Political Landscape

An Update on Voter Registration


Last Thursday, August 12, saw the conclusion of yet another stage on the road to the elections of 18 September. Making sure all those eligible to vote get their voter cards (and one card per voter only) is clearly a major part of any free and fair election. But in what has become something of a habit, the two-month long period designated for the registration of voters and the distribution of voting cards ended in polemics and accusations. AAN analyst Fabrizio Foschini tries to summarize the major features of this process.

The voter registration (VR) and the distribution of electoral cards came to a close few days ago. Judging by the scant attention it received from the media, until its very end, it was viewed as one of the minor aspects of the electoral campaign.
Much of the ado that was raised came from a couple of reports from Kabul-based Pajhwok News Agency on 28 July and 6 Augustrespectively. Before that, the process had left few traces on the debate about elections.

Starting on 12 June, the registration was focussed at young voters who had turned eighteen since the last campaign, recently returned refugees, people who had moved their residence or simply lost the cards previously issued to them.
Notwithstanding the fact that more than 17 million voting cards have already been distributed during the last 6 years, far more than the usually quoted figure of around 12.5 million voters likely to take part in an election, the number of new registrations was high. The IEC spokesman told AAN there were between 376,000 and 400,000 fresh registrations.

With such high numbers, it is not surprising that complaints about the quality of the process started very early. The most common criticisms were the low number of voter registration centres opened at provincial level (they ranged from a minimum of two to a maximum of five – two seems to have been the average in the countrywide), and their location usually limited to the provincial capital, meaning that those living in peripheral districts have to choose to take a difficult and often dangerous journey. This has seriously hampered the number of those who decide to register. Requests from local residents ranged from an increase in the sheer number of the registration centres or of their staff to the creation of mobile registration units. In 2005, these helped reach out to isolated areas.

The requests for the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to send mobile teams came, of course, from remote provinces like Nuristan where the governor, Jamaluddin Badar, was reported as stating that more than half the provincial residents would not be able to participate in the elections, adding that in the provincial capital’s district alone, there were 20,000 to 30,000 potential voters who did not possess a card(*).

However, the same need was also manifested in safer and more accessible provinces like Balkh, where all three registration centres were located in Mazar-e Sharif city, and where in early July a local candidate calculated that around one third of the potential voters would probably not be able to participate in the elections unless mobile registration centres where to be established soon.

But some of the major troubles appear to have happened in Kabul itself. Reports of queuing and long waits in front of the registration offices started in late June, but the issue only exploded in the last two weeks of the registration period.

The appearance of the VR in the news was closely related to reports about irregularities taking place in the registration centres of Kabul. On one hand, it seems that some candidates gathered supporters from other neighbouring provinces – usually their place of origin – to get registered in Kabul, organising their transportation by hiring trucks or minivans. An examination of the places of origin of some of these ‘additional’ voters shows them to have often come from areas where voting in itself would be problematic, like Logar, Wardak, Northern Baghlan or Ghorband district of Parwan, eliminating thus another obstacle for their casting their ballots in Kabul.

On the other hand, police started to exploit the congested situation in front of the registration centres by according quick entrance only to particular groups of applicants who declared allegiance to those candidates who had paid bribes . This took place especially at the Chaman-e Hozuri centre, the one near the stadium, that was kept open even on Fridays.

At the same time, a report from Nangarhar hints at the possibility of many voters possessing more than one voter card, either having been issued with more than one – an especially easy task if accomplished in the name of real or invented female relations – or having purchased fake ones; rumours are also circulating widely in Kabul that large amounts of voting cards are being manufactured in Pakistan.

But what has the reaction of the electoral bodies to the difficulties and criticism been? The IEC seems to have been inflexible in denying the magnitude of the problem, moreover attributing it to the huge number of applicants for registration and distribution of voting cards. Its head Fazl Ahmad Manawi, while celebrating publicly the achievements of his first 100 days of tenure, dismissed the scarcity of registration and distribution centres in the capital as suggested by a journalist, stating that he was confident there were enough of them in the “main areas in Kabul.”

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) kept declaring itself unaware of any of the mentioned episodes till the very last days of the process. This may well proceed from reticence on the part of individuals to file official complaints (even if the ECC is usually lamenting the opposite trend, that is to say: everybody is only too eager to accuse his rivals). Anyway, when they finally acknowledged the facts, the ECC did declare the right of Kabul candidates to submit challenges and its willingness to investigate the cases presented to it. In response to all the problems and hindrances that the registration and distribution process went through, after receiving many complaints from candidates and would-be voters alike, the ECC ultimately took the step of pleading with the IEC for an extension of the closing date and the implementation of some of the suggested improvements – among which was the famous mobile units scheme.

Unfortunately, when the ECC did respond, it was in its usual timid, polite and mild way. Above all, it was too late. The ECC press release announcing this decision came on 10 August, only two days before the agreed closing time for the process and the IEC, “in full respect of the motivation of the honoured Electoral Complaints Commission”, did not deem it useful to postpone.

(*) Which is, of course, a gross exaggeration unless referring to the whole province: the entire population of Parun district barely reaches those numbers, out of a provincial total of around 300000 inhabitants (124.500 registered voters in the 2005 parliamentary election).

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape