The Alchemy of Vetting
The vetting process on parliamentary candidates that was concluded on July 6 has resulted in the exclusion of 36 candidates for alleged links with armed groups, and a remarkable amount of confusion and doubt among those who tried to follow the process closely. There has been a consistent and intentional lack of transparency on where and how decisions were made, and many of the excluded candidates seem to have been randomly picked in an attempt to bolster numbers. Vetting for armed groups has been controversial in all elections, but this looks like it may well have been the worst vetting process so far. AAN researchers Fabrizio Foschini and Gran Hewad try to give a fairly precise account of what has become a very murky process indeed.
The process was finalised on July 7 when Election Complaints Commission (ECC) commissioners Zia Rafat and Safwat Sidqi announced the additional exclusion of 31 candidates for links to armed groups, during a rather cramped press conference at the Intercontinental. The names were not officially released then, nor has it been done since, but a list with 32 names and one with 36, seen by AAN, have been circulating among organizations involved in the electoral process. Although the ECC added that âthe vetting of candidates would go on until the very eve of the electionsâ â reserving themselves the right to exclude candidates up to September 18 â the current process has represented the biggest intervention by the electoral bodies on the candidates lists for other than technical reasons(*).
According to the new Electoral Law, the duty to investigate eventual links of candidates with illegal armed groups rests on a Vetting Committee, duly set up after the closing date for the registration of candidates back in early May. Though constituted as part of the IEC and headed by one of its commissioners, Qazi Sultan Hamed, the committee is largely made up of personnel from the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the Ministries of Interior and Defence, who are to provide the IEC with the needed intelligence about candidates, relying for information on their respective provincial offices. A list of candidates found to have links with illegal armed groups is to be submitted to the ECC, while at the same time the legal branch of the IEC is to inform the candidates of the charges brought against them. The ECC is then to receive, always through the Vetting Committee of the IEC, the documentation presented by the candidates in their defence, evaluate it and then, as we saw, present the results to the public. The legal framework is unfortunately marred by a lack of clarity on certain issues, like the absence of a clear time limit stipulated to allow for the candidate to defend themselves. Judging by what happened, however, these issues did not represent the only flaws affecting the vetting process.
At first, the size of the initial vetting list appeared to be considerable. The NDS offices were said to have collected evidence for about 220 candidates, although it seems that their information was ultimately not shared with the Vetting Committee, due to a lack of guarantees that confidentiality would be observed. AAN obtained a list of 80 names, probably compiled by the Ministry of Interior, towards the end of June, showing how the number of candidates under investigation was initially relatively high. On 22 June, however, the Head of the IEC Fazl Ahmad Manawi unveiled a completely different reality when, announcing the final lists of candidates, he informed that five candidates had been excluded for links to armed groups and another eight names had been sent to the ECC for final exclusion or reinstatement.
This meant that initially at the most thirteen candidates, but possibly onlly five, out of a total of more than 2500, were to be rejected for links to illegal armed groups â in a country awash with weapons.
The international donors with the US in the lead, realising that this was not going to look like a plausible process, had urged the UN to act. When it became clear that discrete requests, to the IEC and to the palace to do more, had had no effect, UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura, went public, saying in a statement on the 23 June that “The process of vetting has not produced a satisfactory result so far.â He exonerated the EEC and the IEC and instead blamed the Vetting Commission (even though this is part of the IEC) and added that he understood âPresident Karzai is equally concerned and planning to constructively and proactively attempt to address this issueâ (which is remarkable, given that the President should have no role in the process).
In a matter of a few days, it was announced that another 31 candidates had been found guilty of links with armed groups (**). They were notified of the charges against them on the 30 June and given 48 hours to respond.
The secrecy surrounding the status and sources of the various lists and the complete lack of information on the process leading to the addition of the names makes it difficult to retrace what exactly happened. IEC and ECC officials provided conflicting information on how many names were being scrutinised (25 or 26 or 35) and by whom, and often seemed unaware themselves of what was going on. What is clear however is that only nine of the added names appeared on the earlier list of 80. The rest seemed to have come out of the blue.
And whereas the initial lists of candidates had been reduced from hundreds to just five, this final figure resisted any attempt at changes. None of the accused candidates in this last row succeeded in clearing himself from the charges and preserving his candidacy. On July 6 the final list of candidates was announced for the second time, with all 31 candidates excluded.
The procedure for oneâs defence had been a rather tough one, indeed. The 31 candidates were directed by the legal branch of the IEC to question the provincial offices of the commission as to the required documents to be presented. In the case of at least one candidate these requirements included: a letter of recommendation from the local NDS Anti-Terrorism office, one from the Intelligence and Investigation office of the Army Division, and one from the Commission for Arms Collection at the Governorâs office. Presenting these documents to the IEC, however, the candidates were told that they needed to provide further documentation, in particular letters bearing the signature of the three senior officials involved: the Minister of Interior, the Minister of Defence and the Director of NDS. They were given an additional 48 hours for this purpose.
Notwithstanding a further extension of the deadline till the afternoon of July 6 (occasioned either by the presence of Friday or by the intercession of the ECC, depending on the source), it could be no wonder that all the candidates were eventually barred from the election, given the difficulty of approaching a powerful minister, unless you are precisely what you are being accused of: an armed strongman.
But the matter was further complicated by the fact that at least some of the candidates claim they successfully obtained the required signatures and presented them to the IEC. If this is true it is not clear why the ECC, the final recipient of all the documentation, and the ultimate judge on the candidatesâ right to appeal, decided not to uphold any of their cases.
The whole process was hurried and obscure. The excluded candidates complained of the short notice, which did not allow them to prepare a defence, and of contradictory directives from the IEC as to what the requirements were and where they were to present their dossier. They also wondered why the documents they secured from provincial branches of the relevant ministries were not deemed sufficient to acquit them from the charges. They â credibly â maintain to have been âsacrificed to a show of democracyâ set up to appease the conscience of foreigners, and that they have been selected precisely for their inability to garner the support of strong state officials or stir up trouble if excluded.
A look at the list of vetted candidates shows that some are indeed former commanders, widely believed to retain links with their armed supporters. However, several of these men seem to have been excluded as part of a pre-emptive political settlement in their home-provinces organised by their more influential rivals. In other words, they do not necessarily represent the most powerful armed men seeking election.
The connection with armed groups is far more difficult to conceive for other names in the list, and the suspicion that they were added just to give some substance to the vetting process runs high. Also the names of some candidates who had already decided to withdraw from the election may have been added to rise numbers, although it is not clear how spontaneous their decision to withdraw was. At least one of the barred candidates who spoke to the media about his attempt to demonstrate his innocence has been threatened by phone and advised not to fight an already lost battle against the state, but rather to âgo and sit quietly at home and forget about what happened.â
Members of both the IEC and the ECC were privately quite open about their regret for a list full of âthe wrong personsâ who, according to them, in many cases were not guilty of what they were accused of. At the same time, even privately, both commissions tried to shy away from the responsibility of the decision: the IEC saying they only prepared the list and sent it to the ECC, and the latter depicting its role as an inconsequential and merely formal one.
âWe know the list is full of innocent people and not of warlordsâ, an ECC commissioner told AAN by phone, minutes before the deadline for the presentation of the candidatesâ defence, âbut we have no role in this: by terms of law, our hands are tied.â But although it is true that the ECC has no practical role in the assessment of whether candidates have links to armed groups, it does have by law the final say on the rights to appeal of the candidates, and it does have a responsibility to oversee the integrity of the process. Its decision not to do so officially sealed the fate of 31 candidacies.
The role of the Vetting Committee and of the IEC is even murkier. During the weeks previous to the 22 June, the list was arguably subjected to a veritable âprivate vettingâ; in the words of an IEC member it was âhijacked by various ministries and state officialsâ and cut down to the risible numbers then announced. In a meeting with the independent watchdog, the Free and Fair Election Foundation for Afghanistan (FEFA), on 30 June, an ECC commissioner already hinted at âpolitical instructions in the vetting list caseâ that he was ânot going to talk aboutâ.
Finally, on the part of the international stakeholders in the electoral process, there has been a remarkably low degree of interest in the vetting process. And the interest that was there focused more on quantity than quality, with rather adverse consequences: the exclusion of at least some innocent candidates; the implicit acknowledgement, by invoking his help, that the president had a role to play in the resolution of what should be an independent process; and the legitimisation of an obviously flawed process.
* The IEC press release on final figures of candidates of July 12 stated that 54 candidates withdrew their application or were excluded for other reasons, 31 were excluded after verification of their applications, and 36 were excluded for links with illegal armed groups.
(**) This is on top of the five that were originally rejected. If this seems confusing: it is. It appears that a new list with 24 names, one of which was a repitition, was added to the eight that were formally still under investigation. This thus matches the final total of 36 excluded candidates.