Most international supporters had reached an early conclusion that whatever happened in the field, the IEC in Kabul did their job well – guarding the process and maintaining a level of independence and transparency. Candidates and voters strongly disagree and are venting suspicions of manipulation and foul play up to the highest level. The results data gives important clues on how the IEC functioned and where this election is heading.
As the result details are being released – the polling station figures came online on Saturday afternoon – and as the candidates are travelling the offices of Kabul in search of justice, support or commiseration, a picture is emerging of how the election proceeded after the voting took place.
First of all, there is the total mystery of the expanding number of ballots cast. The figure went from 3.6 million to 4.4 million votes in the first two days while the results were still coming in – which is perfectly understandable – but at the end of the tally process the total had suddenly reached 5.6 million with no explanation or advance warning. The IEC does not understand what the fuss is about: the way they see it, they have disqualified 1.3 million ballots and now there are almost 4.3 million ballots left. If you want to know where the additional votes came from: they were added fraudulently, now they have been removed, and that is really all you need to know.
The problem however is that a large part of the IEC’s newly found credibility, at least among the foreigners, rests on the fact that they seemed in better control of the process than had been the case last year. There was (initially) less ambiguity – the often cited fact that they determined before the elections, instead of after, which polling centres were planned to be opened – and there were stricter procedures in place to track fraud and to simply know how many votes there were and what was happening to them. Last year at the very end, when everybody had stopped paying attention, tens of thousands of provincial council votes were released back into the count. Nobody knew that they were still in quarantine – frankly, nobody even noticed that it happened. The idea was that something like that should not happen again. And now it did.
Second, the results and the underlying data have left both candidates and observers with a distinct impression of randomness and a lack of clarity on how decisions to disqualify or re-include are made. In some provinces candidates who were blatantly involved in fraud fell off the list of winners after a large part of their votes was invalidated, while in other provinces such candidates still came out on top. The posted results still contain a large number of polling stations with highly suspicious vote patterns. Of course, even carefully designed and systematically implemented criteria can result in outcomes that look unfair or random, which is exactly why it is important to be transparent about the process and the criteria.
The IEC has, after repeated requests, clarified to observers which triggers during the tally process prompt a review of possibly suspicious results. But the review process itself, which takes place in closed management team meetings, is highly intransparent. There are no clear internal guidelines and the deliberations are not documented, leaving the door wide open for allegations of biased or bought decisions.
The improved anti-fraud procedures have resulted in a system where low-level tampering has become significantly more difficult, which is an improvement. Scanned copies of all approved results sheets are posted on the IEC website, making it more difficult to manipulate results during or after data entry. But the high-level decisions, on which results are included and which ones are not, are the ones that really count. Most of the demonstrations that have taken place over the past few days – among others in Herat, Paktia, Kunduz and Ghor – are in reaction to disqualifications that have hit certain areas and certain candidates more than others.
The IEC has so far shown little interest in responding to the concerns or alleviating the sense of injustice, which it could do by providing unambiguous information. The ECC in turn has reiterated, during yesterday’s press conference, that it does not intend to review IEC disqualification decisions. Candidates seeking recourse against the preliminary results at the ECC have been either sent away or given a complaints registration form which was signed but not stamped, and that was not logged as a formal complaint (no docket number was provided, which means that the complaint is not traceable in the system; basically they are being sent away with worthless pieces of paper).
All in all, the election as it proceeds is starting to look eerily familiar. Most importantly, the processes that are aimed at cleaning up the vote and dismissing fraudulent ballots have become so murky that they themselves are now widely seen as simply the next phase of manipulation.
Thirdly, it is not only the candidates and their supporters who feel cheated. There has been a serious issue with disenfranchisement as well. When the list of polling centres was drawn up, many insecure areas in the Pashtun belt lost a significant number of polling stations (although this was less the case in areas with local strongmen linked to government or international forces, such as Wardak or Spin Boldak). The Hazaras also saw the number of polling stations go down, probably in an attempt to balance the decrease in Pashtun votes due to the insecurity (insecurity is a double-edged sword, it stops people from voting, while at the same time facilitating fraud, which – if the system works well – results in massive disqualification). On polling day Hazara stations all over the country reported that they had run out of votes by noon, while some Pashtun districts that had returned high numbers of votes in past elections recorded almost no votes (This was particularly the case in the mixed province of Ghazni. In Qarabagh there was no election at all, as bad weather prevented the delivery of election material, while in Andar district only 3 votes were cast. Ghazni now has an all-Hazara preliminary slate.)
It was clear from the start that there were issues of disenfranchisement, but at the time the control over the electoral process was prioritised: having a list and holding on to it seemed more important than tweaking it in an attempt to get a better one. But now the much touted greater control over the process has crumbled and has not resulted in a more credible election, this may well turn out to be a serious problem. Many voters have disengaged from the electoral process, which they now consider a twisted game between political elites, strongmen and people with money. But the growing interethnic mistrust means that there is considerable potential for disgruntled Hazaras and Pashtuns to be mobilised around slogans of ethnically biased treatment by the IEC, and by extension the government.
Finally, the candidate’s right to recourse has been sacrificed in favour of not further muddling an already very muddled process. It may simply be a very pragmatic decision: in the absence of clear guidelines and in the context of pressures and loyalties, different people will probably consistently arrive at different decisions when reviewing the same results. And there is of course the issue of time, as the ECC already has over 3,500 pending complaints. But it means that the heart of the process remains unmonitored. And that there are essentially no means left to restore the credibility of the process.
In the midst of all the noise and exaggeration of clamouring candidates there are some real issues and real grievances. It would be unwise to ignore them.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020