Political Landscape

Warning Bells over Slow Electoral Reform and Voter Registration for 2014


elect 2009 Gardez DSCF1928

A number of organisations have warned that electoral reform in the run-up to the 2014 polls in Afghanistan is moving too slowly. Two issues stand out: the lack of a voter registry and the lack of a revised electoral law. The recent argument about whether the future ECC should include UN-nominated members or not is part of the debate. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst with AAN, looks at latest developments and comes to the conclusion that major prerequisites for acceptable elections in 2014 are still lacking, partly because of opportunities missed earlier in the post-2001 process.

Warning bells have recently been sounded by a number of organisations, both Afghan and international, with regard to the very slow process of reforming Afghanistan’s electoral framework in the run-up to the April 2014 simultaneous presidential and provincial council elections. Nader Nadery, speaking in his capacity as the chairman of Afghanistan’s major non-governmental election watchdog, the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), said on 17 October that the ‘disinterested ones’ need to be woken up and made ‘interested’ in doing something on electoral reform.(1) Otherwise, the election calendar might be upset and constitutional problems might arise again, as was the case during in the last electoral cycle in 2009/10.
Two major issues stand out: the lack of a reliable voter registry and the fact that the existing electoral law, although found to be lacking after the 2009/10 electoral cycle, has not yet been amended. The fierce public debate over the past week or so, about whether the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) should again have some international members (see for example here and here) is part of the context. While a number of civil society, political parties and members of parliament insist on such a measure – because of ‘bad experiences with the elections and president’s interference in the elections’, as one MP put it – the President is strictly against and says that such a position is tantamount to ‘foreign interference’. According to a spokesman, he might put in a ‘veto’ against such a provision in the ‘Law on the Structure and Mandate of the Independent Electoral Commission’ that already has been confirmed by the Wolesi Jirga on 24 September and still needs to pass Senate.(2)

In contrast to the previous law, the ECC – renamed kamisyon-e nezarat-e entekhabati (Electoral Supervision Commission) – will no longer be an independent body, at least when the currently discussed draft for the amended election law prepared by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) goes through. It is, rather, supposed to be subordinated to the IEC. Article 53 (chapter 13) of the draft stipulates that the commission ‘shall be established … under the presidency of the chair or deputy chair of the Independent Election Commission’, reflecting what the President wishes).(3) Here, a conflict between the executive and the legislature is looming.

The controversy over the ECC composition,(4) and electoral reform in general, is presented by the government in Kabul as one between ‘Afghanistan’ (represented by the President) versus the ‘interfering’ internationals regarding the country’s sovereignty. Therefore it was timely that FEFA, together with 16 Afghan civil society organisations (including most of the important networks), and 34 political parties from across the political spectrum (both opposition and pro-government) (see list of logos here)(5), went public with a ‘Declaration of Principles for Electoral Reform’ on 17 October. The document contains a comprehensive list of 56 points that the signatories feel need to be addressed to guarantee ‘free and fair elections, which ensure the legitimacy of political power’ after those elections. It also clarifies that long-standing demands for electoral reform are not something pushed from abroad (or even as a ‘foreign conspiracy’ to undermine the current government) but are an issue that first of all concerns significant parts of Afghan society.

The new Declaration of Principles advocates values like inclusiveness of the electoral process and consultation with a wide array of social and political forces in order to reach consensus on the electoral framework. It demands the electoral system be changed from the controversial and unrepresentative SNTV system,(6) and it calls for guarantees for the independence of the electoral institutions as well as the neutrality of government officials and institutions (including the Islamic clergy) during the electoral process. The declaration also calls for a stronger role for civil society and political parties, the need for a new awareness campaign among the population and the role of independent medias in it as well as a reduction of the time gap between election day and the announcement of the final results.(7) These demands echo the conclusions drawn by Afghan and international observer organisations after both prior electoral cycles – 2004/05 and 2009/10 (see Democracy International’s 2010 paper ‘Consensus Recommendations for Electoral Reform’ and points that were raised in the recent ICG report that has been so bluntly rejected by the Afghan government, indicating that elections are a highly sensitive issue for it (read the report here, the Foreign Ministry’s statement here and an AAN blog on the controversy here).(8)

Drawing on the bad experience in 2009/10, the declaration includes a number of very specific new demands, like ‘incorporate into new electoral law a section on legal guarantees to protect observers and journalists for their reports’; ‘IEC members and electoral staff shall be protected from prosecution for their statements during election[s]’; ‘regulations, procedures and IEC decisions shall not be changed during [the] election’(9); and ‘to keep transparency of [the] staff recruitment process, civil society organizations and political parties shall be invited to monitor the process and cooperate with [the] IEC’. The declaration also demands ‘special attention’ for women’s participation and calls for a more active role on this issue by the Ministry of Women Affairs. Speaking for the gathered activists,Hezb-e Haq wa Edalat (Rights and Justice Party) deputy chief Mu’in Mrastyal said: ‘We request the parliament to include this proposal to the election law draft. If these demands are not in the law, the government will enforce its self-made rules into the election law.’

In an unusual public display of concern, UN special envoy Jan Kubis also attended the FEFA press conference and came out in support of the declaration. He stated,

I would like to assure you that your expectations and recommendations, notably those in chapter two of the declaration [which refers to a request to the UN for support of the elections], we will accept and adopt as our own and we will put them in practice when dealing with authorities, institutions and indeed the international community. We will move according to your expectations.

While these latest developments have received broad media coverage, a crucial, election-related decision by the Afghan government has remained underreported: to drop a new round of voter registration, as proposed by the IEC and UNDP, in favour of introducing electronic ID cards (the so-called e-tazkera) for all Afghans that can be used as voter cards as well.(10) The unavailability of a consolidated and reliable voter registry has been identified as one of the major shortcomings of the previous elections. Instead, past voter registration efforts have resulted in millions of voter cards floating around the country, with the official estimate being somewhere around 17,5 million, exceeding by far the estimated number of eligible voters.(11) One of the main problems with the lack of a credible voter registry is that currently, the individual voter is not linked to a particular polling station. This has opened the way for all kinds of electoral fraud, as the FEFA declaration points out: There was ‘registration of underage people, distribution of more than one card (to one person); distribution of female voters’ cards to men, absentee card distribution etc.’ As long as the locations of polling stations are shifted in every election, it also would be technically difficult to link voters to ‘their’ polling station and to inform the voters every time about where they can vote.

Initially, the IEC wanted a completely new voter registration (VR) process, giving out new voter cards valid for four future elections. The estimated cost of this exercise was USD 80 million; the UN provided these estimates to the international donor community and IEC. UNDP was asked to prepare a feasibility study, and it recommended the new VR process, utilising a combination of a phased pre-election registration programme in most provinces and ‘same-day’ registration, i.e., on election day, in some of the most unsecure areas. It also proposed establishing ‘permanent district level offices’ to update the registry after the elections.

This proposal indicates that previous voter registration exercises had not been good enough to serve as the basis for a reliable and sustainable voter registry – and were a waste of a lot of money for an inadequate result. IEC chairman Fazl Ahmad Manawi tried to sweeten the UN proposal by saying that the registration drive would create work opportunities for about 45,000 people, but he was rebuffed by President Karzai who insisted on ‘Afghanised’ elections, ‘according to our living conditions, ability and our economy’.(12) (As Manawi admitted before the decision, donors also were unenthusiastic about spending another USD80 million on a new round of voter registration.(13))

The Afghan government’s decision to go for the e-tazkera is understandable. It is an opportunity to bring a long-delayed project forward at last that, for the first time ever, provides every Afghan, both male and female, with his or her individual ID card. Proving ID cards to women – who often do not possess a tazkera of their own – would be a very important step towards changing the status quo, in which they often are treated as an administrative appendage of their fathers or husbands; in fact implementing equal rights was stipulated in the 2003 post-Taleban constitution. The ID card data would enable more reliable population statistics (a census has never been carried out although provided for in the 2001 Bonn agreements,(14) initially because of lack of – external – funding) as well as drawing a complete voter registry from it. According to the Wall Street Journal, the new ID cards will not only serve as voter cards but also as drivers’ licenses and identification for medical care.

The use of an ID card would tackle several important electoral problems concerning women’s votes. The fact that many women still do not possess official documents has not only led to their disenfranchisement but also opened the way for the two major methods of electoral fraud: ‘bulk voting’ (15) and stuffing ballot boxes in polling stations reserved for women, as observed already during the 2004 Presidential election by EU observers (including the author) in the Shemali and Paktia. ‘Bulk voting’ is based on the exaggerated registration of female voters(16) and carried out by local elders who show up with plastic bags full of voter cards for ‘their’ women, explaining either that it was not socially acceptable for women to come to the polling station or that they needed ‘to prepare lunch’. These cards were often accepted by polling staff and led to what AAN’s Martine van Bijjert (in her September 2009 AAN paper ‘Polling Day Fraud in the Afghan Elections’) called ‘phantom female voters’. Stuffing ballot boxes in polling stations reserved for women was attractive because of low female turn-out in many regions.

As attractive as the e-tazkera project is, there remains a long list of questions about it and its suitability for the upcoming elections in 2014. The main catch is that the 115-million-dollar project will most likely not be finished in time for the 2014 elections. UNDP, in its study quoted above, estimates that the e-tazkera project is ‘likely to take at least 15 years to become viable’. Zmarialai Wafa, acting director for information security at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, which is implementing the plan, said in mid-October that the present timeline and logistics will only allow between five and eight million voters to receive the cards before the 2014 elections: ‘at least Kabul and some other major cities will be done by that time’. As a result, Afghans will be voting in 2014 under two registration systems, not one, opening the way for even more confusion and potential fraud.

Under the pressure of the upcoming elections in 2014, the e-tazkera project runs the risk of being designed hurriedly, with further fundamental issues not being properly addressed; for example: Who has access to the biometric database? How can this information be used (or perhaps misused) by government ministries? How is the nation-wide system of registration going to be maintained and kept up-to-date after the initial election-related push? How will the government guarantee the functioning of a high-tech system throughout a low-tech country? What are the operating costs and who will pay for this over the long-term? As the Wall Street Journal, in the article cited above, pointed out: ‘When Dubai, the rich and technologically savvy emirate, embarked on a similar program of electronic IDs in 2000, glitches caused years of delays to register a population that is a small fraction of Afghanistan’s.’

One would love to agree with Haseeb Humayoon’s recent statement on theForeign Policy website that ‘for any new democracy, the major test is not so much on whether the initial elections are flaw and fraud free – but whether future elections emerge as the only game in town for access to power.’ This is not wrong, but only half of the story.

The fact that a census, a reliable voter registry and an ID card for all Afghans will still be missing in 2014, only reflects on how poorly the Bonn agreement and the post-Taleban political process have been implemented and how weak the state of Afghan governance and democracy still remains. It is also a reminder how the international community and the Afghan government missed opportunities,(17) before both previous elections cycles, to press for an adequate electoral framework. (Before the 2009/10 elections, amendments of the electoral law did not happen because parliament missed the one-year deadline before the election date and embassies in Kabul were not able to alert capitals about it.) Also, a census and a proper voter registration could have been carried out when – unlike in the current situation – security was far better and most parts of the country were easily accessible. This could have helped to prevent the 2009/10 election chaos and the string of registration exercises: the costs of the 2003/04 new registration, the 2005 update, the 2006/07 Joint Civil/Electoral Registry Pilot Programme, the additional 2008/09 registration carried out by the then new IEC as well as the 2010 update totalling an investment of over USD 200 million.

One important indicator of the stability of a democratic process is whether subsequent elections – particularly when they are held without outside technical, financial and political support – are producing more or less legitimacy than the previous ones and whether the gap to fully free and fair elections increases or grows.

The next crucial step towards the 2014 election is soon to follow, as IEC chief Manawi has announced that the election date will be fixed before 10 November, the beginning of the Afghan month of Qaus. Let’s see whether he has, again, reckoned without asking the host.

(1) Source: AAN media monitoring.

(2) At the same time, the President states that he is not against international election observers.

(3) According to the IEC, its draft has passed the Ministry of Justice and is currently in the Legislation (taqnin) Department of the Council of Ministers (the Cabinet) and, after that, has to pass both houses of parliament. According to FEFA chairman Nader Nadery, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor (22 August 2012), there are still different options under consideration, though:
One view is to fold the complaints commission into the IEC and let it become an adjudicating body under the main election commission. Another view is to have it be part of the judiciary, and a third view is to have it be a completely independent and permanent body.’ According to the Monitor, the third option ‘could extend the work of the commission to include consistent monitoring of campaign finances and interference of government employees in campaigns.
This would give political parties and other members of civil society a forum to report and address their concerns at a very early stage of the elections.

(4) There is also still a crucial open personnel problem in the IEC itself: After the resignation of its Chief Electoral Officer Abdullah Ahmadzai in July, who also was a member of the commission itself, the position is temporarily held by Zekria Barakzai. There had been rumours that Ahmadzai had resigned ‘because of political pressures’ which had been denied by the commission. Although the commission’s members only need to be appointed, according to the draft law, 180 days before the elections, keeping this position open means that the President can fill the vacancy with someone he can expect to ‘work with him’.

(5) There are even more parties signing here than for the Democracy Charter published in late September, a document that also largely deals with the transparency of the upcoming elections. The list includes both opposition and pro-government parties.

The list of signatories (which is not attached to the published document; there is only a file with their organisations’ logos, and some are unreadable) is as follows:

Civil Society Organisations: 

Afghan Women’s Network
Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit
Civil Society Development Centre
Support Afghan Women Organisation
Afghanistan National Participation Organisation
Afghan Organisation of Human Rights and Environmental Protection
Afghan NGOs Co-ordination Bureau
AFCAC
Social Development and Legal Rights Afghanistan
Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women
Civil Society and Human Rights Organisation
Afghanistan National Journalists Union
Afghanistan Civil Society Forum Organisation
Afghan Women Services and Education Organisation
Better Afghan Society Organisation
Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan
Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan

Political Parties:

Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mellat-e Afghanistan
Hezb-e Harakat-e Wahdat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Mottahed-e Melli-ye Afghanistan
Nahzat-e Hambastagi-ye Melli-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Afghanistan-e Nevin
Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Melli
National Coalition of Afghanistan
Jabha-ye Nejat az Bohran
Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan
Rawand-e Sabz
Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan
Afghanistan National Front
Hezb-e Tafahom wa Demokrasi-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Azadegan-e Afghanistan
Hezb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli-ye Afghanistan
Afghan Mellat
Hezb-e Solh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Aqwam-e Afghanistan
De Afghanistan Wolesi Tsanga
De Afghanistan de Melli Paiwastun Nahzat
Hezb-e Rasalat-e Mardom-e Afghanistan
Hezb-e Haq wa Adalat
Hezb-e Harakat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan
Da Afghanistan Melli Islami Mahaz
Hezb-e Paiwand-e Melli-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Melli-ye Nejat-e Afghanistan
Hezb-e Jamhurikhwahan-e Afghanistan
Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan
Hezb-e Adalat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan
(five more, that are unreadable)

(6) Political parties have argued for a mixed system in which some parliament seats will be distributed on the basis of political parties’ lists and others among individual (party-less) candidates. This has been included in the draft electoral law submitted by the IEC (for a discussion and other proposed changes in the law, see an AAN blog here). Such a system, though, might complicate the electoral system further. Some of its advocates, therefore, see it more as a precursor to a full list system, once the country and its leadership have grown more comfortable with such a system and, not least, the political parties themselves have become sufficiently representative. The SNTV system, reform options and the IEC draft law also have been discussed in a July 2012 AREU paper.

(7) After the parliamentary elections of 18 September 2010, the final result was announced on 24 November the same year – with the exception of one seat –, but then was challenged, so that the ‘final final’ result only came in August 2011; after the 20 August 2009 presidential election there was a preliminary result on 18 September after a‘fluid count’; the final result – and an announcement that there was to be a second round of voting – followed on 20 October. The result for the simultaneous Provincial Council elections came out just before New Year (read here and here). On top of it, the IEC headquarters registered a mysterious fire in late 2009 during which key data seem to have been destroyed.

(8) The closure of a number of UNAMA provincial offices, pushed for by the Afghan government in the UN by demanding a revision of the mission’s mandate (excluding ‘sub-national governance’, among other issues), can also be read in this context.

(9) To solve the protracted conflict about who had the last word on the election result, the President created a Special Court in early 2011.

(10) Hewad daily (Kabul), 17 September 2012. Source: AAN media monitoring. Tazkira is the Dari/Pashto term for the current, hand-written ID card used.

(11) In a blog in August 2009, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert wrote: ‘In 2004 UNAMA estimated that there were about 9.8 million voters in Afghanistan. At the end of the registration exercise 10.5 million voters were registered. After two voter registration updates – one in 2005 in the run-up to the Parliamentary and provincial council elections and one last year – the total number of voter cards in circulation reached 17 million, which is an amazingly implausible figure.’

(12) President Karzai at a press conference in Kabul, 4 October 2012. Source: BBC Monitoring.

(13) Hasht-e Sobh daily (Kabul), 10 October 2012. Source: AAN media monitoring.

(14) On the background of the census and the difficulties faced when establishing population data on Afghanistan, see Andrew Pinney’s contribution to AAN’s 2012 E-Book Snapshots of an Intervention: The Unlearned Lessons of Afghanistan’s Decade of Assistance (2001–2011).

(15) This term has been used by Martine van Bijlert in her 2010 AAN report ‘Who Controls the Vote: Afghanistan’s Evolving Elections’.

(16) In her 2009 AAN report ‘How to Win an Afghan Election’ (pp 20-21), Martine van Bijlert writes:

Paktika became particularly famous during the 2005 elections for being the most blatant case of over-registration and female proxy voting. In 2005 almost 160,000 registrations were added to the earlier total of 342,000 (which had already represented 140% of the estimated total voters in the province). The implausibly high proportion of alleged female registration in Paktika – 46.5% in 2004 and over 57% in 2005 – despite highly conservative cultural norms, was welcomed as a major achievement. Warnings to the electoral authorities that preparations for massive multiple and proxy voting were being made were largely ignored, which led to chaotic scenes at the provincial counting centre when large numbers of blatantly stuffed ballot boxes were quarantined (and later released by JEMB staff). Interviews in the aftermath of the elections suggested that the manipulation in Paktika was by no means an exception, although it had been taken to the extreme there.

In 2009, there were even higher proportions of female registration than in 2005. In Nuristan, Khost, Logar and Paktia, respectively 71%, 68%, 66% and 62% of the total registrations were ‘female voters’, while Paktika still registered 50% women. There are moreover indications that the practice of female over-registration has spread to other provinces. 

(She mentions Kandahar, Farah, Ghazni, Kapisa and Panjshir.)

Almost all mentioned provinces were strongholds for the incumbent.

(17) Now there is the danger that donors – under the pressure of the worldwide financial crisis and their electorates who have lost interest in Afghanistan – might see themselves forced (or may seize the opportunity) to cut off vital aid for post-2014 Afghanistan if the 2014 elections are deemed fraudulent. First precedence of temporary aid ‘freezes’ due to conditionality has already been created, although without much fanfare, by the EU (read here and here).


Photo: Thomas Ruttig


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