Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (35): A delay, an audit and a change of tone

Polling station at Kabul university during the 2014 election. Picture: Martine van Bijlert

The Independent Electoral Commission’s delay of the preliminary results of the presidential run-off, from 2 to 7 July 2014, and its decision to audit almost 2000 polling stations that show possible signs of ballot stuffing, seems to have signalled a change in the electoral mood. Whereas days before the commission still showed signs of intending to press ahead and announce what would have been disputed results, the IEC has now met some of the demands of the Abdullah camp. The decision also constitutes an overdue admission that a more rigorous scrutiny of the vote was needed. And although the audit in itself is not wide-ranging enough to overturn the outcome of the election, it has changed the conversation and should, at the very least, provide observers of the process with the opportunity to better assess the scope and spread of the fraud – something that has so far been largely missing in the swirl of accusations and acrimony. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark take a closer look.  

Although the IEC has not yet released any results, widely leaked preliminary count figures have pointed towards an unexpected, wide-margin win for Ashraf Ghani. According to these figures, Ghani not only managed to bridge the first round gap of almost 900,000 votes between himself and Abdullah, but also gained an advantage so large it would require massive interventions by either the Independent Election Commission (IEC) or the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) to overturn. (Figures that circulated indicated a count of around 4.2 million votes or 59 per cent for Ghani, which is almost double what he received in the first round, and 2.8 million or 41 per cent for Abdullah, which is, in absolute terms, comparable to his first round total. See also media references here and here.)

Almost as soon as the polls closed on 14 June 2014, the Abdullah camp contested the conduct of the second round, claiming electoral engineering and “industrial scale fraud” (an expression coined in 2009, in particular when referring to the ‘vote’ in places like Spin Boldak and Ghazni). It is possible that they were, at the time, already inundated by reports and evidence of mass fraud, but it seems more likely that the response was triggered by reports coming in from monitors observing the count, indicating an unwelcome outcome. This does not mean there was no fraud, or that it was not massive. But the fact that the fierceness of the reaction within the Abdullah camp for a long time preceded and eclipsed the evidence presented – which is still being released in drips – has complicated the analysis and has, in some cases, repelled rather than attracted the attention it sought.

Dr Abdullah has now claimed that up to two million of the votes cast in the run-off were fraudulent and that, had there been a clean vote, he would have won (in essence suggesting that almost all votes gained by Ghani in the second round were fraudulent). Ghani, on the other hand, insists his extra votes were the result of a better organised second round campaign, which mobilised tribes, women and clerics. The question is not which of these competing narratives is true – both sides appear to be exaggerating to make a point – but rather what proportion of Ghani’s vote surge has indeed been the result of ballot stuffing or count manipulation and to what extent this will be caught in the audit. Fraud will have taken place on both sides; AAN and many others have, based on previous experience, long warned that this could be expected. The issue is whether it has indeed been as one-sided and massive as the Abdullah camp claims, to the extent that it has turned the outcome of the election upside down, and whether the current audit, or any other measures by the IEC and the IECC, will be able to catch that.

The limited nature of the audit

The current IEC audit has been designed to somewhat rectify the fact that, in this election, fraud detection and disqualification measures have been weak and largely formalistic. Audits and recounts were triggered by mistakes in the packaging or filling-in of the results forms, rather than based on suspicious vote patterns or irreconcilable outcomes (see this IEC decision for more detail). This was unsatisfactory to start with, but became more so in the light of Abdullah’s allegations of a joint conspiracy by the IEC, the president and Ashraf Ghani to engage in mass vote rigging. Although the case for fraud of that magnitude has still not been conclusively made, a picture of direct involvement of some IEC senior staff in vote rigging is now indeed emerging. Since the release of a first recording on 22 June 2014 of phone conversations, implicating the head of the IEC Secretariat (who denied any involvement and has, reportedly, since then left the country), there has been a steady trickle of additional recordings of telephone conversations and some videos, purportedly of those engineering the vote. Those that have so far been made available do not prove the most explosive claims – a Palace-orchestrated exercise of one-sided fraud – but there may still be more to come. The incremental release by the Abdullah camp of the evidence available to it has, incidentally, heated up discussions, possibly more than was necessary, with supporters expressing outrage that their case was not taken seriously enough. It is unclear whether this piecemeal release was tactical or, rather, a matter of logistics.

The question now is what the impact of the audit will be. In terms of numbers, it affects 1930 polling stations in 30 provinces – 8.5 per cent of the total number of polling stations. The relevant decision, posted in Dari here, mentions only one criteria for inclusion in the audit: polling stations showing 599 or 600 votes on their results form. (1) According to a press release sent around in the afternoon of 2 July the IEC had by then already completed 724, or 37.5 per cent, of the audits. A quick calculation shows that the audit in itself cannot overturn the outcome of the election, given that the 1930 polling stations together represent a total of almost 1.16 million votes (599/600 votes each). It does, however, have the potential to significantly change the conversation, depending on its findings.

The audit criteria appear to be a compromise between Ghani’s insistence that any intervention be implemented nation-wide – presumably to ensure that there will be no cherry-picking of areas to target – and Abdullah’s demand that census statistics be used to determine where the reported turnout had been ‘unfeasible’ (the latter is, however, complicated by the unreliability and contested nature of these statistics). In practice now, the provinces that Abdullah was particularly incensed about, do indeed feature heavily in the audit, but so do others.

The provinces most affected are: Paktika, Paktia, Ghor, Wardak, Khost, Faryab and Nuristan. (2) All have faced massive disqualifications for fraud in past elections (although Ghor is somewhat of a newcomer). The three provinces of Loya Paktia (Paktia, Paktika and Khost), which Abdullah singled out early on for criticism, have been particularly infamous for fraud, in particular ballot stuffing and mass proxy voting, in previous elections. It would be reasonable to suspect significant fraud there, despite strong indications that the second round competition did result in an actual significant surge in voter mobilisation, as reported by AAN here. The audit should provide at least some insight.

The design of the audit, reviewing only those stations where practically all votes were used, however, means that only the most blatant cases of ballot stuffing will be uncovered. This is particularly relevant given the existence of two fragments of recordings – the authenticity of which, like the rest of the tapes, AAN cannot verify – in which IEC staff is instructed to ensure that the number of ballots used does not exceed 551 (see here and here). It is unclear why this has not yet been raised by the Abdullah camp. It may be an indication that the significance of the audit, for now, lies in the acknowledgement of their complaints, rather than the actual measure to address them. It may also reflect an assessment that this issue can be more effectively raised later, after the results of the audit are known, allowing one to argue that the audit had only uncovered a small tip of a far larger iceberg.

A changing mood

Since the announcement of the audit and the delay of the preliminary results there has been a change in tone on all sides – although it may also be the other way around, with the audit being a reflection, rather than the cause, of a changing mood. The Abdullah camp, that has now seen several of its complaints and demands heeded, has expressed a willingness to re-engage with the process. Only a few days ago, on 28 June 2014 (following a particularly legalistic response from the IEC to Abdullah, after he re-established relations with the IEC by sending a list of demands), Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, was reported as saying: “From today onward, we reject all the decisions and activities of the Independent Election Commission, which will not have any legal value anyway… They have no intention to assess the fraudulent votes and separate the dirty votes from the clean votes.” Compare this with his words at a press conference on 2 July 2014 carried live on television: “The main reason that we cut our relations with the IEC was lack of transparency. But if the IEC guarantees the process is transparent and fair, and it has a mechanism to separate clean votes from dirty ones, we will cooperate with them.” Arsalai said they were optimistic because some of their demands had been addressed and that the United Nations, President Hamed Karzai and Vice President Yunes Qanuni were engaged in solving the problem: “[if] the IEC addresses the widespread fraud in the second round, we do not have any other problem with them.

Ghani had mainly been pressing for the results to be announced on time. Seeming to have emerged as the preliminarily elected leader, he was obviously keen to solidify that position. He has now, however, accepted the delay “for the sake of transparency,” which seems to indicate a compromise from his side – although he has continued to stress that the electoral timeline should be followed. Otherwise, he has not yet responded to the mounting allegations and the changing mood, despite calling a press conference in the evening of 2 July 2014. In a tough live television interview, later that evening, IEC Chair Nuristani was on the defensive and seemed to be distancing himself from the IEC’s earlier defence of the head of its secretariat Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, adding to the impression that the mood is indeed swaying.

For the moment Abdullah seems to have come out in a considerably stronger negotiating position. Although the audit in itself cannot throw out enough votes to make him the winner, it could theoretically bring Ghani within reach again, which would place the outcome of the election in the hands of the IECC – with all the problems that may bring. In the meantime, the delay in the announcement of results has been surrounded by a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations, involving UNAMA, international Ambassadors, visiting senior politicians (including John Kerry and German Special Envoy Michael Koch) and Vice President Qanuni. The IEC expects to finalise its audit on Monday 7 July 2014. It insists it will be ready to announce the final results on 24 July 2014, although it is not clear what that would mean, in practice, for the – presumably rushed – complaints process. Members of both commissions, the IEC and the IECC, have made it repeatedly clear over the last few days, that their mandates involve only the logistical and legal fields of the electoral process and that political decisions can be made only by the palace. The plan is still to inaugurate a new president on 2 August 2014.


(1) This footnote was amended on 7 July 2014. An earlier version of this footnote commented on the fact that the current IEC audit of 1930 polling stations did not appear to cover polling stations that had reported 601-606 votes. This seemed relevant as in the first round such stations were still included in the count based on a 1% tolerance level. This tolerance level was, however, apparently dropped in the second round. Based on this, polling stations reporting more than 600 were to be subjected to a recount anyway.

(2) Details for the provinces most affected by the audit are:

  • Paktika: 311 polling stations / 39 per cent of its total;
  • Paktia: 298 polling stations / 42 per cent;
  • Ghor: 194 298 polling stations / 31 per cent;
  • Wardak: 172 298 polling stations / 36 per cent;
  • Khost: 140 298 polling stations / 19 per cent;
  • Faryab: 112 298 polling stations / 16 per cent; and
  • Nuristan: 93 298 polling stations / 65 per cent.

Full details, including a list of all affected polling stations can be found here (in Dari). The new audit guidelines (in Dari) can be found here.

IEC Chair Nuristani, in the earlier mentioned live interview on Tolo TV on 2 June 2014, said several provinces reported more votes than could be expected based on the CSO population figures, singling out in particular Paktia, Paktika (population of around 513,000 while reporting more than 350,000 votes) Khost (estimated population 550,000 with more than 450,000 votes reported), Nuristan (143,000 population estimate, reporting around 80,000 votes), Panjshir (148,000 population estimate, reporting around 80,000 votes) and Ghor. He quoted the figures from memory, so they may not be fully accurate. He defended the IEC’s initial decision not to investigate by pointing out that the vote results are not necessarily implausible when taking the number of voter cards distributed into account, rather than the population estimates.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape