Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Elections (5): Slow preparations for a high-stake election


An IEC registration officer registers a voter at Naderia High School in Kabul as the IEC launched a 22-day top up voter registration across the country on 8 June 2019. Photo: IEC Facebook page

An IEC registration officer registers a voter at Naderia High School in Kabul as the IEC launched a 22-day top up voter registration across the country on 8 June 2019. Photo: IEC Facebook page

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has announced the new electoral calendar and started a 22-day top up voter registration process across Afghanistan. The announcement of the electoral calendar involved several key decisions, including that the IEC will hold only the presidential vote on 28 September 2019, that it will not change the electoral system ahead of the election and that it will not use biometric technology for the current voter registration. With these decisions, the IEC has now officially forsaken its original plan to also hold provincial council elections across the country as well as the pending Wolesi Jirga elections in Ghazni. AAN researcher Ali Yawar Adili (with input from Martine van Bijlert) gives an overview of the most important decisions, activities and reactions as the IEC struggles to prepare for a high-stakes election under difficult circumstances. A new, updated electoral calendar is annexed.

The IEC announces the electoral calendar for presidential elections only

On 29 May 2019, the IEC announced the detailed electoral calendar and stated that it would not be possible to hold the already overdue provincial council elections and the Ghazni Wolesi Jirga elections together with the presidential election “due to shortage of time.”(1) IEC chair Hawa Alam Nuristani said that the date for the other elections would be announced after the review of technical and financial issues, and taking time into consideration.

The new electoral calendar was published within the legal deadline prescribed in article 71 of the electoral law – at least 120 days before election day – and was an adjustment of an earlier calendar that had been published after the election was moved from the initially planned date of 20 April to 20 July (AAN report here) and is based on a second delay that moved the election date from 20 July to 28 September (AAN report here).

The Electoral Support Group (ESG), made up of the elections’ main donors, welcomed the IEC’s decision, saying: “Whilst the ESG fully acknowledges the principled importance of holding all Afghan elections in a timely fashion, the IEC’s decision prioritizing the holding of the presidential election on 28 September is essential given the very tight timeline and the practical challenges.” The group said that holding only the presidential election would enable the IEC “to concentrate its resources including personnel and logistics in managing the process.” (2)

The decision simplifies the preparation for the upcoming presidential election – which will be difficult enough on its own – but it also sidesteps several controversies, some of which must be faced in the future. These include the continuing demands that the electoral system be overhauled (which had been included in the latest electoral legislative decree of February 2019 (see here), the shifting decisions on whether to use biometrics in the elections and the question of what to do with the pending Wolesi Jirga elections in Ghazni.

The announcement of the electoral calendar also signalled the beginning of the top up voter registration exercise that provides voters with the opportunity to register for the first time or to correct or update their registration.

A 22-day voter registration and display of voters list

On 8 June 2019, the IEC commissioners officially launched the top up voter registration process in Naderia High School in PD 2 of Kabul city. IEC chair Hawa Alam Nuristan said the IEC was committed to carrying out the top up voter registration in 33 provinces and to doing a full voter registration in Ghazni province. Nuristani further said that the IEC had planned to carry out the top up voter registration at 458 centres (see the list) but had found after the security assessment that they could activate only 432 of them; the remaining 26 centres would not open for registration (see the video here and media report here). She did not specify which centres they could not open or in which districts. (3)

According to the IEC factsheet (no 4) published on 3 June, the following five categories of people can register in this round of voter registration:

  • those who will be 18 years old by election day (28 September 2019)
  • those who have returned to the country recently
  • those who have not registered before
  • those whose names have been registered incorrectly or who have lost their tazkeras (ID cards) or have damaged theirs to the extent that their basic details are not legible
  • those who have moved to another electoral constituency

The IEC factsheet said that voter registration centres would be open every day for 22 days, including Friday, from 7 o’clock in the morning to 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Voters were asked to go to the voter registration centres in person and present their original tazkera “as the only credible national document” for identification. The factsheet said that all types of the tazkera would be valid (presumably referring to the different forms of paper and electronic tazkeras) and that each registration centre would have separate male and female stations, with female employees deployed to female registration stations to make it easier for eligible women to register to vote.

The IEC also announced that the existing voter lists would be published in all polling centres during the voter registration period (from 8 to 29 June 2019) so voters can check whether they are registered correctly or at all. If not, they can correct their registration by presenting their original tazkera with the voter registration confirmation. If a voter has relocated to another electoral constituency, they can re-register there to establish their new location.

Some observer organisations have asked for mobile teams to travel to secure villages, as they believe that the top up registration in 432 centres will not be sufficient. For instance, Habibullah Shinwari, the head of programmes at the Elections and Transparency Watch Organisation of Afghanistan (ETWA), told media that due to economic problems and traditional cultures in the villages, many women would not be able to travel to the district centres for registration. He suggested that mobile teams be dispatched to the villages to register potential voters, especially women. The suggestion has not been picked up yet by the IEC.

Public outreach gap?

President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani welcomed the launch of the top up voter registration and called on eligible voters “to actively participate in this national process” (see his statement released interestingly on the third day of the registration only). He also instructed all relevant institutions, especially the security agencies, to fully cooperate with the IEC “for the success of the process.” Earlier on 8 June 2019, First Vice-President General Abdul Rashid Dostum had also issued a statement, calling on his party activists and members to hold rallies and gatherings at the district and village levels to encourage people to participate in the voter registration (see here in Dari).

Second Vice-President Danesh also welcomed the start of the exercise as a “good and promising step” while referring to the “unsuccessfulness” of voter registration for the 2018 parliamentary elections that, he claimed, had “led to an irreparable decline in the turnout of the people.”

However, signs are that preparations might be lagging. On 9 June, the second day after the launch, Muhammad Abdullah, one of the IEC commissioners, expressed regret in a brief Facebook and Twitter post that the IEC had not been able to approve and implement the outreach plan. He said that a top up voter registration operation without a widespread awareness campaign was like “praying without ablution.” Two days later, on 11 June, possibly in an attempt at damage control, the IEC posted details of its public outreach campaign, saying that the following campaign materials had been sent to the provinces and were being distributed by its public outreach campaigners:

  • 14,000 posters in two formats in both national languages of the country
  • 14,000 fact sheets in three formats in both national languages
  • 70,000 leaflets in four formats in both national languages
  • 411 billboards to be installed in appropriate locations in all provinces

The IEC also posted the video clips it used for public outreach in three languages: Pashto, Dari and Uzbek. A deputy spokesman for the IEC, Zabihullah Sadat, admitted to Etilaat Roz that due to a lack of time and resources, they could not commence the public outreach prior to 8 June. (4)

Election issues in Ghazni

In addition to the nation-wide top up voter registration, the IEC launched a full-blown new voter registration in Ghazni (see IEC factsheet (no 3) published on 3 June 2019 here). This was necessary after controversies over whether or not the province should be divided into smaller constituencies in the run-up to the 2018 Wolesi Jirga election had made voter registration in Ghazni all but impossible.

It started on 26 April 2018, just 13 days into the first phase of last year’s voter registration, which was taking place in all provincial capitals. Protestors shut down the IEC provincial office in Ghazni by pitching a tent at its gate and starting a sit-in. The protestors – from various parts of the province (mainly Pashtuns, but also Tajiks and Sayyeds) – demanded that the province be divided into smaller electoral constituencies to better ensure balanced ethnic representation. Their demand originated from the disputed 2010 parliamentary election when all 11 Ghazni seats were won by Hazaras, leaving other ethnic groups, especially the Pashtuns, without representation.

Two months later, on 25 June 2018, after voter registration had already ended, the IEC decided to “exceptionally” split the province into three separate parliamentary constituencies. The decision convinced the protesters to allow the IEC office to reopen on 27 June 2018, but sparked a counter-protest with a number of Hazara residents who staged their own sit-in near the IEC office. They demanded that the IEC revoke its decision to split the province which they called “totally illegal” and on 1 July 2018 they shut down the IEC office in Ghazni city again (see AAN’s previous reporting about the protest and counter-protest here).

As a result, the IEC was unable to roll out the voter registration to the districts and villages and was forced to completely drop the vote in Ghazni (see AAN’s background here).

On 7 August 2018, the National Security Council (NSC) held a “comprehensive and detailed” discussion, attended by the then IEC chairman, on how to still hold parliamentary (and district council) elections in Ghazni in view of the IEC proposal to delay them. The meeting concluded that “more technical and practical studies and consultations were required” and asked the IEC to present alternatives. Nothing more was heard on the matter until May 2019 – when the need to present an electoral calendar forced a decision.

On 22 May 2019, the National Security Council tasked Second Vice-President Sarwar Danesh and first Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Khan to present a new proposal to divide Ghazni into electoral constituencies. It also instructed the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) and the Central Statistics Office (CSO) to fully cooperate so the proposal would reflect all criteria (see the Palace’s report here). While Danesh, according to one of his advisers, was looking into two options – either two or three constituencies – the sitting MPs and their supporters demanded to either maintain the single constituency or to actually divide Ghazni into two separate provinces. (5)

The decision to hold only presidential elections this year, as announced on 29 May, took some of the pressure off the controversy, but the opposing positions may still affect preparations for the presidential elections.

On 8 June, just as voter registration was to be launched, the media reported that some (mainly Pashtun) Ghazni residents and activists warned that if Wolesi Jirga elections were not held as well, they would not allow the presidential elections to take place (see also this press conference). A delegation of Ghazni “tribal elders” threatened that if their demands – smaller constituencies and Wolesi Jirga elections now – were not met, they would not vote in the presidential election. The IEC explained to them that they meant to hold the three sets of elections at the same time, but were unable to do so “due to shortage of time and financial problems” and that they would hold the provincial council and Ghazni elections after the presidential election. It is not clear whether this has convinced the protestors or whether they will raise the issue again.

Voter registration is going slowly in the province. A deputy spokesman for the IEC, Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, told media on 14 June that only 78 out of the planned 247 polling centres have so far opened in Ghazni and the rest remained closed due to insecurity. (The IEC had originally planned to carry out voter registration at 406 polling centres in Ghazni – see the list here – but had decided after security assessments that it could open only 247 of them.)

In the meantime, the sitting Ghazni MPs who were elected in 2010 remain in office. (6) Although the IEC has dropped Ghazni elections again, the dispute over whether to divide the province into smaller constituencies remains unresolved. It is not clear whether certain groups will use the postponement as a reason to obstruct the presidential election in the province.

A timeline of other IEC decisions and activities

The pending Ghazni election was not the only controversy the IEC needed to deal with while finalising its electoral calendar. There was also the still open issue of the electoral system. According to article two of the legislative decree that had endorsed amendments to the electoral law in February 2019 (see here), elections were to be held based on the so-called Multi-Dimensional Representation (MDR) electoral system. Within one month of beginning its work, the IEC, in cooperation with political parties and election-related civil society organisations, was supposed to present a proposal, including amendments to the electoral law,  to the cabinet for approval (AAN’s reporting here).

Changing the electoral system has been a long-standing demand of, in particular, the political parties who believe that the current system (Single Non-Transferrable Vote or SNTV) disfavours political party organisation. MDR is one of the more recent alternative systems that have been put forward. It allows for both political party and individual candidatures, but involves a complicated vote tally and transfer system (see AAN background here).

On 2 April 2019, the IEC issued a statement saying that based on consultative meetings with political parties and election-related civil society organisations, two observations were to be made about the multidimensional representation (MDR) system:

First, a number of the political party and civil society representatives had demanded the “Sainte-Lague” formula, while a number of others had demanded “the largest remainder” formula to allocate the seats. (7)

Second, a number of political party representatives “did not show that much interest” in changing the current SNTV (Single Non-Transferable Vote) system into MDR, and that only “around four to five political parties had insisted on the implementation of MDR in the Wolesi Jirga, provincial council, district council and village council elections.” (At this time the IEC had not yet decided to hold only the one election in September 2019). The IEC then concluded that, due to numerous constraints, the implementation of MDR in the upcoming provincial council elections was not feasible. (8)

A second issue was the use of biometric technology. The February 2019 amendments to the electoral law included a provision that the IEC was “duty-bound to take measures” to use “electronic systems and biometric technology in a safe way” (for more on the legislative decree,see AAN’s previous report here). On 28 April 2019, the IEC signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Statistics and Information Authority (ASIA), (9) tasking it to provide the IEC with biometric devices, software and training. According to IEC chair Nuristani, the technology would be used during the top-up voter registration exercise and to collect the biometric data of voters who had already registered in 2018. On 7 May 2019, Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a deputy spokesman for the IEC, told the media that the procedure on how to use biometric technology had been finalised.

On 16 May, the media obtained a copy of an IEC decision that said that paragraph 19 of the electoral law was impossible to implement, but that the IEC would still use biometric technology on election day. The specifics are unclear, but the IEC intends the devices to be furnished with electronic voter lists so they can verify voters on election day and hopes to configure the devices so they can transfer photos of results sheets to the national data centre. Top up registration, however, is currently being done manually.

Third, on 26 May, two international commissioners were introduced to the IEC: Ivilina Aleksieva-Robinson who has served as the chairperson of the Central Election Commission of Bulgaria and Ahmed Issack Hassan who, according to his own introductory remarks at the IEC, has served as the chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya (see their bios here). The appointments are in accordance with an amendment to the electoral law that sets forth that the government, in an understanding with the United Nations, can appoint two international election specialists as non-voting members of the IEC for the purpose of “further transparency in the election process.” There was a similar provision for the ECC in the 2016 electoral law that has been retained. At the time, the government did not appoint any international members to the ECC for the 2018 elections, but now, on 29 May, two non-voting international members were introduced to the ECC: Charlotte Osei, the former chairperson of Ghana’ Electoral Commission, and Neel Kantha Uprety, the former chief electoral commissioner of Nepal,.

On 1 June 2019, finally, IEC chair Nuristani disclosed that 5,356 out of 7,385 listed polling centres in 34 provinces would open, and the remaining 2,002 centres would have to remain closed on election day, representing 27 per cent of all polling centres. According to the IEC statistics, most of these centres are in Farah (174 out of 224 centres), Kunduz (122 out of 220), Ghazni (159 out of 406), Helmand (150 out of 247), Jawzjan (69 out of 129), Zabul (57 out of 100) and Sar-e Pul (57 out of 149). Head of the IEC secretariat Habibul Rahman Nang told the media that the IEC had no plan to open those centres as they had too little time for the top up voter registration and would not be able to send election material there (media report here and here).

Looking ahead: One set of high-stake elections amidst crucial slow preparations

The IEC has decided to hold only one set of elections – presidential – and has embarked on one of its most important activities in preparation: voter registration. The stakes are immense. The existing voter registry is in dire need of verification and correction. As AAN wrote in one of its election reports (“New voter registry too good to be true” ), “a review of the registration statistics released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) – disaggregated by province and by gender – reveal suspicious anomalies.” It is questionable whether the simple act of displaying lists and asking voters to verify and update their own registration will suffice, particularly since it is unclear whether people, in the absence of sufficient public outreach, will make the effort to check the lists. The exercise further seems to be affected by insecurity, particularly in Ghazni where a full voter registration is supposed to take place.

The IEC says it is determined to use an improved version of the Biometric Voter Verification (BVV) system that was used in the 2018 parliamentary elections. The design and implementation of such a system – now also including electronic voter lists and the online transfer of results sheets – seems an incredibly tall order, particularly given the chaos that ensued during the 2018 elections (see AAN’s report “Election Day Two: A first hand account of the trials and chaos of second-day voting” here). The IEC has moreover not yet finalised its regulations and procedures for the BVV system. Any reversals or late decisions might again lead to confusion and improper use of the technology – or a last minute decision to drop it, as was done with the intended use of BVV in the voter registration.

The list of planned polling centres – from which already 27 per cent of the centres has been dropped – is likely to be subject to further closures if the security situation in certain areas continues to deteriorate. The narrowing down of the number of polling centres means that in some areas voters will need to face considerable distances – and risks – to cast their vote. This could affect the turnout, especially since there are no simultaneous local elections that could motivate voters to go to the polls based on their local favours or disfavours.

Finally, the indefinite postponement of the provincial council and Ghazni Wolesi Jirga elections – both long overdue – erodes the credibility of Afghanistan’s elected local institutions. It also further reduces the number of opportunities for people to cast their votes in elections that matter to them and that were envisaged in the constitution – from seven to only two: the presidency and the parliament.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert

 

(1) Article 138 of the constitution establishes provincial councils in every province and says that the members of the provincial councils should be elected for a term of four years. However, in practice, only the second provincial council elections, which were held in 2009 together with the presidential election, adhered to the four-year term (the first provincial councils were held in 2005 together with the parliamentary elections). The third provincial council elections were held in 2014, again together with the presidential election, and one year after their constitutional term had ended. The fourth elections, which should have been held in 2018, have been postponed indefinitely. The current provincial councils have already served for five years.

(2) Earlier that month, on 19 May 2019, IEC chair Nuristani had already told the media that US State Department official Alice Wells when they met IEC commissioners on 13 May had asked them to hold only the presidential elections and that the IEC rejected it (see here). On the same day, Ariana News quoted a source from the IEC saying that UN SRSG (Special Representative to the Secretary-General) TadamichiYamamoto had told the IEC that “Your decision [to hold more than one set of elections] is respectable, but for us only presidential elections are important.” He reportedly emphasised that the IEC only had the capacity to hold one election, that their future and the future of the IEC rested on the presidential elections, that they would be judged by the presidential elections and that holding three elections would be tantamount to suicide (see here and here).

(3) The IEC website, however, quotes Nuristani as saying that the top up voter registration would be carried out in 458 centres in 33 provinces (and voter registration in Ghazni in 247 centres) – making no mention of the centres that will not open. It also quotes Habibul Rahman Nang, the head of the IEC secretariat, as saying that “in coordination with the security forces, material will be sent to 458 top voter registration centres and 247 general registration centres in Ghazni province; the material has been fully transferred to 408 of them” (see here).

(4) Etilaat Roz also reported that, according to IEC sources, the lengthy procurement process for the television and radio ads supported by the UN had been a reason for delay in launching the public outreach (see here).

(5) The sitting Ghazni MPs – currently all Hazara – sent (see here and here) a letter to Vice-President Danesh on 23 May 2019 asking for elections at the provincial level in Ghazni “based on the previous normal practice” to prevent “a double-standard treatment” and to observe the “principle of equality of citizen rights.” They said that if the government for any reason was keen to divide Ghazni into smaller constituencies, it should first create a separate province (Jaghori), following the normal practice to “first establish two provinces and then hold elections in those two provinces.”

Danesh, in turn, emphasised the need for proportionality of MPs based on both population size and fair representation, indicating the need for a solution that would ensure representation of different ethnic groups from the province.

On 28 May, some Ghazni MPs posted a photo of a statement signed by “around 80 MPs” in support of the position of the Ghazni MPs to either hold elections in a province-wide single constituency or divide the province into two separate provinces.

(6) An MP from Ghazni told AAN that when President Ghani inaugurated the new parliament on 26 April 2019, there had been an attempt to prevent Ghazni MPs from attending the inauguration of the National Assembly and thus leave province’s seats vacant. But Chief Executive Abdullah, the Supreme Court, the Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution, the IEC and the ECC, according to the MP, had all argued that the Ghazni MPs should remain in office until new MPs were elected. This is in accordance with article 104 of the electoral law that states when an election is not held in a constituency, the former MPs can continue to work until the election is held (see AAN’s previous reporting here).

(7) Sainte-Laguë Formula – one of the options for the series of divisors used to distribute seats in List PR [proportional representation] systems which adopt the Highest Average Method. The votes of a party or grouping are divided successively by 1, 3, 5… as seats are allocated to it. See also D’Hondt Formula.

“Largest Remainder Method – A principle for converting votes into seats in List PR systems. After parties and groupings have been allocated seats in an electoral district because they have received full quotas (a) of votes, some seats will be unfilled, and some votes remain—for each party, less than a full quota (a). The remaining seats are then awarded to parties and groupings in order of the number of left-over votes they possess. The Largest Remainder Method tends to be more favourable to smaller parties than the alternative approach, the Highest Average Method.

Source: IDEA handbook (also see there for more detail).

(8) Some party officials reacted to this. For instance, Muhammad Nateqi, the acting head of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan, complained on his Facebook page that there was no will and intention [with the IEC] to implement MDR. He predicted that “tomorrow we will all witness that they will reject technology under whimsical pretexts” and blamed UNAMA for being “also an accomplice in this issue.” Otherwise, he said, over nearly two months there had been no political party opposed to MDR and none had been found in the meetings in the Palace, “but today the IEC has found anti-MDR parties.”

(9) National Statistics and Information Authority (ASIA) is the new name of the Central Statistics Office, which also had sometimes been called Central Statistics Organization or Authority. Its Dari form is Edara-ye Melli-ye Ehsaiya wa Ma’alumat (اداره ملی احصائیه و معلومات).

 

Annex: The latest electoral calendar published by the IEC (the previous calendar is annexed to this AAN piece here).

Translated by AAN from the Dari original, with the Gregorian dates.

No Activity Start Date End date Gregorian Date Duration
1 Candidate nomination 1/10/1397 30/10/1397 22 December 2018 to 20 January 2019 30
2 Publication of preliminary list of candidates 16/11/1397 16/11/1397 5 February 2019 1
3 Publication of final list of candidates 4/2/1298 4/2/1398 24 April 2019 1
4 Publication of electoral calendar 9/3/1398 9/3/1398 30 May 2019 1
5 Implementing public outreach campaign plan about the top up voter registration and voter registration in Ghazni 16/3/1398 8/4/1398 6–29 June 2019 24
6 Top up voter registration 18/3/1398 8/4/1398 8–29 June 2019 22
7 Voter registration in Ghazni 18/3/1398 8/4/1398 8–29 June 2019 22
8 Publication of voter list for correction 18/3/1398 8/4/1398 8–29 June 2019 22
9 Issuing accreditation to observers and candidate agents 6/2/1398 30/6/1398 26 April-21 September 2019 149
10 Publication of final voter list 28/4/1398 28/4/1398 19 July 2019 1
11 Design and printing of ballots; arrival of sensitive material at the IEC 29/4/1398 6/6/1398 20 July-28 August 2019 40
12 Presidential campaign period 6/5/1398 3/7/1398 28 July-25 September 2019 60
13 Packing sensitive materials 6/6/1398 20/6/1398 28 August-11 September 2019 14
14 Transferring sensitive materials from the IEC HQ to provincial offices 8/6/1398 22/6/1398 30 August-13 September 2019 14
15 Transferring sensitive material from the provincial offices to polling centres 22/6/1398 5/7/1398 13–27 September 2019 14
16 Silence period 4/7/1398 5/7/1398 26–27 September 2019 2
17 Polling day 6/7/1398 28 September 2019 1
18 Filing complaints regarding presidential election day 6/7/1398 7/7/1398 28- 29 September 2019 2
19 Addressing complaints about the presidential election day 8/7/1398 22/7/1398 30 September-14 October 2019 15
20 Result tabulation 6/7/1398 26/7/1398 28 September-18 October 2019 20
21 Announcement of preliminary presidential election results 27/7/1398 27/7/1398 19 October 2019 1
22 Filing objections to the preliminary presidential election results 27/7/1398 29/7/1398 19–21 October 2019 3
23 Addressing objections to the preliminary presidential election results 29/7/1398 14/8/1398 21 October-5 November 2019 15
24 Sending the final decision of the ECC 15/8/1398 15/8/1398 6 November 2019 1
25 Announcement of final presidential results 16/8/1398 16/8/1398 7 November 2019 1
26 Possible presidential run off 2/9/1398 2/9/1398 23 November 2019 1

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape