Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (45): Solving audit problems by creating new ones


In the crowded audit hangars, IEC staff, UN experts, observers and candidate agents congregate to study the content of all of Afghanistan's second round ballot boxes. Photo: Martine van Bijlert.

In the crowded audit hangars, IEC staff, UN experts, observers and candidate agents congregate to study the content of all of Afghanistan's second round ballot boxes. Photo: Martine van Bijlert.

Afghanistan’s drawn-out election continues to keep a very large number of people very busy. And although there has been progress – both on the political and the technical side – this has mainly been achieved by delaying or isolating key discussion points and contentious decisions. The audit has finally started speeding up, but only after a new, ‘special’ audit of the most problematic ballot boxes was set up, which has so far been excruciatingly slow. The political teams, in the meantime, have managed to agree on “80 per cent of all outstanding issues,” with the remaining 20 per cent revolving around the actual structure of the agreed national unity government – a subject the two candidates and their teams continue to have diverging views on. The talks are complicated by the fact that both candidates, and their supporters, are still holding on to competing narratives as to who won the election – and who should thus have the upper hand in the discussions. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at the latest developments and where they may take us.

A special audit and a normal audit

The electoral audit of all 23,000-plus ballot boxes, which started a month ago, is still in full swing. Every day – including holidays (even today’s Independence Day) – hundreds of Independent Election Commission (IEC) staff, United Nations experts, observers and candidate agents congregate in the IEC warehouses for two shifts of checking the contents of the boxes and staring at tick marks to see if they are similar. The audit has now been divided into two parts: a ‘special audit’ (audit-e khas) and the ‘normal audit’ (audit-e adi). The special audit is the result of a long-standing demand by the Abdullah team to single out certain categories of polling stations for invalidation and/or scrutiny, including those showing an exponential increase in turnout between the first and second rounds, or a large disparity between population figures as given by the Central Statistics Office and the turnout. The UN instead negotiated the inclusion in the IEC’s audit checklist of a clause (criteria 16 of the list) referring to boxes containing “results that require special scrutiny according to international best practices.” So now, after weeks of continued discussions, both candidate teams agreed to each put forward lists of boxes that they believed required “special scrutiny.” They settled on 3000 boxes each, 6000 in total. (1) On 13 August 2014 the audit was temporarily halted after a walkout by the Abdullah observers, who said they felt tricked because, as they complained, no visible preparations for the special audit had been made. Members of the Ghani technical team confirmed they had agreed to the special audit, but said they needed more time to draw up the list of boxes they wanted to put forward for scrutiny.

Three days later, on 16 August, the special audit did indeed start. Each of the four warehouses now has a cordoned off section with access limited to specifically registered agents and observers, presumably in an attempt to prevent whole crowds from joining in the disputes. The special audit has, so far, been excruciatingly slow, even more than the regular audit has been. On the first day most teams did not manage to finalise a single box within the first five-hour shift. At the end of the first day, the 24 teams had audited a total of 37 boxes. The pace has since picked up somewhat, but it remains slow. With the main attention now focused on the special audit, it is no surprise that the ‘normal audit’ is speeding up.

Yesterday, for the first time, the total number of audited boxes exceeded a thousand (1000 boxes per day had been the estimated number from the beginning, leading to an optimistic planning that the whole exercise could be finished in three to four weeks). The total number of boxes that have so far been audited now stands at 12,180, which is a little more than half of the total. If this rate continues, the normal audit could be finished in another week, given that the total number of ‘normal boxes’ (over 23,000 minus 6,000) is a little over 17,000, and more than 12,000 of these have already been audited. The special audit, on the other hand, could easily take at least another month – even if the IEC doubles the number of teams and manages to speed up the process (in the first three days, fewer than 200 boxes were audited and the daily average is still well under one hundred per day, with 6000, in total, needing to be specially scrutinised). The procedure during the special audit is not inherently different from the regular one. The most important difference is that, in the special audit, every single box is subject to a full recount, as opposed to around 30 per cent in the regular audit. Otherwise, the focus remains largely on the identification of similar tick marks. Because many of the boxes do indeed have large numbers of similar tick marks (or alternatively are expected to have them), a lot of time is spent waiting for, or arguing with, the UN experts.

The teams appear to have quite different ideas about the purpose of the special audit. Where members of the Abdullah team argued that the special audit will determine the outcome of the full audit, Ghani team members were downplaying its importance, saying it was no different, or in no way more important than the rest of the full audit. But what is clear is that one of the problems of the audit – its slowness – has at the same time been both solved and exacerbated: although the bulk of the audit is now going much faster, the total process threatens to take longer. This – solving a problem by stumbling on a new one – unfortunately seems to be a recurring pattern.

Invalidation criteria still not finalised

The audit has, for various reasons, been designed by committee: by the IEC and the two candidates, brokered by the UN. As a result, the design of the audit has been strongly shaped by disputes between the two candidates, in particular those over the audit criteria. These disputes tend to be dealt with by temporary circumvention and delay, rather than actually resolving them.

When the audit started on 17 July 2014, it was already problematic that the exact rules and criteria were not clear. There were several walkouts by the Abdullah team as negotiations over how to carry out the audit dragged on. When it looked like the process might break down, the dispute was temporarily resolved when, on 3 August 2014, the UN re-confirmed the inclusion of two of Abdullah’s criteria in the checklist (respectively similar markings and special scrutiny based on certain results) and gave assurances that the actual invalidation criteria would be further clarified in the future – thus prolonging the disagreement (for more details see here). Shortly after that, the IEC posted its decisions on the checklist criteria and invalidation criteria  on the IEC website, but confusion remains over exactly which findings will lead to what kind of invalidations.

The IEC, with support from UNDP, has pushed ahead with the design of the audit database and the invalidation software (which is supposed to automatically invalidate votes according to the agreed criteria and based on the checklist findings) – despite the details of the invalidation criteria not being fully clear. Data entry started on 16 August 2014. At close of business on 18 August, 556 checklists had gone through all eight data entry steps, while 2634 checklists – out of a total of 12,180 – were being processed. It is still unclear when the actual invalidations will start and whether that will lead to a rekindling of the old disputes.

The Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC), in the meantime, has asked for the invalidations to start soon, so that it does not have to deal with a whole backlog of complaints. The IECC announced it intends to deal with complaints on a rolling basis, as the invalidations happen, with the candidates being given 24 hours to respond to decisions they disagree with. The IECC then intends to respond within 48 hours. Judging by the scenes at the audit tables of the past few weeks, it seems rather likely that both teams will protest most, if not all, invalidation decisions.

Negotiations on the national unity government

After John Kerry’s visit on 8 August 2014, it took a few days for the political track to get started and for both sides to select their members for the joint committee on the national unity government (for the full text of the Kerry agreement see here).

Discussions finally started on 13 August 2014 and the committee swiftly established three sub-committees to discuss respectively (a) the merging of the candidates’ political programs; (b) the definition, goals and norms of the national unity government; and (c) the actual structure of the national unity government. The committees have met daily and the atmosphere generally appears to have been cordial and frank. On 18 August 2014, the spokespersons of the two sides – Faizullah Zaki and Seyyed Fazl Agha Sancharaki – announced that two of the committees had fully completed their negotiations and that the third committee had managed to get agreement on “all but two or three of the many topics that had been discussed.” These “two or three remaining points,” which actually represent the fundamental points of contention between the two camps, have now been referred back to the two leaders to decide on. Although the committees basically did not resolve any of the main sticking points, they did manage to clarify and narrow down what the pending issues are that need to be negotiated – which in itself is useful. The points that have now been referred back to their leaders are said to be:

  • whether there will be only a Chief Executive Office (CEO) (Ashraf Ghani team position) or both a CEO and a leader of the opposition (Abdullah Abdullah team position);
  • whether the CEO and his deputies will head the council of ministers (Abdullah position) or whether this will remain with the president (Ghani position);
  • whether the CEO will be represented on the National Security Council or have a say in the appointment of the National Security Adviser (Abdullah position) or whether this remains the prerogative of the president (Ghani position).

The committees do seem to have reached agreement on some of the other potentially contentious issues, including the calling of a loya jirga after two years to discuss a possible prime-ministerial system and input by the CEO on senior government appointments – although the exact details are not yet clear. As the two candidates seem to be inching towards an agreement, there is disgruntlement among their supporters – particularly among those who are worried that the pie now has to be divided among more people. Supporters in both camps, those at the fringes and those who fear their interests may be sacrificed, are chastising their candidates for having sold their victory too cheaply. Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur has been most vocal and has threatened (or predicted) that if the audit does not go well – ie if Abdullah does not win – the people will rise up and occupy government buildings (media reporting here and here). He has in the meantime clarified that he was referring to a non-violent social movement – starting as a Green movement (a reference to Amrullah Saleh’s initiative, called the Green Trend) and possibly developing into an ‘Orange movement’ like in Ukraine. (Similar announcements during the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election did not materialise.)

Atta and others are not only suspicious of the IEC and the UN, but also of Abdullah and those around him, fearing that in the end he may revert to a close circle of Shura-ye Nezar confidants (background here). Similar sentiments, although less vocal, can also be found in the other camp. So far, however, the dragging nature of both the technical and political process seems to have made it difficult for the irate to effectively rally and channel their anger.

The pending provincial council election:  a largely unnoticed audit

In the meantime, the IEC and IECC have restarted the pending audits of the provincial council election. Local reports indicate that audits have been finalised in all provinces last week, with the exception of Kabul and Nangrahar.

The Kabul audit is another full 100 per cent audit – in response to the many complaints and irregularities that were difficult to ignore even in the highly rushed complaints process. The Kabul audit started on 16 August in one of the more remote IEC hangars. The partial Nangarhar audit seems set to start next week. So far all audits seem to have been conducted with no independent observers present and only a minimum of provincial councils candidates. In Kabul the candidates are even under the impression that they are not allowed to take notes, with the IECC representatives at the table supposedly representing their interests. It does look like another typically symbolic IECC procedure, of the sort we saw in the first round.

It is not clear why the IEC has chosen exactly this time to restart the pending provincial process, when it is already struggling to staff its two presidential audits (the normal one and the special one) and its revived tally centre. The timing may be designed to attract the least attention possible – which seems, so far, to be working.   (1) UNAMA has published some detail on what it calls the “special scrutiny procedure” and other recent decisions in this press statement (“United Nations welcomes improvements to the audit process”).

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape