Political Landscape

2010 Elections 26: The IEC between pressure and scrutiny


The email was sent around today, not long before the planned press conference and not long after an earlier message had announced a delay. “Dear All: The IEC is intent to be more precise in announcement of WJ Elections results, therefore kindly be informed that IEC press conference for announcement of WJ preliminary results [is] cancelled, hopefully IEC will conduct the conference on Wednesday 20 October 2010 10:00 am.”

The second delay of the preliminary results – originally scheduled for 9 October 2010 anddelayed for the first time on 5 October 2010 (“considering the verification of results forms”) – is not unexpected.

Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is in a tough spot. Because it is determined to maintain its reputation – at least among the international supporters (and mainly those who have not really been paying attention) – of having run a relatively smooth election, it wants to stay as close to its announced deadlines as possible. But it is facing the same problems the IEC faced last year: what to do with such a volume of messy results? Moreover, how to deal with it, while at the same time being under both pressure and scrutiny – and it is not always clear which will get you into trouble most.

So you do the easy districts first and you start posting the largely uncontroversial results. Then you move to the dodgy centres that you dare to touch. You order some recounts and disqualifications – all the while edging closer to the problematic areas; the provinces where the results are uncomfortably uneven, the areas where it is the powerful who have been blatantly involved in fraud, the places where there in essence was no real vote and where you are expected to look the other way, the places where the returned results were so messy that you are not sure how to process and present them.

Instead of posting a few more installments of partial results, the IEC seems to have opted for biting the bullet in one go. It will be a big leap, given that for instance still not a single result has been posted for Nuristan (despitelast week’s announcement that it was imminent) and only a limited number of votes for a complicated province like Kandahar. There is likely to be much consternation among candidates when the so far presented results are suddenly overturned after the addition of the final batch of votes (because not everybody understands that these were only partial results, and it doesn’t help that no information is provided on the IEC website concerning the percentage of the total vote that the partial results represent).

It will be interesting to see whether the preliminary results – which may be announced on Wednesday, but I am not holding my breath – will finally give a better sense of how the IEC has performed. So far, the international donors have based their relatively favourable evaluation of the IEC mainly on matters of process. They have pointed to the more robust procedures, the greater level of control over the sensitive electoral materials (this year the IEC could at least tell whether they had lost control or not, as opposed to last year), and a greater level of transparency. But for most Afghans matters of substance count more: who wins and by which means. And the bottom line is that the IEC has still not run an election in which, according to the voters, it was their votes that determined who won.

And even with regard to the process and the transparency there are serious concerns. The improved procedures and triggers provide the IEC with a greater ability to identify and isolate the suspicious votes, but in the end what counts is how these results are dealt with. And that is shrouded in secrecy. Suspicious results sheets and triggered results are discussed by the management committee of the count centre in closed meetings. The decisions are communicated in documents that are distributed among observer organisations, but so far have not been made available on the internet (a copy of the most recent one – nr 78, dated 5 October 2010 – can be found here). They list which quarantined polling stations are excluded, included or recounted, but contain very little detail on why.

There will have been, and still are, huge pressures and incentives towards ‘creative decision-making’. For instance when confronted with more fraudulent and suspicious results than can be disqualified. Or when the results that are shaping up look problematic and unacceptable – for whatever reason. Or when friends call in favours. These meetings have the potential to determine who the winners and losers are, and the amount of discretion and lack of transparency only feeds the suspicion.This is all the more pertinent now that there are strong indications that the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) does not intend to rule on any complaints against IEC decisions, including the disqualification of votes or candidates, arguing that they will only deal with electoral violations.

These elections, so far, did indeed look better in terms of the ‘neatness’ of the process (although there is still time for things to go horribly wrong), but in the end it may turn out to have been just as unfair and intransparent as last year’s disastrous vote.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape