Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (21): BVV devices and a delay in announcing preliminary results


BVV devices that have arrived in IEC’s Warehouse 3 in Kabul. They will be checked and then sent to IEC headquarters for their data to be transferred to the IEC server. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 3 October 2019

BVV devices that have arrived in IEC’s Warehouse 3 in Kabul. They will be checked and then sent to IEC headquarters for their data to be transferred to the IEC server. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 3 October 2019

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has completed the transfer of data from the biometric devices to its central server. Those 1,932,673 votes now need to be gone through using a verification process to weed out duplicate, underage and ‘photo-proxy’ votes. Only then, will the IEC know the final number of biometrically-validated votes. It has also, therefore, delayed its announcement of preliminary results. Throughout the transfer of the biometric data, the public, political elite and Afghanistan’s international backers have been locked into a politically-charged debate about the BVV devices and which votes to count. In this dispatch, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili, Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig look at the issues surrounding the BVV devices, verified votes and voters, and the consequences of the delay in announcing the preliminary results.

Completion of biometric data transfer to the central server

IEC commissioner Rahima Zarifi told a press conference on 23 October that the data from all the biometric voter verification (BVV) devices (she did not specify how many) had been transferred to the server. “The statistics of biometric data reach 1,932,673,” she said, and this was “final.” However, it was still not final enough for the IEC to announce the preliminary results; Zarifi said that, within the next few days, the owners of the BVV devices, the German company Dermalog, would need to ‘cleanse’ the biometric data currently in the server of underage and duplicate votes as well as votes cast with only photos of tazkeras, not the voters themselves. After this, she said, “the biometrically-validated votes of the people of Afghanistan will be provided to the IEC. “

Since election day, 28 September, the IEC has been struggling to determine the level of turnout and has provided rather changeable figures. In its fourth update (see AAN’s reporting about various updates here and here), the IEC announced a turnout of 2,695,890. The newly-announced figure of 1,932,673 shows that a total of 763,217 votes (28.31 per cent) of the initial turnout figures have been tossed away. It is not clear which candidates these votes favoured. However, there has been a serious debate between the IEC, the different candidates and their supporters, and the country’s international allies as to which votes can legitimately be included in the tally.

The debate about which votes to count

The IEC had stipulated in its polling and counting procedure before the election that it would invalidate any votes that were cast without the proper capturing of the voter’s biometric data (registration number, fingerprints and photo) (see AAN’s reporting here). As could have been anticipated, however, there were many reported incidents of BVV devices not working properly on election day. This was widespread and reported from various different provinces (see AAN’s reporting here and here).

The IEC was faced with a dilemma. If unverified votes were not counted, that would mean that voters who might genuinely have voted after encountering malfunctioning BVV devices were effectively disenfranchised. Yet, if those votes were counted, this would open the door to fraudulent votes being mixed in with the ‘clean’ ballots.

This dilemma stimulated a debate about whether the pre-election IEC stance should be overturned and ‘non-BVVed’ votes be counted in the tally. At the same time, the initial high turnout figures by the IEC, which contradicted what observers including AAN had seen on the ground, led to suspicions about the existence of many fraudulent votes. Some candidates thought this could be countered by insisting on only BVVed votes being included in the tally. So far, the IEC has only given a partial explanation of the plummeting turnout figures.  On 14 October, it said the initial figures had been ‘estimates’, as they had been phoned in, and also that there had been mistakes on some result sheets (for more detail, see here).

Eight days after the election, on 6 October, the IEC and ECC issued a joint statement, reconfirming its polling and counting procedure and saying that the IEC had decided that it “considers only the votes cast through the biometric system as valid and enters only the BVV[-verified] votes into the system.” It said this was in accordance with article 19 of the electoral law and other regulations and procedures enacted before. The statement also said the ECC “fully” supported this “for the sake of ensuring the legitimacy of the electoral process.” It said the ECC also supported the IEC’s decision to invalidate those votes that are not biometrically-verified.

Countries giving civilian and military support to Afghanistan as well as UNAMA – often referred to as ‘international stakeholders’ – also announced their support for this stance. They included the US embassy which tweeted on 8 October that “Consistency reduces fraud and defends the transparency and legitimacy of the electoral process.” (1) Similar statements came from the UK embassy, and from UNAMA which reiterated their “full support for the IEC and ECC as the bodies authorized to make decisions on the issue of electoral procedures.”

Chief Executive Abdullah welcomed the statements by the IEC and ECC, and the US and UK (here and here) on 8 October. Before, on 7 October, members of the Council of Presidential Candidates (background here and here) had also stressed in a press conference that only BVVed votes should be counted.

However, a group of political parties aligned (media report here) with President Ghani’s State-Builder team took a different position. In a 9-point resolution published on 17 October (which AAN has seen a copy of), they argued that the IEC was “duty-bound to [also] accept the votes of individuals not biometrically verified” but who had voter registration stickers and which were registered in the IEC documents (without specifying which ones). They argued that those people had cast their votes without biometric verification due to the malfunctioning of the BVV devices and that those votes had been “accepted by the agents of presidential candidates, political parties, civil society and especially the IEC officials on 28 September.” Earlier again, on 13 October, three other pro-Ghani political parties (Hezb-e Refah-e Melli, Hezb-e-Harakat Islami (as reported) and Jabha-ye Nejat Melli) had taken the same position (media report here).

Another intervention had come from the Ghani-supporting Chair of the Meshrano Jirga, Fazl Hadi Muslimyar; he threatened to force IEC chair Hawa Alam Nuristani to count non-BVVed votes). He later apologised), although still insisted that non-BVVed votes should be counted.

It is not clear whether or not these parties were speaking on behalf of or in perceived support for President Ghani’s team. However, their position was in line with what earlier, on 2 October, spokesman for Ghani’s State-Builder ticket Najib Danesh had said. He told Etilaat Roz daily that they would accept votes without biometric data if the IEC decided to count them. (2)

Everyone has now officially welcomed the IEC’s delay in announcing preliminary results (details on this below), saying that accuracy and transparency are more important than keeping to the timetable. These positive statements might be viewed as the result of all parties having come round to the public position that only BVVed votes which have been properly processed and scrutinised should be included in the tally. Behind that corralling of opinion has been a determination by Afghanistan’s international supporters to avoid a repetition of the toxic 2014 presidential election dispute. They have clearly and consistently said that only votes verified by biometric data should be counted. They have also said a low turnout will not delegitimise the election results (3) and that the announcement of delayed, but accurate results is preferable.

Issues with BVV data

Before looking at the reactions to the delay in getting the preliminary results, this dispatch will first look at three issues to do with the BVV data which have arisen and caused controversy.

BVV operator photographing a voter before he votes in Bamyan Centre Boys High School. Such data has assumed vital importance as only votes with full BVV data are being counted. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 28 October 2019

BVV operator photographing a voter before he votes in Bamyan Centre Boys High School. Such data has assumed vital importance as only votes with full BVV data are being counted. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 28 October 2019

First, IEC faced technical problems with transferring the data from BVV devices to the central server and had to seek help from Dermalog engineers. They arrived at the IEC on 9 October. On the same day, the IEC issued a statement saying that “only the speed of transferring the data of the biometric machines to the IEC’s central server has been reduced due to adding cybersecurity features and the volume of the data,” with the implication that security had not been compromised. This led to some finger-pointing at Dermalog. The head of the IEC secretariat told a press conference that the company was to blame for the delay in transferring the data. A Dermalog representative responded by telling the media on the same day that the problem lay not in its biometric database system, but in the “poor” volume of the “local networks which has made entering the data into the database difficult.” He also said “new ways for the data to be inserted into the system” had been found. The IEC subsequently announced, on 13 October, that it had adopted a new method which would speed everything up.

The IEC explained that it would also be physically transferring the devices to a room at its headquarters and there, assigned staff would take out the devices’ memory cards, insert them into computers and transfer the data into the system. IEC commissioner Awrangzeb explained at the 14 October press conference that the commission had called in specialists from Dermalog and “within two-three days,” they had briefed candidate agents about the new method. The IEC had also implemented more safety measures as advised by Dermalog, had carried out testing and had started the data transfer in the presence of the candidate agents.

The second issue with the BVV devices stemmed from those technical problems with the data transfer. They sparked rumours that the system had been hacked (see for example here). The IEC in its 9 October statement called these rumours “completely baseless.” However, the IEC secretariat did say in its 11 October press conference that Dermalog had confirmed several failed attempts at hacking, and also given assurances that the servers were protected. In a BBC report, the head of the commission’s IT department, Kabir Panahi, said there had been several failed attempts to access the server while it was hooked up to the biometric devices and a Dermalog representative said: “There are some countries in Asia which wanted to infiltrate into the system, I will not tell which country. However, they cannot get into the firewall or the protective system of the database. The protective system is very strong and completely protected and is under our supervision.”

Third, concerns over the BVV devices took another turn on the night of 20/21 October when the seal of the main door of IEC Digital Data Support Centre was found broken. This led to the suspension of its operation for two days. Here, we give some detail about what happened and the explanation, given the seriousness of the accusations.

Abdullah’s campaign accused special police force from the Crisis Response Unit (CRU), President Ghani’s campaign and officials from the IEC secretariat of breaking the seal. “After 9 o’clock (last) night,” Abdullah’s campaign manager Ali Ahmad Osmani told a press conference the next day, “We received information that the attack had been carried out by special units of the Ministry of Interior, one of the specific teams supported by them and some members of the secretariat.” He said they had gone to the scene at 10 o’clock at night and seen “the lock broken and the interior ministry’s special units led by the senior deputy minister standing at the IEC gate” (see media report here). Osmani called for the suspension of the head of the IEC secretariat, the senior deputy minister of interior for security, and the IEC security adviser to allow for an investigation. Spokesman for the Ministry of Interior Nasrat Rahimi called “the news as though the security forces have interfered in the [IEC’s] internal affairs completely baseless.”

The IEC gave the following explanation of events in a statement the following day (see it here in Dari):

Last night, the security forces were stationed in front of the building of Training Department for the purpose of paira dari(patrolling), but due to the cold weather, they requested [to be allowed to] patrol inside the dahliz (lobby) and only the main door was opened for this purpose in the presence of the person in charge and the national police officials.

The IEC said that this had led to a misunderstanding for Abdullah’s Stability and Integration campaign. It said that the campaign’s senior agents had gone immediately to the IEC that night and three of them, including the campaign manager, had personally, “together with the security force officials, checked the lock of the room where the transfer of biometric machines data takes place and compared their numbers with the numbers noted [on the lock] by the agents. [These] did not differ at all. The agents said patrolling should be outside the building [and], after locking the main door with a metal seal, left the IEC with satisfaction.”

The IEC said the Training Department building houses the digital tally centre on the first floor where photos of result sheets and digital result forms are processed; its door is locked at the end of each working shift. It also houses a room on the second floor where biometric data from BVV devices is physically transferred to the central server; it is locked when not in use, with a metal lock whose number agents and observers note. In addition, the IEC said the main door of the building is also sealed after business hours finish for the day. The IEC insisted that the doors of the two rooms, as well as the main door to the building, had remained closed and locked on the night of 20/21 October.

The IEC held a press conference on 22 October where it  said it had set up a commission of enquiry comprising commissioners Mawlana Muhammad Abdullah and  Awrangzeb and agents of the election campaigns, as well as representatives of European Union and United Nations (media report here). At the conference, Commissioner Awarangzeb said (see the video here) that when the incident happened, two policemen, who were members of the CRU special unit, asked an IEC secretariat security adviser if, since it was cold, they could  both patrol and stay immune from the cold, by coming inside the lobby, “The employee Lutful Rahman [who is in charge of the seal to the building] and the security adviser were called and the seal was broken in their presence.”

However, that same day, Abdullah’s campaign issued a statement, repeating their accusation: “This attack is an organised attack in collusion with the Arg’s team [and] that is why is considered sort of coup d’état against the republic and democracy and manipulation of the people’s votes.” It claimed, “Our initial evaluations show that this organised attack had mainly been organised to replace the chip [memory] and change the contents of the quarantined biometric devices.” This was a reference to the 2,643 devices whose data still needed to be dealt with and transferred to the server.

The IEC, after its press conference, said it wanted to ‘reopen’ the seal in the presence of the agents, observers and media, but Abdullah’s agents did not agree to this (AAN was present). IEC officials then went inside to negotiate with Abdullah’s agents. They only reached an agreement later that day when the IEC announced that, in understanding with the candidates’ agents, it had reviewed the seals of the Digital Data Support Centre and the boxes containing the biometric devices, in the presence of the media, and this had enabled the centre to resume its operations.

This incident delayed the transfer of data from the remaining biometric devices to the server for two days, and by extension, the tabulation and announcement of results.

Delay in the preliminary results

According to the official electoral calendar, the IEC had been due to announce the preliminary results of the presidential elections on 19 October. However, in a widely-anticipated move, late on the 19th, the IEC commissioners, chief electoral officer (who is the head of the IEC secretariat) and his deputy told a press conference they were unable to announce the widely expected results “at the time specified in the electoral calendar.” They cited “technical reasons” and “[even] more to secure transparency” (beshtar ba khater tamin shafafiyat) and extended an apology “to the people of Afghanistan and the stakeholders involved in the election.” They fell short of setting a new date for announcing the results.

Instead, the IEC turned immediately to reporting its activities (read the full statement in the annex to this text). It said the data from 23,176 biometric devices had been transferred to the central server, representing the data of 1,786,458 voters. This was a second, although still incomplete figure for the biometric data. The IEC had announced the first BBV-backed figures on 14 October press conference (see AAN report here): 1,737,078. It has since given a third, updated figure on 23 October of 1,932,673. The last two updates have been of very limited analytical value given that the IEC provided no provincial breakdown.

The technical problems the IEC referred to when announcing the delay were to do with the two-day wait to start to the data transfer – according to the IEC, this was caused first, by-election observers not showing up at the data centre and second, problems with the IEC server (as described above). The IEC’s transparency argument echoed statements by various stakeholders calling on it to not sacrifice accuracy to the desire to keep to the timetable (also, more on this below).

The IEC has yet to set a date for the announcement of the preliminary results. Commissioner Zarifi said, during her 23 press conference, that the IEC would also need to compare the outcome of the manual tally centre and digital tally centre, deal with the recount, and finalise the investigation into the breaking of the seals before being able to announce the results.

How the delay was received

Reactions to this IEC decision were positive. President Ashraf Ghani that his team would respect the IEC decision “to postpone announcing the results to ensure fairness, transparency and accountability of the final vote.” One of his agents, Abdul Qader Hutkhel, also told the BBC the transparency of the election was more important for them than the timely announcement of the results. Meanwhile, one of Chief Executive Abdullah’s agents, Muhammad Yunus Nawandish, said the delay was not a cause of concern for them as it was purely for technical reasons.

Afghanistan’s international supporters had already been advocating for prioritising accuracy over the keeping to the timetable. US Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells said on 15 October after meeting IEC and ECC officials: “We will support their decision on timing of release of preliminary results. Better for IEC/ECC to deliver an accurate result than a rushed one.” UNAMA had also released a statement on 13 October urging “all stakeholders to have an accurate understanding of the tallying process before making comments.” It also urged the IEC and ECC “to ensure all stakeholders understand the tally process, including by explaining the process in clear and definitive terms. All stakeholders share responsibility for the credibility of the elections.” ‘Stakeholders’ here appeared to especially refer to Abdullah’s campaign which the previous day had accused “circles” within IEC “with political links” of “systematic breach of rules/procedures.” (4)

Most presidential candidates have also backed the delay. Chief Executive Abdullah said in a 12 October tweet that “Turnout numbers should be based on BVV validated data” and Ahmad Wali Massud wrote on 17 October after a meeting between presidential candidates and ambassadors, “In Afghanistan, once someone is declared winner of the presidential election, then there is definitely no room for the Electoral Complaints Commission to review and reverse the preliminary results. Sensitivities and the election becoming a matter of honour require being cautious and certain in announcing the results.”

Conclusion

The IEC has now completed the transfer of data from biometric devices to the central server. The next step is to remove invalid votes (underage and duplicates votes as well as those supported by the photos captured from tazkera or other photos).

The biometric data has assumed vital importance in that it is now the only criteria set by the IEC for counting the votes. Both the candidates and Afghanistan’s international allies have supported the IEC on this. However, President Ghani’s campaign had said it would welcome votes not backed by the biometric data of the voters and his political supporters have publically called on the IEC to do this. The debate may resurface once the preliminary results are announced if Ghani does not turn out to be the winner.

The IEC has delayed the announcement of the preliminary results, but not set any new deadline. This is not unprecedented; the IEC announced the results of the 2018 parliamentary elections almost seven months after they were held (AAN’s previous reporting here). This time, so far, none of the major candidates have objected to the delay, citing the need for ‘transparency.’ However, the longer the delay lasts, the more the transparency of the election process itself may come into question and the greater the potential for politicking and rumour-mongering. An atmosphere which has so far remained relatively benign could still become poisonous.

The preliminary result, whenever it comes, will also give us an idea whether the 2019 election has to go into a second round. The lower the turnout, the lower the margin between the two expected leading candidates might be, and the more votes cast for other candidates are likely to push the frontrunner under the 50 per cent plus one vote winning threshold.

The IEC has scheduled a possible second round of voting for 23 November. This is already at a critical time because the onset of winter and snow likely to fall in many parts of the country will be a further downward pressure on turnout. With the announcement of the preliminary results now postponed, and with more postponements unable to be ruled out because of the complaints and adjudication process, there is already pressure on the timetable. In Kabul, it is widely assumed that a second round, if necessary, will not be possible before the onset of spring in late March 2020.

That would mean there would be no fully legitimate government for many months – during a period where US-Taleban and possibly also intra-Afghan negotiations might recommence. And as reported in the media, calls for an interim government are already being heard.

Edited by Kate Clark

 

(1) Ambassadors and officials from the international allies of Afghanistan have been visiting the IEC in recent weeks to show their support for the IEC’s work, and perhaps in a bid to avoid the repetition of the 2014 presidential election dispute.

On 6 October, UK ambassador Alison Blake and NATO Senior Civilian Representative to Afghanistan Nickolas Kay visited IEC. On 11 October, 11 EU ambassadors also visited the IEC. On 14 October, US ambassador John Bass visited the IEC whereupon he tweeted “To protect the integrity of the vote, I support the IEC decision to count only biometrically-verified ballots.” Also, on 15 October, US Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells met the IEC and ECC officials,  and then tweeted “The IEC and ECC’s recent confirmation they will only count BVV-confirmed votes, per Afghan electoral policy, is a positive step to increase confidence that the end result will be a credible outcome. The rules for elections should not change in the middle of a process.” She also said that “We will support their decision on timing of release of preliminary results. Better for IEC/ECC to deliver an accurate result than a rushed one.”

(2) Earlier, Chairman of the Meshrano Jirga Fazl Hadi Muslimyar had threatened to force the IEC to count the votes without biometric data of the voters (media report here). Muslimyar supported President Ghani in the election. He, however, apologised to IEC chair Hawa Alam Nuristani later (media report here), but insisted that the votes not biometrically verified should still be counted.

There have been two accusations levelled against President Ghani’s State-Builder team: first, that it planned to organise demonstrations to call for the non-BVV votes to be counted (media report here).

Second, supporters of Chief Executive Abdullah and presidential candidate Rahmatullah Nabil alleged that the Ghani team has sought a legal opinion from the Supreme Court about the non-BVV votes. However, Daud Sultanzoy, a key member of the Ghani campaign, told AAN on 10 October this was “absolutely baseless.”

(3) For instance, the UK embassy tweeted on 8 October that “The legitimacy of the result is not affected by turnout.”

(4) Abdullah tweeted:

As team VP Saadati reiterated, evidence shows signs of systematic breach of rules/procedures by IEC circles with political links. We warn that IEC must be impartial & transparent. Entering invalid non-biometric votes or inconsistent BVV data into system will not be tolerated.

We ask that the invalid data entry process be halted, reversed & corrected. Turnout numbers should be based on BVV validated data. Observers need to be given access to all sites/facilities to monitor all process phases. We will use all legal means to stand against fraud. (see here.)

 

Annex:

IEC’s statement about the delay to announcing the preliminary results of the presidential election (AAN’s working translation)

Date: 19 October 2019

First of all, the IEC apologises to the people of Afghanistan and the stakeholders involved in the election process for not announcing and publishing the preliminary results of 28 September election.

The IEC appreciates and thanks the responsible participation of citizens in the election to determine their political destiny, and all supports by the stakeholders involved in the election affairs.

The IEC after the election day, especially when it received the all-out supports of the stakeholders and international supporters of the election because of holding transparent election and better management of the election, focused all its efforts to manage the post-election day processes properly and in better way. Therefore, time management and care and transparency in processing the results on the other were the important and fundamental issues ahead of the IEC. However, the IEC due to technical reasons and more for ensuring transparency could not announce the preliminary results at the time specified in the electoral calendar. It is worth sharing the reports of the performance of the IEC with the people and other stakeholders in accordance with article 89 of the electoral law.

  1. The IEC, after security assessments, could prepare election materials for 5,373 polling centres containing 29,586 polling stations (11,119 female polling stations and 18,467 male polling stations).
  2. After the final security assessment by the country’s security agencies, out of 5,373 polling centres, 431 polling centres were closed.
  3. The IEC recruited more than 200,000 people for the polling day, conducted proper training programmes for several days and [ensured] proper training for each employee.
  4. The IEC launched extensive countywide public awareness programmes through its employees and media.
  5. According to reports from the IEC’s provincial offices, on election day, in total, 4,685 polling centres opened.
  6. After the election, all the sensitive election materials including the boxes containing biometric machines were received from the provincial offices at the IEC headquarters.
  7. Photo of result sheets and the digital result forms were supposed to be transmitted from the polling stations to the headquarters through internet on election day, but due to the disconnection of the mobile networks, it became impossible to send these data. The day following election day, the IEC finally started the process of receiving sensitive materials and processing them in the IEC headquarters which unfortunately faced numerous problems including the transfer of biometric data into the server due to problems with Dermalog application. After ten days, the transfer of biometric data to the central server was resumed.
  8. In addition, for the purpose of ensuring transparency, the agents and observers are always present in each of the electoral processes. Their positive presence is appreciated but sometimes candidates’ agents disrupt the process due to various reasons which are not in their mandate at all which we have unfortunately witnessed several times. The IEC seriously expect candidates’ agents and political parties to operate within the jurisdiction of their duties and not cause disruption and suspension of the process.
  9. The IEC carries out the result tabulation on three pivots:
  • Tallying of results in the National Tally Centre
  • Tallying of results in the Digital Tally Centre
  • Transferring voters’ biometric data to the server and separating the duplicate and underage biometric details.

In the National Tally Centre, the IEC has so far processed 25,566 result sheets, of which 1,329 forms have problems whose data need to be reviewed. Also, 482 forms have not been received and the IEC, after analysis of the biometric data, will ask for the copies of the results sheets of these stations from the respective ballot boxes according to the procedure.

 In the Digital Tally Centre where the photo of result sheets and the digital result forms were supposed to be received, the IEC has so far processed 23,176 result forms and in this centre, the number of voters biometrically verified has also been determined but the biometric data need to be analysed in the relevant server to find out duplicate and underage [ones].

In total, the IEC had assigned 34,958 biometric devices for the election day. 34,767 have been retrieved to the headquarters, but 199 devices have [not] been retrieved to the headquarters about which reviews are underway.

 The data of 23,176 biometric machines have been transferred to the central server which contain the data of 1,786,458 voters. But 2,888 biometric devices have been qaurantined due to reasons such as broken screens, cannot be switched on and not having the photo of result sheets on the election day and other reasons which have now been taken out of quarantine and are being reviewed in the presence of agents and observers and the biometric data existing in them are being transferred to the server.

  1. According to the electoral law, regulation and procedures of the candidates election campaign fiancé, candidates were duty bound to present the reports of their campaign finance in two rounds to the IEC and the report to be published along with the preliminary results and the violators be introduced to the ECC. Now the final report of the finance of the candidates’ election campaign has been prepared which will be published through the IEC’s website. Voters, political parties and candidates can consult the ECC and file their objection and complaints if they do not consider the report of the financial affairs of the candidates as realistic or find it incomplete or if there is document that there has been financing from illegal sources.
  2. We hope you stay patient so that the result tabulation process is completed in the presence of agents and observers through a transparent process.
  3. We request all the candidates and their supporters and the media to avoid publishing statistics and figures until the preliminary results are officially released by the IEC in accordance with the law.

 

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape