the province of Paktia where tribal elders broke with tradition to allow their wives and daughters to cast their votes.

What, then, explains the lower turn-out in Kabul? Voting in non-urban centers is much more structured and parties/candidates are able to mobilize votes better. In contrast, voting in urban centers tend to be more personalized. This is best exemplified by Kabuli youth who, somewhat surprisingly, did not vote in large numbers as expected; several of my Afghan middle class friends and colleagues did not vote, for instance.

Next, the electoral process itself proceeded much more smoothly this time around. First, the lack of a cumbersome provincial and presidential ballot ensured voter queues moved quickly along; the voting process could not be any simpler since voters had to choose between just two presidential candidates. This explains why several polling stations boasted of high voter counts by 10-11 a.m.; such was the ease with which the process progressed. Second, contingencies were put in place to counter any logistical shortfalls: all polling centers were supplied with a surplus of 5 percent extra ballots with specific centers that experienced severe shortfalls issued an additional 5 percent (bringing the total to 10 percent extra ballots at these centers). Despite these measures, and as observed by other observer teams, several polling centers ran out of ballot papers. IEC staffers and candidate observers complained to observer teams (including ours) that the IEC failed to deliver additional ballots, keeping the centers waiting for several hours. Yet again, this shortcoming highlights the urgent need for a voter-registry process in Afghanistan.

Somewhat worryingly, some suggest that the preliminary results indicate the ethnic nature of voting. An editor from the influential 8 Subh newspaper provides the following breakdown, countrywide: 80 percent of Pashtuns have voted for Ashraf Ghani, 95 percent of Tajiks have voted for Abdullah, 70 percent of Uzbeks have voted for Ashraf Ghani, and 65 percent of Hazaras have voted for Abdullah. While too early to verify, such an analysis may be premature and misplaced. First, 80 percent of Pashtuns voting for Ghani indicates anything but ethnicization; and while a 95 percent Tajik vote for Abdullah may indicate ethnicization it is difficult to imagine Tajiks not voting for a first potential Tajik President. Yes, Abdullah’s post- April 5 mujahideen rhetoric and overtures smack of ethnicization and may have cost him non-Tajik votes (both Pashtuns and Hazaras are wary of mujahideen, particularly the Panjsheris), but to assess that this reinforces the ethnic nature of politics misses the mark. Second, reports from Uruzgan suggest that the percentage vote is 60-40 in Ghani’s favour. If Abdullah garnered 40 percent of the vote in the southern provinces – recall Abdullah winning 20 percent of the vote in Kandahar in April – it decimates the ethic argument. It also makes Abdullah the favorite to win.

Moving on, and given the stakes involved in this election, fraud is obviously the biggest concern. On the very day of the polling, the IEC Secretary-General, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was accused by the Kabul Police Chief, General Zahir Zahir, of trying to commit fraud. Allegedly, Amarkhail was caught red-handed trying to smuggle ballots out of the IEC headquarters with his son and two bodyguards. Whatever the outcome of pursuant investigations, the IEC will have to contend with further trust and legitimacy deficits. There are also concerns with the IEC projections. Several observers and analysts opine the turnout was not as high as the IEC are inclined to suggest, and place the turnout figure at a more modest figure. Numbers speak volumes, and the evidence raises questions: for instance, Ashraf Ghani is rumored to have received 1.2 million votes from the three stronghold provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika where the total number of registered voters are less than this number. This suggests 100 percent or more of registered voters including women voted. The total number of votes from these provinces was 1/3 of the estimated 1.2 million in the April 5 elections. It should be noted, however, that not all voters are registered and different identity cards are admissible. Therefore, a better and more reliable indicator for fraud is the number of ballot papers cast that exceed the number of ballot papers allocated per center: Khost, Ghazni, and Paktia all indicate numbers in excess of 600/station. Typically, 100 percent utilization of ballots or 600+ votes (i.e. exceptionally high turn-out in excess of ballots issued), and multiple whole number figures ending with “0” are good indicators of fraudulent activity. Discussions of fraud notwithstanding, it is impossible to dismiss reports that Khost, Paktia, and Kunar provinces saw a radical rise in votes cast by new voters (Pashtuns).

Ballot stuffing is not the only type of fraud that is of concern; manipulative activities erode trust in the electoral process and the institutions involved. Observer reports from around the country highlight subtle fraudulent behavior. As I have narrated above, there appears to be no systematic process by which to distinguish between valid and “invalid/void” ballots. While the IEC had instructed specifically that only a “tick” mark is permissible, IEC staffers and candidate observers seemed unaware of this instruction (there were no visible instructions at polling stations we visited); instead, finger prints and signatures were being permitted, and that too often in favor of one candidate to the detriment of the other. The IEC instruction itself contradicts international electoral “best practices”: as long as the intention of the voter is clear – indicated by ticks, signatures (even outside the designated zone, as long as they do not interfere with other candidates) – ballots cast should be considered valid. The question then is, does the IEC implement international best practices consistently? The answer is an emphatic “No.” A corollary concern is that a high number of invalidated votes tells a story: it indicates both the lack of training for IEC staffers and institutional shortcomings.

How, then, does the IEC prevent electoral manipulation at polling centers? An atmosphere riddled with inconsistencies – such as staff invalidating perfectly legitimate votes – not only embarrasses the IEC, but adds to the suspicion of fraud. Suppose X candidate received 400 votes at a polling center, only to have 100 of those votes invalidated because they were erroneously declared “invalid/void.” Repetitions of such shortcomings will skew vote counts enough to level accusations of fraud against the overseeing institution, adding to the chaos. Hence, better training of IEC staff (and candidate observers) is a must. More importantly, perhaps, the IEC needs to improve its image, reputation, and legitimacy to be able to withstand both small and large-scale discrepancies.

Meanwhile, some 150 minor attacks were launched against polling centers and voters countrywide, and cost the lives of 46 civilians (including 11 electoral officials), and 16 security officials. Compared to the 600 attacks launched during the April 5 election, this signifies a drop of almost 70 percent and heralds the professionalism and success of the security forces; the NDS (National Directorate of Security) reports that Afghan security officials and agencies foiled some 450 attacks countrywide in the lead up to the run-off. Despite such success, reports from Herat confirm a sordid story that the Taliban cut off the forefingers of 11 people in a desperate attempt to dissuade voters from going to the polls. In Kabul itself, despite four rocket attacks launched at the international airport during the early hours of the morning, security seemed lax and poor as compared to April 5. While the numbers of security check posts were numerous, vehicle and person searches were far from thorough; our own vehicle was waved through more often than not.

Finally, the post-election campaign narratives (accusations of fraud and votes won) are already in swing – despite calls from the IEC and government to desist from such behavior – and appear ugly. During the April 5 elections, the leading candidates were blaming each other of fraudulent activity. Following the June 14 elections, candidates are targeting the IEC, accusing it of fraud. Specifically, Abdullah seems to be blaming the IEC (and more recently, President Karzai) while Ashraf Ghani appears to be accusing the government machinery, i.e. the Tajik-dominated police and armed forces.

For millions of Afghans the elections are a source of hope. It is imperative for this reason that the candidates ensure the people’s faith in the electoral process by rising above politics and assisting the various institutional mechanisms in their mutual struggle to achieve a strong and healthy democracy.

Mr. Srinjoy Bose is a Prime Minister’s Endeavour Scholar at the Australian National University. In April and June 2014, he was a Special Guest observer at the Presidential and Provincial Council elections in Afghanistan.