What to Watch in the Elections (3): Polling day, fraud and irregularities
Elections in Afghanistan can be overwhelming, surreal and utterly confusing, even for those who have followed the politics of the country for a long time. To bring those who were not here during previous elections up to speed, and to remind those who may have forgotten the details of what it was like, AANâ€™s Martine van Bijlert answers some crucial questions. She discusses voter registration, the securing of polling stations, election day fraud, and the laborious process to settle on an election outcome â€“ in four installments. In this one, the third, she looks at what will probably happen on election day and what we should be watchingÂ outÂ for in terms of fraud.
What should we be expecting in terms of polling day fraud?
It is very difficult to imagine fraud-free elections under the current circumstances.Â Political stakes are high, many institutions are both partisan and internally divided, and electoral staff often act in favour of a particular candidate or are for hire. Insecurity in large parts of the country makes voters fearful, hampers monitoring and observation, and facilitates fraud and interference. The excessive distribution of voter cards (seeÂ the first part of this series) ofÂ 21 million cards for aroundÂ 13.5 million eligible voters,Â and the opening of polling stations in insecure areas (see the second part of this series)Â provide opportunities for mass ballot stuffing.Â The question is not really whether there will be fraud, but how bad and how one-sided it will beÂ and what the political consequences are.
The fraud will not look the same all over the country. In the past, there has been a fairly direct correlation between high levels of insecurity (read the recent Taleban threatsÂ against election workers, activists, security personnel and voters here)Â and low levels of actual voter participation, which has led to extreme results in the most insecure areas: either very low numbers of votes casts due to the near absence of voters, or extremely high numbers as a result of the hijacking of the electoral materials by polling officials or local strongmen (for details see this AAN report).
A pronounced example of what can happen in remote and insecure areas, is Nuristan. In 2009, rulings by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) led to the removal of more than half of the provincial council vote. In most of the remoteÂ polling stations, all 600 ballot papers â€“ or more â€“ had been used. The 27 polling centres that were untouched also showed signs of the described duality: either almost no vote or a highly suspicious vote.Â (1) Something similar happened in 2010 (see AAN reporting here)Â resulting in the disqualification of 62 per cent of the polling stations that reported as having opened (see AAN reporting here).
In areas where people do come out to vote and where observers may be present, there will still be irregularities, but they will be less blatant; for example, polling staff providing voters with â€˜guidanceâ€™, underage voting or elders bringing bags full of voter cards in order to vote for â€˜theirâ€™ women or their village. Where there are strong tribal or commander networks, there is likely to be intimidation â€“ of voters, observers and polling staff â€“ or strongmen will simply seek to directly control the local electoral institutions. An example of this was the Tarakhel area in the outskirts of Kabul where, in 2009, ballot boxes were found to have been filled before the polling centre opened.
In terms of how the fraud is organised, we can roughly distinguish between a) highly organised mass ballot-stuffing involving the wholesale capture of electoral materials, sometimes for whole areas, that precludes any actual voter involvement; two examples in 2009Â were Spin Boldak in Kandahar and the Pashtun districts in Ghazni; b) the widespread, but more localised and sometimes temporary capture of polling centres by outsiders, often after a fabricated security scare or a takeover by force, enabling (top-up) ballot stuffing and other interferences, such as the invalidation of rival votes; and c) tampering or ballot-stuffing by IEC staff, often, though not always, in favour of multiple candidates (after having made several separate deals).
In the past, much of the ballot stuffing was relatively easy to detectÂ as crude procedural mistakes were made: forms were not filled in properly or had obviously been tampered with, ballots were folded en masse or in other ways that precluded individual voting and many, or all of them had been ticked for the same candidate with the same pen in the same style. Although it is possible that in some instances the fraud will now be more sophisticated, in the end there tends to be a logistical limit to how many ballots you can stuff in a day (and sometimes a bit longer) and it is likely that, as in previous years, people will run out of time to properly cover their tracks.
There is no real reason to believe we will not witness all these forms of polling day manipulation and fraud again, including the mass capture of electoral material. The main question is whether it will be as brazen and over-the-top as in previous years. On one hand, it is clear that the more massive the fraud is, the more likely it is to be detected and cause the sort of outcry that will be difficult to ignore. It would be logical to expect a learning curve, preventing some of the most obvious and easily detectable mistakes (such as adding stamped blank papers as â€˜ballotsâ€™ after having run out of original ones, or leaving footprints when trying to stamp down overflowing stacks of ballots into the box). On the other hand, the closeÂ nature of the contest and the fear that rivals may engage in mass fraud, coupled with the fact that local supporters often go overboard in their attempts to prove their value (in the hope of being rewarded later), indicate there will probably be a repeat of old patterns.
Some seem to hope that this election may be better because there is no incumbent candidate. According to this view, the messiness of the 2009 elections was mainly a result of a large-scale, centrally organised attempt to give Karzai a first round win. However, reports from those witnessing the 2009 audit indicated that the fraud was clearly not limited only to votes in favour of Karzai. Moreover, fraud has been an integral part of every single election so far. The parliamentary and provincial council elections, where the stakes are considered less high â€“ at least candidates can win with much smaller margins â€“ have not been less contentious or less riddled by fraud, intimidation and other forms of manipulation (for more details on what this looked like in the 2009 and 2010 elections,Â see AAN’s reports here and here).
What about the IECâ€™s measures to combat fraud, will they not help?
In every election so farÂ procedures have been tightened based on lessons learned from previous rounds. This election is no different. This time, in particular the measures to protect the chain of custody of sensitive electoral materials have been improved. Although they do not ensure that the IEC (Independent Election Commission) maintains actual control over its material, they do help identify incidences where procedures have not been properly followed and where tampering may have occurred.
Forms have also been rationalised, but the actual measures to avoid tampering are largely the same as last time: the Result and Reconciliation Forms (on which the main data is recorded and â€˜reconciledâ€™) are transported in tamper-evident bags, the actual filled-in results on the form are secured with masking tape, copies of the result forms are handed over to observers and one copy is posted at the polling station. There is a newly introduced tracking system that uses barcodes and barcode readers to trace the ballot boxes and forms as they pass through the system. Ballot boxes are still to be sealed, opened for the count and then re-sealed, with numbered seals and in the presence of observers. The use of indelible ink to mark votersâ€™ fingers is still the main safeguard against multiple voting; a new formula may (or may not) make this the first election without controversy surrounding â€˜indelible inkâ€™, which still washes off.
On paper, the measures donâ€™t look bad â€“ as in previous elections â€“ but they cannot prevent fraud (see also the fourth instalment in this series). As in previous years, they merely complicate how fraud can be committed and make it easier to detect after it has happened.Â The IEC will still be left with the unattractive job of sifting through a messy vote and deciding which ballots to count.
(1) Of the remaining 27 polling centres that were not disqualified in Nuristan in 2009, there were 15 polling centres with (almost) 600 votes in every polling station, two with more votes than issued ballots (714 in one single station and 2,438 in a centre that had four stations), three that did not register a single vote, and several showing unusually high vote counts of at least 400 per station. For details see here.