Rights & Freedoms

Elections 2014 (19): Final results’ timeline trumps transparency

Women waiting to vote in a Kabul polling station on 5 April 2014. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Women waiting to vote in a Kabul polling station on 5 April 2014. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

This morning, on 15 May 2014, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the final results of the first round of the presidential elections. Both frontrunners have since then publicly accepted the results, while still claiming that in a fair process they would have done better, and are readying themselves for the second round vote that is now scheduled for 14 June 2014. With the first round over, it is interestingly still not clear how clean or fraudulent the vote actually was. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert explains that the IEC and IECC procedures, though protracted, were also hurried and superficial; timelines appear to have trumped transparency and rigour. In a second round, where there can be only one winner, a repeat of such practices could well prove problematic.

The outcome

The final results of the first round of the 2014 presidential election were announced this morning during a delayed and televised press conference. The results are as follows (with the preliminary results added in brackets):

  • Abdullah: ¬† ¬†2,972,141 votes ¬† ¬†45.00%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(2,973,707 – 44.94%)
  • Ghani: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†2,084,547 votes ¬† ¬†31.56%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(2,082,417 – 31.47%)
  • Rassul: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† 750,997 votes ¬† ¬†11.37%¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(759,540 – 11.48%)
  • Sayyaf: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† 465,207 votes ¬† ¬†¬†7.04%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(468,340 – 7.08%)
  • Helal: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†181,827 votes ¬† ¬†¬†2.75%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†(180,859 – 2.73%)
  • Sherzai: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†103,636 votes ¬† ¬†¬†1.57%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†(106,673 – 1.61%)
  • Sultanzoi: ¬† ¬† ¬†30,685 votes ¬† ¬† ¬†0.46%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†(30,737 – 0.46%)
  • Arsala: ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†15,506 votes ¬† ¬† ¬†0.23%¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†(15.394 – 0.23%)

As can be seen from the figures, the differences between the final and preliminary results are miniscule, despite the removal of 331 polling stations by the Independent Elections Complaints Commission (IECC) ‚Ästthe candidate with the greatest loss, Zalmai Rassul, still only lost 8,500 votes. This general lack of change is largely due to the fact that the IECC’s disqualifications were limited and, moreover, largely neutralised by the fact that the IEC simultaneously added votes from 291 polling stations it had not counted earlier (see below for details).

The announcement officially confirmed what everybody more or less already knew: that the results call for a second round between front-runners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. 14 June 2014 was confirmed as the planned date. This is more than two weeks later than originally planned and prescribed in the electoral law. IEC chairman Yusuf Nuristani explained the reasons for the delay: the loss of crucial electoral material during an attack on the IEC a week before the elections; the difficulties in delivering the materials, particularly to the 58 districts that have to be reached by air; and the need to train and deploy new staff as the IEC intends to fire (and introduce to the judiciary) those staff members who were found complicit in electoral fraud.

The announcement of the results, although a day later than planned, still came quite suddenly. The IECC, that had been scheduled to send its findings to the IEC on 8 May 2014, had taken longer than foreseen to deal with the large number of complaints and had only finalised its work in the late afternoon of 13 May. During much of the next day, the IEC said it was still waiting for the IECC’s decisions to be delivered. It was only in the late afternoon of 14 May 2014 that the media was informed of the press conference for the next morning.

This was unexpectedly swift and may have been a result of the emerging clamour among Afghan commentators about a possible increased delay in announcing the results. After all, the IEC’s preliminary results had been released with a two-day delay, the IECC’s complaints adjudication was finalised almost a week later than anticipated, and in the original timeline the IEC had been given a full week to process and determine whether it had objections to the IECC’s findings. Given the hurried and opaque nature of the IECC proceedings, it would have been conceivable for the IEC to want to review and possibly argue with the IECC’s decisions. Instead, they seem to have concluded that it simply was not worth fighting over something that did not substantially change the outcome and would surprise no one. Moreover, judging from the commentary on talk shows and in the media, the IEC was at this point more likely to be criticised for a further delay than for a lack of rigour in reviewing the results.

The full timeline for the second round of the elections can be found here.

The details: the IEC

IEC chair Nuristani provided the following final statistics during the press conference:

  • Out of the 20,561 polling stations open on polling day, 777 did not report any votes at all.
  • Out of the 19,784 polling stations that were open and active, 525 were removed from the count by the IEC before the announcement of the preliminary results, while another 62 were removed later.
  • An additional 331 polling stations were disqualified by the IECC.
  • The total number of votes cast in the remaining 18,866 polling stations was 7,018,849 – with 64 per cent cast by men and 36 per cent by women.

To arrive at these results, the IEC has audited a total of 1964 polling stations (the list can be found here) and recounted 810 (still no details available on the website). As a result of these findings, the IEC disqualified 525 polling stations (the list can be found here). A quick review of the data shows that in most cases only one, or a few, of the polling centre’s stations were audited. This suggests that the IEC had cast its net as narrowly as possible when checking for irregularities, strictly following the indicators rather than trying to ascertain and address the total level of fraud.

In addition to the disqualified 525 polling stations, the IEC had kept a batch of 444 problematic polling stations out of the preliminary count. This was presumably a measure to win time, so that they would not have to further delay the announcement of the preliminary results, while trying to determine how to treat these cases (or simply where to find them, as some of them had gone missing). On 7 May 2014, the IEC announced that, of the 444 stations problematic stations, 291 had been reviewed and considered acceptable and would be added to the final count (details can be found here).¬†Of the 153 that were not counted, 91 polling stations had apparently been open on polling day but had reported no votes, 36 polling stations had handed in their results on blank pieces of paper instead of on the designated results sheets and were invalidated, and the results of 26 polling stations could not be located (the latter two ‚Äď the 36 invalidated stations and the 26 that could not be located ‚Äď presumably make up the figure of 62 that Nuristani referred to during the press conference).

The way the IEC went about its stated task of ‚Äúseparating the clean and the dirty votes‚ÄĚ was different from previous elections. In fact, every election has been different so far, in terms of the workings of the IEC and the IECC. During the most recent elections, in 2009 and 2010, the indicators of likely fraud, and in particular massive ballot stuffing, were formulated in a way that could be triggered by the¬†polling station results. Triggers included all¬†or almost all¬†votes cast for a single candidate or more than the allocated 600 votes cast in¬†a single polling station. Such findings were generally considered sufficient grounds to invalidate whole polling stations. The practice of invalidation based on implausible results was controversial (as are most invalidation criteria, given that they tend to hit all candidates) and even led MPs to include an article in the new electoral law restricting the criteria (according to article 58.5 finding 80 per cent of the votes in a polling station cast for a single candidate is, on its own, insufficient reason to declare fraud).

During this election, the IEC shied away from sweeping disqualification criteria, arguing that each single vote needed to be respected. Instead, it formulated audit and invalidation criteria that focused on the inspection of the actual electoral material: results sheets, tamper-evident bags, ballot papers and ballot box locks. (1) This seems to have made the efforts to clean up the vote a much more labour-intensive process than the previous system that had triggers embedded in the database.

This in turn resulted in the inclusion in the preliminary count, and now in the final count, of an unknown but considerable number of votes that still appear to be ‚Äėdirty,‚Äô whether assessed through the lens of implausible vote patterns,¬†irregular result sheet, or the IEC‚Äôs own audit and disqualification criteria. (2) The Abdullah team has identified and presented several examples, arguing that these cases are evidence of a systematic manipulation of the electoral results, allegedly involving up to 900,000 votes and aimed at depriving Abdullah of a first round victory. Ashraf Ghani, incidentally, made a similar claim in today‚Äôs press conference, arguing that the IECC/IEC should have invalidated 800,000 votes, instead of 100,000. So far, neither has made a credible case that there was indeed systematic bias or engineering for or against any particular candidate, but the examples do indicate that both the count and the clean-up have been messy and haphazard.

The details: the IECC

After the announcement of the final preliminary results by the IEC on 26 May 2014, the focus of the electoral process shifted to the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC), who faced the thankless task of dealing with several thousand complaints. With the looming deadline in mind, the IECC focused its efforts on three types of complaint: the Category A complaints that had not been dealt with at the provincial level (Category A complaints are those that, if found valid, could affect the final result); the appeals against decisions made by Provincial Independent Election Commissions (PIECCs ) on Category A complaints; and the complaints that were filed against the IEC’s preliminary results.

The new electoral law contains provisions on complaints‚Äô timelines, which have been a source of some controversy. These include 48 hours for complaints relating to the actual vote, 72 hours for appeals against provincial decisions and 24 hours for objections to the preliminary results. The latter, in particular, has been contested by the main candidates, as the details of the results ‚Äď in particular the individual results sheets ‚Äď were only posted on the IEC website much later.

In terms of internal timelines, the PIECCs were given ten days to adjudicate the complaints in their province (article 63.2 of the election law). This was a confusing period. PIECCs initially complained they were not allowed to start their work, as the IEC feared it would interfere with their own audits and recounts, and many PIECCs did not manage to finalise their work within the deadline (which was then extended under some controversy, after the Herat PIECC disqualified as many as 100,000 votes after the deadline had passed). Observers reported investigations and disqualifications all over the country. Centralised information, however, was scarce and limited to patchy complaints statistics and a trickle of posted decisions.

According to the latest IECC statistics,¬†in the end 432 out of a total of 921 Category A complaints were decided on at the provincial level. (3)¬†If no appeals were lodged, or if the appeals were messily formulated, these decisions have not and will not be reviewed. Depending on the level of detail the IECC releases on its final decisions at the central level, we may ‚Äďor may not‚Äď get an impression of the quality of these provincial decisions, which seem to have been mixed at best.

As with the IEC, the methods and role of the IECC have been different in every election, depending on the legal framework, its composition and authorities, as well as the context and the specific nature of the election’s challenges. In 2005 and 2009 all decisions were taken centrally. In 2005, amidst the chaotic clamour of fraud allegations and efforts to get ballot boxes de-quarantined by the hundreds of parliamentary candidates, the Elections Complaints Commission (ECC) was criticised for largely limiting its investigations to weighing the merits of individual complaints, many of which were poorly drafted and handed in without much evidence. In 2009, the ECC took a much more proactive approach and even forced the IEC to re-implement its own triggers after it had hurriedly announced a preliminary result with only a limited number of disqualifications (in fact roughly the same number of disqualified polling stations as in the current election). 2010 saw the introduction of PECCs, provincial commissions that were to adjudicate on the complaints in the first instance, which resulted in a certain randomness in the decision-making very similar to what we have seen now.

This time, the IECC seems to have combined the formulistic approach of 2005, the randomness of the provincial decisions of 2010 and, possibly, the methods of the 2010 Special Electoral Tribunal with its barely centralised, widespread and haphazard audits and recounts all across the country. It has focused narrowly on the complaints at hand, largely ignoring the authority it has to initiate investigations and to independently review the work of the IEC (according to article 62 of the electoral law the IECC ‚Äúcan address the issues of the occurrence of negligence and/or violations as soon as it comes to its knowledge, even in the absence of objections or complaints.‚ÄĚ)

A new feature in this election were the IECC’s open hearings: sessions open to observers and candidates’ agents where the IECC asked the relevant parties to present their cases (for further details see a forthcoming AAN dispatch; minutes of three of the sessions can be found on the IECC website here, here and here). In these sessions, the IECC chose to deal with complaints in bulk and to put the burden of proof onto either the complaining or accused parties, rather than treating complaints as indications of possible fraud or a need to review IEC decisions, as had happened in the past. In six sessions, the IECC went through all the complaints that the PIECCs had not had the time or stomach to deal with, the complaints that had an appeal against them, and the new complaints that were filed against the announced preliminary results.

The way the sessions were structured suggests that the focus was on ascertaining the solidity of individual complaints or appeals, rather than checking whether the vote count by the IEC or the adjudication by the PIECCs had been handled properly. It was an, often hurried and confusing, information-gathering exercise. The IECC did not take any decisions in these sessions, nor did it provide any indication on how it intended to decide or based on which criteria. Even now, the IECC does not feel it needs to make its decisions public, arguing that, according to the electoral law, only the investigations need to be done publicly, not the actual decision-making.

What were these elections really like?

Interestingly, we have now reached the end of the first round, without a clear picture of how clean or how fraudulent the vote¬†actually was. Both candidates claim the IEC and IECC left huge numbers of suspicious votes unaddressed, and although their numbers and claims of intentional manipulation appear exaggerated, it is reasonable to say that the IEC and IECC procedures were indeed hurried and superficial and that they, by no means, have¬†caught all the fraud. For this first round, timelines appear to have trumped transparency and rigour. The fact that the outcome ‚Äď in terms of who the front-runners were ‚Ästwas long clear, means that there was no urgent reason to make a fuss. However, a second round that is conducted in the same manner could quite feasibly be very problematic.

The current high levels of lacking transparency by both commissions, if continued, may well undermine the legitimacy of the next round and  complicate the acceptance of a final result with only one winner. Messy and opaque practices, such as the ones we have seen, will lead to allegations of interference or deals behind closed doors. They will also make it more complicated to determine whether the inevitable flood of complaints and allegations have merit or not. This in turn threatens to undermine the faith of the electorate that their next leader has been genuinely elected.

Calls for improvements, from candidates and commentators, have focused on the dismissal of complicit IEC staff and a review of the distribution of both polling stations and ballot papers. In addition, however, both the IEC and IECC will need to greatly improve the transparency of their decisions and the dissemination of information. Simply providing raw data to observers and the public or opening up meetings and procedures that are of limited relevance, without providing insight into how and why key decisions were made, is not enough to instil confidence in both the capacity and integrity of the electoral authorities.


(1) For regulations on invalidations as a result of an audit, see here. A fact sheet on the criteria for audits and recounts can be found here and one on audit procedures here.

(2) Examples include, for instance, results sheets included in the count that should have been disqualified (eg polling station 0602050/02 in Behsud, Nangarhar, where the results were written on a blank piece of paper); polling stations that were counted despite having been ordered to be excluded (eg 1901044 in Kunduz provincial capital or 1219231 in Turwo district of Paktika, where in both cases one of the polling stations was still counted); considerable numbers of polling stations with highly implausible vote patterns, etc. The extreme case of a single polling station in Almar, Faryab (2904076) with 1583 votes cast for a single candidate that a few days ago had still been included in the count, has since then been removed.

An example which also illustrates the limited utility of the IEC‚Äôs transparency, is 1305129 in Zadran, Paktia district. Stations 03 and 04 were ordered to be audited¬†(for ‚Äúdividing votes to specific candidates by multiple 10‚ÄĚ) but were still included in the count, even though in both stations all 600 votes had been¬†cast in three blocks of 100, 200 and 300 (there is no conceivable way this could have happened in a genuine vote). This is a good¬†example of how the IEC on one hand shows¬†transparency by publicising its decision¬†to audit, but on the other hand provides¬†no clarity on what has happened since, and¬†why.

For those wanting to look for themselves, polling results in individual polling centres and stations can be checked here. Results sheets of all stations that were included in the count have been uploaded here. Result sheets of the excluded stations can be found here (it is not clear whether these already also include the polling stations that have been excluded after the announcement of the preliminary results).

(3) According to the IECC, a total of 2133 complaints were received on election day (see here). 921 of them were Category A complaints; 432 of these Category A complaints were decided on at the provincial level (see here). A list (in Dari) of the polling stations implicated in the Category A complaints can be found here.

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Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms