A close look at the electoral result sheets published online by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) allows observers to get an idea of how elections went countrywide. The results for Wardak, where the number of polling centres (PC) this year was higher than during the past elections, reveal some problematic trends, raising the question whether the increase in PC in some areas has represented a positive development at all.
Back in mid-August, when the IEC released the list of polling centres to be opened for the Wolesi Jirga election on 18 September, it was immediately possible to single out Wardak as the scene of some strange development happening. Since years now considered one of the most dangerous and worrying provinces of central Afghanistan, if not of the whole country, Wardak was allocated a remarkably high number of PC, 150. This represented a considerable increase from last year’s election when the total number of PC expected to open amounted only to 108 and many had to be closed on election-day due to the impossibility of guaranteeing security or to actual violence.
So, after a year in which the security environment in the province has been further exacerbated by the outburst of yet another round of the Kuchi-Hazara conflict, by further inroads of the Taleban and violent clashes between them and fighters of Hezb-e Islami as well as increased – and sometimes botched – strikes of the NATO troops, what pulled the Afghan authorities and the electoral commission to such a hazardous move?
Moreover, the sharpest increase in the number of PC took place in some of the most troublesome districts of Wardak, that is, the southern and eastern, Pashtun-dominated woleswali of Sayyedabad (from 16 to 31 PC), Chak (9 to 20), Nerkh (13 to 17) and Jalrez (9 to 11), together with the provincial capital of Maidanshahr (9 to 13). By contrast, the number of polling centres in the Hazara-dominated districts remained unaltered.
The need of the government to guarantee a balance between the population and voting facilities of an area, and between the number of polling centres of areas inhabited by different ethnic groups, as to confer legitimacy to the election and avoid communitarian tensions to arise, is well understandable. Yet, it is difficult to accomplish in Wardak, without significantly changing the security situation. A major asset at disposal to justify such a reversing trend in the province could have been only the Afghan Public Protection Program force, commonly known as AP3, on the deployment of which mainly along the dangerous Kabul-Ghazni highway NATO and Afghan government seem to place many hopes.
Judging by the very low number of PC declared to have been closed on election-day (two in Chak and one in Sayyedabad) this year, their trust might seem well-reposed. However, it must be noticed that this local defence unit, already existing at the time of past year election, has not been successful in reducing overall Taleban strength in the province (see an interesting IWPR article on this here), and thus insecurity of voters. On the other hand, the loyalty of the militia chief and core fighters(*) to the Afghan government, not to mention their commitment to a fair and democratic voting process, is highly questionable, and their presence cast worrying shadows on a fair election in Wardak – almost as big as those cast by the threats of the Taleban. A few reports from the ground (see an article by Anand Gopal in the Christian Science Monitor here) and curious trends in the voting patterns across the region, detectable in the scans of the results sheets provided by IEC’s website, do confirm previous bad forebodings.
Starting with Nerkh district, it is noticeable how three or four candidates usually team up in getting most of the votes of every polling station (PSt), leaving few votes or none at all to other candidates. This could well be explained by them being the strongest candidates in the area, but there are some details hinting at the kind of strength we are talking about. The high numbers of votes for every PS, which stop short of reaching the full 600 only when a ballot paper is torn up in the hurry, are already suspect, and the total absence of votes for female candidates in the women PS is either suspect or very worrying. PSt number 1 of PC 0409147 saw its 599 votes go to Wahidullah Kalimzai (179), Abdul Ahmad Durrani (101), former Taleban minister Musa Hotak (165) and Zabihullah Ahmadi (104). The same four persons got also most of the 600 votes of the female PSt, all cast for male candidates by the way (funnily enough, this PC’s single vote for a woman candidate was cast in the male station). PC 0409148 shows a similar trend, with the only difference that only three candidates shared most of the 589 votes: Kalimzai 50, Durrani 209, Hotak 300. As for the latter, in concomitance with this high and round result of him, it would be convenient to say that he is the brother of the chief of AP3 units.
In PC 0402023 of Jalrez district, the voting ended with a reasonably diversified result, at least the 444 votes of PSt no.1 where probably most of the real voters went: the 500 votes of PSt no.2 instead show a sublime degree of organization among candidates, with 200 votes each going to Durrani and Hotak, while the minority partner Ahmadi got 100. If only all the polling stations countrywide had given results like this, at least the counting of votes would not take until next month.
In the populous Sayyedabad district, it is just the names of the local strongmen that change. Here, the catch-all candidate was doubtlessly Kalimzai who currently stands as the second in line for the election to the Wolesi Jirga from Wardak (which has three seats plus one reserved for a woman). He got most of the votes in PC 0408125, for example, making his best performances in the additional men’s PSt no.2 (383 out of 507) and in the female PSt no.3 (a rounded 350 votes out of a round 500 total – with the remaining 150 votes going to his local sparring partner, Ghulam Mustafa Wardak). Even in the presence of strong female opponents, like former MP Roshanak Wardak, he managed to get the upper hand in the female polling stations (PC 0408132, 273 votes out of 404; PC 0408116, 333 out of 468). Even when low numbers seem to give more credibility to the results of women polling stations in these conservative areas, like in PC 0408117 with its 200 votes, Kalimzai received 136 votes and no women candidate got away with one vote (9 votes possibly cast for Fatima Fatir have been cancelled with a pen-line on the result sheets).
Let us move to the provincial capital district, as one of the predictably better controlled by serious security forces and electoral observers. Notwithstanding that, even here female polling stations seem to have constituted a reservoir of votes for certain male candidates. In PC 0401009, the experienced team Durrani-Hotak-Ahmadi brought home virtually all the votes (altogether, 486 out of 488, the two remaining votes being cast by mistake for candidates appearing immediately next to one of the mentioned three in the ballot paper). Things went slightly better for women in PC 0401005, where our three conceded 39 votes out of 594 to female candidates. Occasionally, the most basic rules of common sense are challenged: in PC 0401003, the women PS registered 520 votes: 437 of these went to Durrani, even if he had not been able to get more than 37 out of the 534 votes cast in the adjacent male PSt.
Regarding this last incident, and for those thinking that maybe these kind of strange phenomena affected only Pashtun candidates and Pashtun-inhabited areas, the performance of other candidates like Ahmad Hussein Sangardost and Sayyed Muhammad Hadi must be highlighted. The first, a former MP and commander of Harakat-e Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat, and on his way to get into the Wolesi Jirga as the third winning candidate in Wardak as the current results go, seems to have stolen the hearts and the votes of many a woman across the province. In both PC 0403026 of Hisa-e Awwal-e Behsud and PC 040438 of Markaz-e Behsud, he got 160 votes from the female PS against around 70 from the men’s stations and he was able to replicate the result as far as Jalrez (**). Sayyed Hadi, a more senior man, must have benefited of his religious charisma to get the votes of 174 women in PC 0404034, where he ended up with only 6 and 9 votes in the two other, male polling stations.
Judging by these few PC results, there are strong indications to suspect that the vote in Wardak was hijacked by electoral staff or local armed groups and directed towards family, friends and allies. This seems true at least for many female and for the additional male polling stations, while often only the first male PSt of a polling centre was likely to experience some real vote by those citizens who braved out not only the Taleban, but also local strongmen in the guise of auxiliary police.
Was it really a success then to have a massive numbers of PC open for the elections – which translated in massive fraud – in a territory controlled by such controversial political-military actors? Well, if the IEC is to blame for the decision, we must at least say that they are now sweating over it. The number of decisions being made with respect to irregularities in Wardak is quite high, and more polling centres, including of whole districts (like Chak and Daimirdad), are still missing from the votes count displayed online. It means, that the PC examined above where considered the smooth, regular ones. Not necessarily agreeing with this, I also do not envy IEC (or ECC) personnel having to deal with the more seriously complicated issues arising from elections in Wardak, until now not made known to the public.
(*) The more than thousand strong militia is headed by a former Taleban commander and Bagram detainee, Ghulam Muhammad Hotak, who reportedly brought with him several hundreds of his former fighters to constitute the backbone of an otherwise largely ineffective force.
(**) In PC 0402023, where he won 163 votes among the female voters and only 50 among their husbands. It is not a single occurrence in Jalrez. Another Hazara candidate, Muhammad Asif Mahdiyar, got 185 votes in the female PS of PC 0402020 after receiving only 26 and 11 votes respectively in the two PS for men.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020