There have been days of futile negotiations between the technical teams of the two presidential election candidates over the nature of the ‘invalidation’ criteria – the rules for deciding what to do with votes deemed suspicious in the audit of the 14 June second round of the presidential vote. Now, the United Nations has stepped in and proposed its own criteria. They are based, it said, on the two teams’ “legitimate” points, but also on Afghan law and international best practice. Up till now, the audit has been fitful (its second suspension within the first week was lifted on 24 July morning) and bitterly contested by the two teams of candidate agents. In the absence of some basic ground rules, including the invalidation criteria, and with little sign of goodwill between the two parties, every small problem, say Kate Clark and Qayoom Suroush, has needed discussion and led to dispute, ad hoc solutions or suspension of the audit (with input by Obaid Ali).The audit in Kabul - photo by Kate Clark
The opening of the UNAMA statement (read it in full at the end of this dispatch) was rather bland:
The United Nations today presented its proposal to the IEC for a regulatory decision covering criteria for ordering the recount of ballot boxes and the invalidation of ballots as part of the ongoing comprehensive audit of the results of the Presidential election run-off held on 15 June [sic].
The calm words masked just how big a step this was – an international organisation seeing itself forced to step in to try to sort out the auditing mess after the first week had brought almost no progress. Days of inconclusive negotiations between the two candidates’ technical teams – mediated by UNAMA – appeared to have mainly produced bitter words (more of which later). The teams were supposed to agree a joint proposal on invalidation criteria to put to the IEC; leading members of both teams had told AAN on several of the last days that an agreement was imminent, “within 24 hours.” These criteria are crucial as, in an election where fraud is a grave concern, how disputed ballots and boxes are dealt with can cause large swings, possibly affecting the eventual result. This is especially so given that this audit is 100 per cent, with every ballot box, containing a total of eight million votes, being scrutinised. However, the teams had failed to agree. “Ultimately,” said UNAMA, it had not been able “to obtain agreement of both or either candidate to a common text that was agreeable to the other candidate.” It has, therefore, proposed its own.
The UN’s proposal
UNAMA carefully explained the basis for its involvement (in what looked like a pre-emptive defence against any charge of foreign interference): the agreement reached by the two candidates, Dr Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, on 12 July through the good offices of United States Secretary of State John Kerry had asked the UN, in the words of Thursday’s statement, “to propose the manner for the supervision of the audit. In making its proposals, the agreement requires the UN to consult with both candidates.” UNAMA said it had proposed a text which “addresses the legitimate points raised during the consultations while meeting the best international standards and factoring in the unique context of Afghanistan.” In doing so, it said it had tried to strike a balance between two considerations:
Every effort is required to excise electoral fraud from the political system, not just for the purposes of the present audit but for the sake of future elections. At the same time, the foundation of democracy is the equal right of each citizen to choose their leaders through the ballot. Every effort is also required to preserve the sanctity of legitimate ballots, especially given the real risks that many Afghans took in casting their ballots. This is a difficult balance in any country, and more so in Afghanistan’s current context which includes challenges related to security, low levels of literacy and a history of troubled elections. The current UN proposal regarding recounts and invalidations attempts to strike the proper balance between these two considerations and follows the Afghan Constitution and legal framework. It was developed after extensive consultations with both Presidential campaigns.
The proposal – which was not detailed in the statement – is now in the hands of the IEC.
Audit temporarily suspended
The dispute about the invalidation criteria – which is technical, but of course also deeply political, as both sides try to calculate what will maximise their share of the vote – has been one reason why every small disagreement in the warehouses, where all ballot boxes from the second round are being scrutinised, has had the potential to turn ugly. The first suspension, on 20 July, had already showed just how fragile proceedings were. Candidate agents had been arguing over whether a vote was invalidated by the voter writing his or her name, or signing or writing a word or a phrase like insha’allah or so-and-so zindabad (long live so-and-so), instead of the regular tick mark. This should have been relatively easy to decide on. IEC rules are clear – as the IEC spokesman, Nur Muhammad Nur said, a ballot paper marked in a way that shows the identity of the voter is not valid. But aside from this, it is difficult to see why the teams were arguing over the issue. Could either imagine gaining an advantage, one way or the another, by wanting more lee-way in the marks a voter could validly make? Could they predict their supporters would have been more likely to have ticked the ballot, added zindabad or written their names? Still, the issue ended in the audit being suspended for a day.
The cause of the second suspension of the audit on 22 July was initially obscured by a crisis caused by an unaccredited foreigner who had been acting like an observer. Ashraf Ghani’s team alleged the dark-haired, lightly-bearded man (see an Afghan media report and a photo here) was in the pay of Abdullah’s people and had been sent to influence the audit. (2) In an alternate version of events, told to AAN by Abdullah observers and one journalist, Ghani observers had walked out after being upset by a reference to ‘sheep votes’. (3) Actually, it seems it was the deadlock in the technical negotiations which led to the decision to suspend the audit while a concerted attempt was made to sort the impasse out. (Read UNAMA’s statement about it here).
Negotiations – bitter and ineffective
Negotiations between the two technical teams, mediated by UNAMA and aimed at putting together a joint proposal for the IEC, had in some sense been going backward. AAN was told there had been fresh disputes over some of the sixteen criteria for the audit (read them here) which had already been hammered out with John Kerry and agreed to on 12 July. The dispute included renewed discussions over criterion number sixteen which called for “particular attention” by observers and agents of boxes which “register results that, according to best international practices, require special scrutiny.” Fazl Ahmad Manawi, the head of Dr Abdullah’s technical team, AAN was told by different sources, had been trying to introduce ‘statistical criteria’ as a trigger, for example, differences between turnout and census data (something the Abdullah team has been upset about since election day, but which depends on unreliable statistics and an unclear legal basis.) He had, we were told, backed down on this. Meanwhile, AAN was told the Ghani team has been trying to argue, on legalistic grounds, that only the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) can invalidate ballots, not the IEC.
Both teams were also still arguing over the invalidation criteria – the rules for deciding what to do with the boxes which contain votes deemed invalid (throw out all, possibly based on the percentage of invalid ballots, or try to differentiate between good and bad votes). Generally, it seems Abdullah’s team were trying to get more votes thrown out – which, if Ghani did get more fraudulent votes, as they believe he did, would magnify the number of votes he loses.
Blaming the foreigners
How nasty the tone of the negotiations had become could be glimpsed in interviews given (separately) by the heads of the two technical teams to Tolo TV after the audit had been suspended on the evening of 22 July. Particularly Manawi (for Abdullah), but also Daud Sultanzoy (for Ghani) castigated ‘the foreigners’ for the woes of the audit.
“The UN pressurised us to have this show [the audit]” Manawi told Tolo. “I suggested approving the [invalidation] criteria before the audit was started, but it was UNAMA that got to Ghani and Abdullah and pushed them to agree to the audit. The audit, he said, was a plan by UNAMA and the international community to be seen to have a ‘success’ in Afghanistan. However, at the same time, he acknowledged that the gap between the two sides was too wide and they were “in a state of confusion” and that UNAMA and ‘the international community’ should “specify the criteria, instead of spending days over a single word.” (This is, indeed, is what has happened.)
Sultanzoy, on the other hand, claimed the audit was going well and was speeding up and was “neither inconclusive, nor a show”. He asserted that it would distinguish the ‘clean’ votes from the ‘dirty’ ones. He accused Manawi of keeping on trying to “change the rules of the game,” despite the fact that the IEC criteria had, he said, been designed by Manawi (when he was head of the IEC during the 2010 parliamentary election) and were clear. He also said ‘the foreigners’ “should not present themselves as know-it-alls.”
“Currently the technical procedures have difficulties,” said Manawi, “and the political issues are seized up,” a reference to the other aspect of the ‘Kerry agreement’, that there will be a ‘national unity government.’ Abdullah’s technical team leader said that, if the “smaller political figures” [apparently a reference to the US ambassador] could not solve the impasse, another “big figure would arrive and forcibly put everyone in his right place.” The difficulties should therefore be sorted out, he said, before another American “movie hero” comes. He also issued a warning. “I will stay,” he said, “and defend the public’s legitimate votes. I will not allow anyone to play with this. If we find out that they are playing with this [the audit], we have our position and will stand for it.” (Whether he was referring to previous threats by Abdullah’s side to launch a breakaway government, which appear to have instigated the top level intervention of the Americans, was left hanging in the air.)
Sultanzoy said the agreement with the foreigners had been based on national unity and “generalities,” with no discussion of details. Any foreign pressure to establish a coalition government, he said, would be “impossible.” First, he said, the IEC had to declare a winner. “My advice to the foreigners is ‘don’t interfere in Afghan affairs’: we appreciate their observation, but don’t want their interference.” Afghan institutions, he said, should be strengthened, while interference would just weaken them.
Both men played the ‘blame the foreigners’ card on national television to explain why the audit had been suspended. Actually, it was their intransigence and inability to reach a compromise over the audit which has led UNAMA having to step in to try to get it working.
The audit resumes
On Thursday morning (24 July), as UNAMA presented its proposal and the IEC began to look through it, the audit did resume. As to how it is going, the IEC now has three warehouses up and running. In the first, it is still mainly Kabul province boxes being audited, with some from Wardak. The second is scrutinising boxes from Balkh and a third, newly opened, warehouse is looking at boxes from Laghman. On Thursday, the number of observers barely stretched to cover all the teams, however. There were enough international observers (one per table) in the first two warehouses, but in the third, there were no internationals and only a few national observers. Two or three UN staff were present in each warehouse, there to give technical advice and help resolve disputes. (3)
The problems with boxes from Kabul and Balkh still mainly look to be on the ‘human error’ scale – although these can still be disputed and take up time. These include minor discrepancies between result sheets and disputes over what voters had written on the ballots – signatures, words or scribble. Of the Wardak boxes, AAN saw three from Chak district with more serious problems. One had locks with serial numbers not matching the form inside the box and 700 votes cast (579 for Ghani, 121 for Abdullah and three spoiled; altogether 600 would be the maximum); however there were only 625 voter card numbers written in the registration book and when the boxes was opened, not only were there only 76 votes for Abdullah, nine of which had not been stamped and were thus invalidated by IEC staff at the warehouse, but more importantly, most of the votes in the box had same-looking tick marks. A dispute arose between the agents as to whether they had been made by the same hand. Three UN staff came and judged that they had been. Such a decision, we saw, increased the tension between the agents.
How long will the audit take?
Asking round the three warehouses to see how many boxes the different tables were auditing (to judge the speed of progress and the potential time the whole audit could take), it appeared to range between one and four per shift. That would make the audit slower than previously, when AAN calculated that each team was getting through four to seven boxes in a shift. In a press conference on 24 July, IEC spokesman, Nur Muhammad Nur, however, said the audit was getting quicker. He said they had initially expected it to take three to four weeks, calculating that each box would take one hour to scrutinise. However, he said, disputes meant a single box could take up to four hours to audit. The audit had been slow he said, due to Ramadan and the “disorder and chaos.” With more teams to be established after the month of fasting is over and with more familiarity with the process, he thought the audit would speed up. However, the audit will also now start to get on to ‘problematic provinces.’ The potential for long disputes, it is clear, can only increase.
(1) According to the agreement reached by both candidates on 12 July (with John Kerry), “Any disputes or questions not responded to in a satisfactory manner will be referred to the UN for advice, including on international best practice. If the issue is not resolved, it will be recorded in the audit sheet for further adjudication by the Commission in its deliberations.”
(2) According to Daud Sultanzoy (speaking to reporters at the IEC), one of his agents had asked the (as yet un-named man) who he was and he had said he was one of Dr Abdullah’s observers (something which Abdullah’s team members did not admit, when speaking to journalists also). Shamshad TV filmed him with card (although whether as observer or team agent is not clear) In the same, report, Sultanzoy insisted that a foreigner could not be a candidate observer, but refused to talk more about it and said it was a security issue and there would have to be investigations.
(3) They told AAN the trouble had been sparked by Ghani observers who had been upset by an Abdullah observer saying he saw the freshly delivered ballot boxes from Khost and Paktia that “the sheep votes have arrived” (rayha-ye gosfandi amadand), a reference to tapes released by Dr Abdullah which he alleged were of wiretapped telephone conversations between senior IEC officials and government officials speaking of “stuffed sheep” (code, he said, for ballot stuffing).
PRESS STATEMENT: United Nations proposes criteria for ordering recounts and invalidations
KABUL, 24 July 2014 – The United Nations (UN) today presented its proposal to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) for a regulatory decision covering criteria for ordering the recount of ballot boxes and the invalidation of ballots as part of the ongoing comprehensive audit of the results of the Presidential election run-off held on 15 June.
The Director of the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division, Craig Jenness, delivered the proposal to the IEC Chairman, Dr. Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, earlier this afternoon.
Under the technical agreement reached by the two Presidential candidates, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, the UN was asked to propose the manner for the supervision of the audit. In making its proposals, the agreement requires the UN to consult with both candidates.
As part of the technical agreement, the entirety of the approximately 23,000 ballot boxes of the run-off are to be audited in Kabul in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and UN advisors.
In the first part of the audit, there is a physical inspection of each ballot box in the IEC auditing warehouses in Kabul. Using a 16-point checklist set out in the technical agreement, IEC audit teams are recording information as to the physical condition of each box, the state of its results form, whether ballot papers in the box were marked according to procedure or show significant patterns of obviously similar markings, and relevant information from the polling station journal and polling station voter log. No decisions as to the inclusion or exclusion of votes are made during this stage of information gathering, which has been ongoing since 17 July.
The second part of the audit involves open meetings of the IEC Board of Commissioners where decisions are made to accept, recount or invalidate results based upon reports generated from the information gathered during the physical audit.
As per the technical agreement, these Commission meetings will be conducted in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and a UN advisor. Following the IEC board’s decisions, the results of the associated polling stations will be processed at the National Tally Centre. Under Afghan law, the Presidential campaigns retain the right to appeal these decisions to the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) within 24 hours and the IECC is required to provide a ruling on these appeals within a further 48 hours.
In order to provide a tangible expression of support to the technical agreement, the two Presidential candidates supported the start of the physical stage of the audit on 17 July. At this time it was also agreed that IEC Board meetings to decide on the acceptance, recount or invalidation of results would not take place until a regulatory decision setting out recount and invalidation criteria was formally adopted.
From a legal standpoint, the current audit is being conducted under Article 58 of Afghanistan’s Electoral Law, which allows for the investigation of “justifiable complaints of or visible signs of fraud in the ballot boxes.” Election fraud is a very serious infringement of democratic values, strictly forbidden by Afghan laws. Every effort is required to excise electoral fraud from the political system, not just for the purposes of the present audit but for the sake of future elections. At the same time, the foundation of democracy is the equal right of each citizen to choose their leaders through the ballot. Every effort is also required to preserve the sanctity of legitimate ballots, especially given the real risks that many Afghans took in casting their ballots. This is a difficult balance in any country, and more so in Afghanistan’s current context which includes challenges related to security, low levels of literacy and a history of troubled elections.
The current UN proposal regarding recounts and invalidations attempts to strike the proper balance between these two considerations and follows the Afghan Constitution and legal framework. It was developed after extensive consultations with both Presidential campaigns.
The UN was ultimately not able to obtain agreement of both or either candidate to a common text that was agreeable to the other candidate. It has therefore proposed a text which addresses the legitimate points raised during the consultations while meeting the best international standards and factoring in the unique context of Afghanistan.
Given the urgency of the matter, the United Nations has now encouraged the IEC Board to rapidly meet and adopt the necessary regulatory decisions based on this proposal so that the next stage of the audit can commence.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020