Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (25): contradictory figures and low turnout in Kandahar


One of the few women voters who showed up in the early hours of election day places her finger on the biometric device to verify her identity at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School in Kandahar City’s Aino Mena neighbourhood. The turnout of voters, both male and female, was much lower than in previous elections, even in this relatively safe neighbourhood. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

One of the few women voters who showed up in the early hours of election day places her finger on the biometric device to verify her identity at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School in Kandahar City’s Aino Mena neighbourhood. The turnout of voters, both male and female, was much lower than in previous elections, even in this relatively safe neighbourhood. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

Kandahar’s turnout looks like it will be less than half the national average, pending finalisation of the numbers. There are many possible reasons for this, chief among them fraud, with limited reporting but plenty of anecdotal evidence of ballot stuffing and other irregularities. But Kandaharis also seem to have been deterred by the low level of campaigning, dashed hopes from the peace process collapsed and the silence of the Karzais. For this post-election piece, AAN’s Fazal Muzhary has been trying to unravel facts from fraud, with the help of interviews with local journalists, civil society activists, one senior government official, the deputy governor, campaigners of three contenders and a few ordinary people, most of whom chose to remain anonymous for security reasons.  

Turnout figures from Kandahar

The most recent preliminary turnout figures for Kandahar are strikingly low compared to previous elections, as well as being significantly lower than earlier figures released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC). On 14 October, IEC officials announced that there had been 54,380 Biometrically Verified Votes (BVV) counted, out of 558,567 registered voters. This suggests that only 9.74 per cent of all registered voters actually cast their votes on election day. (1)  The national figure, while not finalised, is currently estimated to be around 19.1 per cent (see AAN report here). Voters used 1,166 polling stations, out of a possible 1,584 stations in Kandahar province, according to the IEC. The figures were released in a video conference that was broadcast on the IEC’s Facebook page (here, minute 11:12, see also AAN dispatch here). This figure is not considered final as the process of removing duplicate and underage votes are still underway, with a high number of recounts and audits also taking place. According to data published by AAN on November 21, 46.8 per cent of Kandahar’s polling stations are undergoing audits and recounts, one of the highest in the country, topped only by Paktia (59.9 per cent), Paktika (50.2 per cent) and Zabul (72.3 per cent). This data also shows a slightly higher BVVed turnout vote of 9.9 percent, or 55,379 votes.

Prior to the 14 October turnout figures, IEC officials had announced different figures for Kandahar on different occasions, a confusion that has become a pattern with IEC communications. For example, on 30 September, the IEC commissioner, Mawlana Muhammad Abdullah, shared a results sheet on his Facebook, which said 182,540 votes were cast in 1,457 polling stations in Kandahar (the result sheet can be accessed here). Just one day later, on 1 October, IEC officials announced in a video conference that 193,624 votes were cast in 1,561 stations (the video can be accessed here at minute 17:43). Two days later, on October 3, Mawlana shared yet another results sheet on his Facebook, which provided a third set of numbers, showing 193,741 voters had cast votes in 1,567 polling stations (this result sheet can be accessed here).

The conflicting figures also seem to confuse IEC officials, who were unable to respond to multiple requests from AAN for the official figures. For example, IEC spokesmen Ali Eftekhari and Zabihullah Sadat have been contacted multiple times since the election, to obtain the disaggregated district and city results, without success. In response to the most recent communication, the IEC requested an official letter from AAN, which the author submitted, but which has not produced a response. When asked why, the field operation manager at the IEC, Khyber Saedi told AAN: “Since most of the actual data is being processed, the latest data for Kandahar could not be accessed and shared with media. The preliminary figures shared by IEC are collected from the field through phone calls, which is part of the raw data.” This might be a reasonable response, were it not for the fact that contradictory sets of national and provincial “raw” data are repeatedly being shared by the IEC with the media.

The difference: misreporting or fraud?

There is a significant difference between the conflicting announcements in 2019, and between 2019 results and previous elections in Kandahar. First, when comparing the most recent BVV results with previous elections, 2019 looks set to be the lowest turnout on record for the province.

2019: 54,380 (BVV vote announced October 14, see above)

2018: 157,253 (parliamentary election, see here)

2014: 249,666 (presidential election, see here)

2010: 77,928 (parliamentary election, see here)

In regards to the 2019 electoral results, there was a big drop in the numbers after the exclusion of non-BVV votes from the count. For example, there is the difference of 139,361 votes between the two latest announcements, on 3 and 14 October, from 193,741 to 54,380. There is also another difference of 11,084 votes between the results that were announced on 30 September and 1 October. Some of these discrepancies may have resulted from misreporting from local IEC representatives, since IEC officials have said that most of the results were reported via phone calls.

However, given the persistent claims of fraud, this must also be considered. Multiple interviewees told AAN that there was ballot stuffing both before and after the election, particularly in districts. For example, news reporting and candidates’ campaigners have claimed that 90,000 votes were cast in Spin Boldak district, where the overall population is 109,837, including children.

Allegations of fraud

There were no media reports about ballot stuffing or other forms of vote manipulation on the day of the election in Kandahar city and the province’s districts, though it may be that local reporters are self-censoring because of security concerns, or the fraud was well hidden. Allegations of fraud have been made by supporters of two contenders, CEO Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In addition, civil society activists, observers, and local journalists have told AAN that there were ballot stuffing and other forms of manipulation. They said that these problems existed in almost all districts, but particularly in Spin Boldak, Dand, Panjwayi, Maiwand and Daman (find an overview about the security situation in Kandahar’s districts in this AAN report).

One campaigner working for Hekmatyar told AAN (on condition of anonymity) that in Spin Boldak most of the stuffing took place on 26 and 27 September, the two days before the election. Referring to his source as one of the IEC workers, he said, “Most of the boxes were filled beforehand, therefore, very few boxes were used in polling stations for actual voting.” This campaigner also said that IEC workers had told him about manipulation on election day. For instance, in the Loy Karez area of Boldak, gunfire was heard before noon and the polling station was immediately closed. However, when IEC officials then brought electoral materials to the district centre, immediately after the polling station was closed, policemen told them to fill the boxes in the district centre. He said, “5,000 votes were ‘cast’ in this area by the end of election day.” (The gunfire may have been Taleban-related rather than part of an organised manipulation. A pro-Taleban Facebook user posted about the attack on election day, saying two Afghan security forces were killed and the election was halted (see the post here)).

The reports of gunfire and ballot stuffing from the district were confirmed by a campaigner working for Abdullah, a local journalist and a civil society activist. The Abdullah campaigner said that observers were barred from some polling centres, while others were allowed in but only for half the day. When asked about particular centres in this regard, he named Jalal School, Ali Neka school, Haji Raziq teachers’ training centre, Saadullah school, Haji Raziq school, Ghazi Abdullah school, Haji Shah Mahmud school, Sayed Wali school, Haji Bashir school, Abdul Samad Khan School, Ghaibi Neka school and Shahid Abdullah school, all in Boldak. This campaigner said there were also polling centres where observers were not allowed back in after they took a lunch break, for example in Haji Faiz Muhammad school, Imam Abu Hanifa school, Haji Shah Mahmud school, Nawabad school and Niamat school, all in Spin Boldak. Local journalists and civil society activists could not confirm this, though none of the interviewees believed the high turnout figure of 90,000 voters for Spin Boldak which was shared in a list on social media (see the list here).

An IEC worker photographs a voter at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

An IEC worker photographs a voter at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

In Panjwayi, a journalist who works with an international media outlet, said one of his friends working at the IEC told him that they were told to “do the stuffing and not to take videos or photos. If anyone is caught sharing information with the media, then he should not complain if something happens to him.” When Azadi Radio reporter, Sadiq Reshtinai was asked about reports of stuffing in the districts, he said that he had also heard about incidents of fraud taking place on the day of the election, but they had not been reported yet. Another journalist, working with an international newspaper, told AAN that although he had not found witnesses to vote rigging on the day of the election, this was because “most of the stuffing happened either before or after the election.”

The journalist with an international newspaper said that it was difficult to detect fraud on the day of election unless an IEC worker secretly shared information. The “IEC staff are the only source that could know about the stuffing because they are involved in the process before and after the election.” A civil society activist agreed, saying that since all the processes were under tight control by government officials, fraud would not be visible to outsiders. As for fraud committed after the election closed, the journalist with international media said, “in some centres in Spin Boldak observers were told to leave polling centres after 5pm, and then the ballot boxes were kept in the centres until the afternoon of 29 September.”

In contrast to these reports, a local representative of president Ashraf Ghani’s campaign, Bashir Saleh, told AAN that there was “no fraud reported” and that the election was “very good.” Saleh said he had paid visits to different districts on the day of the election but he did not find problems such as those shared by Hekmatyar and Abdullah’s campaigners.

Given the consistency of the allegations, it does seem likely that some fraud took place, and played a part in the difference in the turnout results. If there was ballot stuffing, it may be that the biometric vote verification has been effective in excluding some of these fraudulent ballots, contributing to the sharp drop in post BVV numbers, and that ‘traditional’ (ballot paper only based) ballot stuffing was done in the expectation that the IEC would not be able to stick to its decision to validate BBVed votes only. However, given the absence of reporting in the public domain about fraud, there is a pressing need for further investigation. As noted, the likelihood of fraud may be reflected in the high level of audits and recounts that have been ordered, in 46.8 per cent of polling stations that were open in Kandahar (according to data seen by AAN). Unfortunately, controversy has already cast a shadow on the audits and recounts process, almost before it began, so these recounts and audits are unlikely to provide an acceptable outcome for all stakeholders.

Electoral Complaints

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) received 212 complaints about incidents of irregularities on the day of the election in Kandahar province, according to Aqa Reza Nekzad, spokesman for the provincial ECC. Elaborating on the complaints, Nekzad told AAN that the complaints were registered by candidates’ observers, ECC officials and local people. He said that 88 of the 212 complaints were incomplete because they lacked evidence or supporting documents.  Another 48 complaints were made relating to biometric devices, where voters were registered at particular polling centres but their ID could not be matched with the biometric database. With regards to these complaints, Nekzad said that they had informed the IEC to resolve such problems for the future election. There were another 15 cases where IEC officials were required to visit sites for investigation, but he did not provide details about the reasons or locations.

Three cases were reported about the interference of security officials, according to Nekzad. He told AAN “We had complaints from [Spin] Boldak and Arghandab districts where observers were not allowed [into the polling centres] by police.” There were also two cases in which security staff were reported to have interfered in the polling process: “They either did not allow observers in, or started the count in the absence of observers.” Any police who interfered in the election process would be fined in accordance with the article 98 of the IEC regulation, Nekzad said. Lastly, he said there were 56 complaints which were mostly about differences in numbers between BVV votes and physical ballots cast. (He did not know the locations of these complaints or how many polling stations they came from). In regards to the gunfire in Loy Karez area of Spin Boldak, Nekzad said that they had also heard about the issue but they had not received a complaint about the matter.

Reasons for low turnout: lack of campaigning and trust

Interviewees consistently cited the lack of campaigning by candidates as a reason for the low turnout, as well as the uncertainty caused by peace talks as to whether the election would happen and whether the results would be respected. In addition, the lack of simultaneous provincial council elections which tend to generate more local interest and the inactivity of Kandahari elites led to frustration among the Kandahari voters.

A voter inks her finger before voting at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

A voter inks her finger before voting at Safia Ama Jan Girls High School. Photo: Fazl Muzhary 28 September 2019

One government official, who did not want his name to be published, said that the aftermath of the 2014 election had led to a lack of trust in the election process. “People believe that whoever they vote for, there will still need to be mediation from a US official [like in 2014] to make a second national unity government,” he said. But according to the deputy governor, Agha Lalai Dastagiri, the main reason why people lacked enthusiasm for the election was that the candidates did so little campaigning, which he said was directly connected to the peace talks. A local businessman, Alauddin, told AAN a day before the election that he “wished that the peace talks would have succeeded, this would have meant there was no need to hold an election” adding that people “want peace to be the priority.” This was also reflected by Dastagiri who said that people in Kandahar had been hopeful that peace talks would bring a positive result and so there would be no need for an election. Agha Lalai said that both US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and US embassy officials had made clear that their priority was peace, not elections. When the peace talks were then called off, it frustrated Kandaharis, as a local journalist said: “no one was interested in taking part in any of the campaign rallies or in casting their votes on the day of the election because peace was their priority.” One analyst, who works with an international organisation said that once the peace talks were called off, there was not enough time left to campaign. Therefore, only three campaign rallies were held before election day, in Kandahar city.

Ashraf Ghani’s rally, held at the provincial stadium, proved controversial. All roads in the city were closed, people were not allowed to move around the city and residents were prevented from going to work (see the video here). The international NGO analyst said that the security forces “even beat some people in the city, because they took their cars to the city, when no cars were allowed.” The analyst also said that participants “immediately started leaving the stadium” when they realised that the gathering was also trying to rally support for the Afghan security forces, saying people did not want to support the ANSF. No such security measurements were put in place when Abdullah held his rally (also in the stadium) or when Hekmatyar’s campaign held its gathering at the Eidgah Mosque in the north of Kandahar city (Hekmatyar did not show up in the gathering, one of his running mates attended instead).

Another theory for the low turnout is the decision not to hold simultaneous elections for the provincial council, which involves a much larger number of candidates. Agha Lalai told AAN that in 2009, there were 120 contenders in the provincial council election only in Kandahar province, and in 2014 there were 113 candidates. All these candidates were actively mobilising voters. The analyst with the international NGO agreed, and said that in the 2014 election, provincial council candidates would even encourage people to vote by going to their homes on the day of the election. He said that if both elections had been combined, the provincial candidates would have used their private cars to take voters to the polling centres.

Finally, the inactivity of the Kandahari elite was felt to have been a factor, particularly former and current parliamentarians or government officials, including an important segment of them – the family of former president Hamed Karzai. The Karzais did not support a specific candidate among the 18 contenders, therefore, their supporters had no guidance as to who to vote for on the day of the election. The analyst with the international NGO said: “This meant that the entire Karzai family [effectively] boycotted the election.”

The absence of Kandaharis was particularly visible in contrast to the 2014 presidential election, when Kandahar had three contenders. The Karzais were represented by Abdul Qayum Karzai, brother of former President Hamid Karzai, former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai and former foreign minister and descendant of Afghanistan’s royal family, Zalmai Rassoul. Qayum Karzai later withdrew his candidacy and most of prominent Karzais threw their weight behind Rassoul. Sherzai and Rassoul held many campaign rallies in Kandahar province, which helped ensure that Kandaharis in the 2014 election were more engaged in the political arena than 2019. With the backing of the Karzai faction, Rassoul became the main contender in Kandahar, winning 53.96 per cent of the overall votes cast in Kandahar in the first round (based on the IEC results). Although Zalmai Rassoul ran again in 2019, he did not have the Karzai block to support him, and did not visit Kandahar. The other three Kandahari candidates, Ibrahim Alokozai, Nurul Haq Alumi and Muhammad Shida Abdali are not based in Kandahar, and did not hold campaign gatherings in Kandahar. Also, all of them withdrew from their candidacy in favour of incumbent candidate Ashraf Ghani. Among them, Alokozai and Alumi withdrew from their candidacy on the last day of the campaign. So despite the fact that there were four Kandaharis running for president in 2019, many voters in Kandahar felt neglected by them.

Conclusion

The recent figures announced by the IEC on 14 October showed that only 9.74 per cent registered voters have cast their votes, lower than any previous election in Kandahar. There was a significant drop from initial figures given by the IEC, and the most recent BVV figures. The contradictory figures from the IEC and low turnout signals that fraud probably occurred, some of which may have been weeded out by the exclusion of votes without BVV data. Although reporting so far is weak, anecdotal evidence from AAN interviews and campaign teams’ claims suggest that fraud took place before and after the election. For example, two campaigners said there was significant fraud in Spin Boldak, including on the day of the election. This has not yet been reported, perhaps because of media intimidation, though the improbable figure of 90,000 votes from Spin Boldak again gives weight to the likelihood of ballot-box stuffing. A total of 212 complaints about fraud have been registered with the electoral complaints commission, though it may be hard to prove, given the levels of control by electoral officials and security forces, particularly in the districts. With almost half the polling stations now subject to audits and / or recounts, Kandaharis may have some time to wait before the IEC can offer final figures.

There are multiple reasons behind Kandahar’s low turnout, and most of them are the same as in other parts of the country. The build-up towards peace talks left many believing or hoping that a peace deal would eclipse the elections. When the talks process collapsed less than a month before the election, disappointment seems to have resulted in a lower number of voters showing up on the day of the election. A related cause of low turnout was the inadequate level of campaigning, for instance only two candidates showed up in Kandahar province. Had the provincial council elections been included voters might have been more involved, either because the candidates and issues seem less remote than Kabul, or because of stronger voter mobilisation by local campaigns. Finally, and this is a reason specific for Kandahar, the unusual silence of the Karzai family, with its strong local base and influence, before the election gave a message to Kandahari voters that the election was insignificant. Much will be needed to restore Kandaharis’ trust in the electoral process, but at present, the confused picture from the IEC and the reporting black hole seems unlikely to contribute to that.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig

 

(1) Based on the 2019 Central Statistics Office (CSO) report of the Afghan government, the estimated population of Kandahar is 1,337,183, see the 2019 CSO report (here). The registered voters represent 41.78 per cent of the total population, though this also includes young people who are not yet eligible to vote.

 

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape