Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (46): Déjà vu – Abdullah pulls out, process continues

Discussions during the "special audit", while the candidates' agents were still present. Kabul, August 2014 Photo: Martine van Bijlert

Discussions during the "special audit", while the candidates' agents were still present. Kabul, August 2014. Photo: Martine van Bijlert

What has the Abdullah team been playing at, pulling out of the audit again? Hard to say – but it is a risky all-or-nothing gamble, writes Martine van Bijlert. She summarises what has been happening over the past week, looking at the candidates’ behaviour and possible motives behind their strategies, but also at the ‘progress’ in the different audit tracks. She comes to the conclusion that the audit has won time, but will probably not provide clarity. Nor has it solved any of the fundamental disputes so far.

Abdullah pulls out of the audit

After weeks of auditing ballot boxes without it being clear how the IEC would treat the findings, the (in)validation process finally started on 25 August 2014. In an open session that was a bit of an anti-climax, the IEC presented three lists that were posted on the website: a list of polling stations that were validated (by far the majority), a list of 72 polling stations that were nullified in full (out of a total of 3748) and a list of 697 polling stations that had been recounted and still needed a decision on whether (and which) votes were to be invalidated.

The Abdullah camp did not take long to respond. Fazl Ahmad Manawi, IEC chairman during the 2010 polls and this time head of Abdullah’s technical team, called a press conference the next morning on 26 August 2014. According to Manawi, the invalidation process could not be taken seriously, as it had not been implemented as agreed and had not taken into account their suggestions, demands and evidence of fraud. He presented an ultimatum: accept the demanded tightening of the invalidation criteria within 24 hours or the Abdullah team would walk away from the audit process – again.

The invalidation criteria had been contentious from the very beginning and, to keep the process going, were never fully finalised – with the UN assuring the Abdullah team that further amendments and refinements could and would be made as necessary (see this dispatch for more detail). Now that the criteria had finally been implemented, the Abdullah camp reverted to its original position that without a full adoption of their demands they would no longer be part of the audit. (1)

The audit continues

Walking away from the audit has always been Abdullah’s strongest card. It was clear that to be legitimate – if only in the eyes of the internationals – the audit needed the sustained buy-in from both candidates. But whereas in the past the UN had often stopped the process until Abdullah could be persuaded to rejoin, this time it instead asked the Ghani team to pull its agents from the warehouses as well – presumably in an effort to ensure that they would not unfairly benefit from being the only side present, but also to not have the process held hostage by Abdullah’s refusal to engage. The audit was briefly halted in the morning of 27 August 2014 while the UN and the IEC formulated a response, and resumed again in the afternoon, without candidate agents but in the presence of UN experts and national and international observers.

The UN in its statements stressed how both candidates had repeatedly committed to accepting both the audit and its outcome, and argued that the highly unusual, consultative design of the audit meant that both teams had effectively become “co-responsible” for its conduct. UNAMA’s deputy Nicholas Haysom further pointed out that the invalidation criteria represented a compromise to which both sides had agreed, although they fully satisfied neither, and that in the end it was not up to the candidates to make the rules. At the same time, the UN indicated that it was indeed looking into a new issue raised by the Abdullah team (the possible similar handwriting across multiple results forms), as well as the possible evidence that it had presented on that same day.

The pull-out of both candidate teams means that the audit will no longer be halted by flare-ups or slowed down by protracted arguments over how to reflect the findings in the checklist. But the process remains otherwise unchanged, with the UN experts still spending hours scrutinising possible similarities of tick marks, and is still very slow.

Invalidation and complaints process continues

After the first session on 25 August 2014 in which the IEC presented its decisions and that prompted the Abdullah camp to present their ultimatum, the IEC has conducted two more sessions (on 27 and 29 August 2014). The meetings, which are open to the press and to observers and that are at least partially broadcast live on television, have somewhat evolved in that there is now some discussion on substance. But they still provide little actual clarity on what is being decided and why. In several cases the commissioners themselves seem confused and media reporting on the details of the process has been limited, presumably at least partially because it often seems unclear even to those present what was decided or explained. (The lists of IEC decisions can all be found on the website here.)

The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) also started the adjudication of the audit decision complaints and convened the first of its open sessions on 28 August 2014. The session was largely symbolic. The Abdullah camp had not registered any complaints, while the Ghani camp did not argue their cases in any detail. The Ghani team had registered 25 complaints, but instead of providing details as to why they believed these polling stations had been unjustly invalidated, they argued with the process in general. The IEC representative, in response, simply referred to the legal basis for the decisions (IEC decision 37). After an hour of back and forth on whether the IEC or the UN were authorised to take the decisions, the commissioners briefly deliberated in private, after which they decided to overturn the IEC’s decision in two cases, with no details given.

Although both the IEC and the IECC conduct their meetings in open sessions, the level of transparency on what is being decided, and why, continues to be minimal. The lists on the IEC website, first of polling stations the commissioners need to decide on and then of the various categories of decisions they have taken, are confusing and, in many cases, do not add up. (2) And there is still no clarity on how the IEC will decide which of the votes in the “recounted” boxes to validate or invalidate.

UN overturns hopes of a pre-NATO conference inauguration

While the president’s office was still stressing that all preparation were being made for a 2 September inauguration, UN SRSG Jan Kubiš told President Karzai on 28 August 2014 that the audit would at least take until 10 September 2014 and that the inauguration of the new President “should then be possible soon after.” The President has not formally responded, but a statement on the palace website (in Dari) simply confirmed Kubiš’ message and primly noted that the UN had originally asked for a month delay only. (3)

Looking ahead

According to the IEC’s latest count, around 17,400 ballot boxes have been audited so far, which is about three quarters of the total. The remaining 5400, or so, are largely “special scrutiny boxes” that need to be subjected to a full recount. Even with the candidate agents and their endless quarrels no longer present, most audit teams still only manage to audit around two boxes per shift (with around 140 team and two shifts per team, this represents an average of less than 600 ballot boxes per day). The IEC has decided to increase the duration of both shifts by half an hour, which should help a little (but not a lot).

To actually meet the 10 September deadline, which the palace is quite likely to insist on, the actual audit probably needs to be finished around 4 September. This so that the final checklists can be entered into the database on 5 September, IEC can announce its last decisions on 6 September, the candidates can register their complaints on 7 September, the IECC can address the complaints on 8 or 9 September and the IEC can then, theoretically, announce the new results on 10 September – provided there are no new crises (which, given the track record of the process, seems highly unlikely).

In the meantime, the longer the pullout by the Abdullah team – not only from the audit, but also from the complaints process – lasts, the less likely it is that they can still be persuaded to accept the audit results once they are finally announced. This places the onus fully on the political negotiations, which are not going well. Although the two leaders have continued to meet over the last few days, they do not seem to be moving closer to a compromise on any of the contested issues. And while the pullout may well have been an attempt to strengthen Abdullah’s hand in the political discussions, the renewed insistence by some of his supporters (see for instance here) that he was in fact the winner of both rounds and should thus “talk from the position of the president” while the audit results are still pending, will only complicate the discussion.

It is anyone’s guess what the Abdullah team is playing for and whether this is an intentional strategy or rather a path they have stumbled on, in an attempt to keep the ranks together. But it is a risky all-or-nothing gamble. It puts us firmly back in early July, when the UN was trying to mediate a “deep audit” to address Abdullah’s fraud complaints before the announcement of the preliminary results (which were then announced anyway). But the problem is that, since then, the options to bring two very different narratives of what happened on both election days closer together, seem exhausted. The audit has won us time, but will probably not provide clarity. The candidates have agreed to form a government together, but they cannot agree on what that should look like and who is to have the greatest say. It is clear to all sides that in the end there will be no other option than compromise, but there is clearly a willingness to drive a hard bargain until the end. We can only hope that all sides realise how hard they can play, and when they should stop.


(1) Concrete indications of fraud that had been disregarded in favour of Ghani, according to Manawi, included: large numbers of results sheets from different places that had been filled in by the same single person; results sheets without the required stamps and signatures that were still counted; large numbers of ballot papers that were not folded but were still counted; ballot papers from several polling stations mixed in the same box; and votes from up to 190 polling stations that had not opened on polling day but were still counted.

(2) For instance, according to this list the IEC was to decide on a total of 3748 polling stations in its first session. In the end, however, it decided on a total of 3645 stations, without it being clear what happened to the remaining 102 or why they were not included. In the two subsequent sessions things only got more confusing, as the number of lists increased.

(3) After the two candidates agreed to the “Kerry deal” on 12 July 2014, Kubiš sent Karzai a letter requesting that the inauguration be delayed by approximately a month to allow for a full audit. The letter, in an unusual move, was promptly made public by the palace spokesman,‬‬‬‬ presumably to prove that Karzai, who has long been suspected by his critics of not wanting to step down, was not the one asking for the delay.

Since then the palace has gone out of its way to stress Karzai insistence on the agreed inaugural timeline, as illustrated by the following series of palace statements:

11 July 2014: President Karzai Meets US Foreign Secretary: “all preparations for an inauguration on 2 August 2014 have been made”

31 July 2014: President Karzai Meets New US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: “meeting with new US Special Envoy Daniel Feldman: stressing on the rapid completion of the process, President Karzai said: millions of Afghans who casted votes, want that the elections yield results as soon as possible so that Afghanistan has a new President and government for better management of state affairs.”

7 August 2014: President Karzai: Election Results Must be announced within the Agreed Timelinemeeting with UN Special Representative of the Secretary General Jan Kubiš

8 August 2014: President Karzai: the Afghan people awaits election resultsmeeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry: “election results must be announced within the current month of August as agreed”

11 August 2014: Aimal Faizi: People’s broad public participation and votes should be respected“election results must be announced soonest”

14 August 2014: President Karzai to UN SG’s Special Representative: The Election Results Must be Announced by the End of Augustmeeting with UN SRSG Jan Kubiš

14 August 2014: President Karzai: Afghanistan Must have its New President and Government in next 15 daysmeeting with Kabul university professors

19 August 2014: President Karzai: Afghanistan’s Independence, Result of Afghans’ Sacrifice and Devotion“Afghans are impatiently looking forward to the results of their election”

20 August 2014: To Rapidly Conclude Audit, Election Commissions Call for Candidates’ Cooperationmeeting with election officials, UN SRSG and the two candidates

21 August 2014: President Karzai Accepts Diplomatic Credentials of New German Ambassador: ‘On the elections, President Karzai said, “The result must be announced soon and the new president should take oath by the end of current month of August.”’

21 August 2014: President Karzai: New Afghan President to Come Soonmeeting with professors of the Sheikh Zahed University in Khost

23 August 2014: President Karzai: New president’s Inauguration Date not Extendablemeeting with UN SRSG Jan Kubiš

24 August 2014: President Karzai Talks Inauguration Date with Presidential Candidates“In order to rapidly conclude the audit process and run the new president’s inauguration ceremony, President Karzai asked the candidates to cooperate with the concerned authorities.”

24 August 2014: President Karzai Bids Farewell to Outgoing NATO Commander in AfghanistanPresident Karzai: “It is important that the election process comes to a conclusion within the agreed timeline and to provide for the new President to take oath of office and who can then represent Afghanistan in the upcoming NATO Summit.”

25 August 2014: Office of Administrative Affairs posts report of meeting of commission to prepare for the inauguration.

And in almost every recent palace press statement:

“It is worth mentioning that 2 August was the scheduled date for the ceremony, but was later postponed by one month on the request of the UN Special Envoy and the two presidential candidates.”

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