On 25 May 2013, voter registration for the 2014 presidential election officially kicked off throughout Afghanistan. Female registration has been slow, even though the process is for the moment limited to the provincial capitals. Also general turn-out has been quite low and the process has proven to be cumbersome. It is however still very early days and numbers may well pick up in the coming months. AAN’s Ali M Latifi and Obaid Ali provide some initial observations, with input from Martine van Bijlert.
The 10-month-long voter registration process ahead of the 2014 presidential election, slated to last until two weeks before the polls open on 5 April 2014, will see a total of 441 registration centres provide up to four-and-a-half million Afghans with voter cards. This ‘top-up’ registration drive, which starts in provincial capitals, is aimed at recent returnees to Afghanistan, those who have come of voting age – 18 – since the last registration drive, and Afghans with damaged or no voting cards.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body that administers and supervises all elections in the nation, originally wanted all previously distributed cards to be traded in for new ones with holograms. The Afghan cabinet however rejected the IEC’s proposal and instead decided to focus efforts on implementing an electronic national ID card, the so called e-tazkera (read our previous blog here). The Cabinet insisted that the e-tazkera could be used as a voter card, but it has been clear for a long time that this is wholly unrealistic with the election less than a year away and the distribution of the e-tazkera being continuously delayed. This decision by the Kabul government thus left the IEC to distribute the new cards only to those who previously lacked voter cards. This means that Afghanistan will go into another election without a usable voter registry and with a large excess of voter cards that are not linked to actual voters (in previous rounds 17 million cards were distributed and it is widely accepted that up to 5 million of them are not linked to actual voters).
The voter registration program, that currently has 41 registration sites active across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, focuses mainly on Kabul and other urban centres, with registration centres planned to be open at the district level from 27 July to 28 September 2013 only.
In Kabul, the IEC has approved three high schools as official registration sites. They are located in Karta-ye Seh in the west, Shah Shahid in the east, and Khairkhana in the north of the city (read short report byPajhwok here).
Overall registration seems to have been quite slow to start with. In the first two days of registration, voter cards were distributed to only 1,300 people across the nation. And although this is only a ‘top-up’ registration, handing out only around 100 cards across the three Kabul sites on day one came as an unexpected surprise for the six-person registration teams at the registration centres in the capital.
So far female registration has been even lower. Of the 16,771 voter cards distributed nationwide as of 3 June 2014, according to Nur Muhammad Nur, the spokesperson of the IEC, only 2,487 have gone to women. Though each registration site is outfitted with separate female registration areas staffed by female workers, conservative cultural mores seem to inhibit the registration of would-be female voters. One obstacle seems to be the required photo for the voter card. A local journalist in Kandahar told AAN how several men expressed discomfort at having their wives’ and daughters’ pictures taken, even by female election workers.
Speaking to AAN, Nur Mohammed Nur said they were aware of the low female turnout and were working to address the issue. ‘We are working with local mosques and women’s rights groups to ensure more women register.’ The 800-person programme includes mullahs and female activists to encourage women to register, Nur told AAN. Joining the IEC in these efforts is a programme with the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) in 28 provinces aimed at increasing ‘women’s participation in the elections, as well as civic education in relation to the upcoming presidential elections.
Given that the registration centres in Kabul were located in high schools, seen as largely family-oriented institutions, election workers had anticipated higher turnout (as reported by Tolo News here). They wondered why between the students and faculty, there was not greater awareness of the voter registration drives in the community. On the other hand, it is still very early days in a long process, and numbers may well still pick up. Moreover, it is when registration – and in particular female registration – starts accelerating that observers of the electoral process should start paying close attention. In past elections high incidences of (female) registration – particularly in conservative and insecure areas – have been a sure sign that preparations for mass ballot-stuffing are being made.(1)
Election workers further complained about the limited nature of the public awareness campaigns, as they have during all previous elections. In monitoring media ahead of the registration drive, AAN did indeed observe very few advertisements. For his part, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, urged all citizens of voting age to secure a voter card, a 30 May 2013 Pashto-language radio address. To those familiar with the situation the seeming lack of a public awareness campaign seems to be a result of two factors – timing and finances. A contractor for a local media group that secured one of several public awareness contracts, said his team was still waiting for the money promised by the IEC and that so far they had been mainly operating off the surplus funds from 2010’s parliamentary election.
Ten days into the voter registration, IEC spokesman Nur said the commission was anticipating a donor-funded budget, but the amount to be allocated for voter registration remained unclear. Whatever, the amount, it is expected to be far lower than the 500 million dollars in the 2009 election. So far, however, the electoral institutions do not seem to be overly nervous about the delayed and bumpy start into the election preparations, given that they still have ten months to go.
Election workers and journalists who spoke to AAN said disenchantment from the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2009 and 2010 are likely to have an impact on voter interest in the upcoming polls. Speaking to people from different provinces, many uttered the same opinion. One of them Abdul Samad, a shopkeeper in Faryab province, summarised it like this: ‘We have seen almost no changes since either of the last two elections. People went out to vote despite threats of violence, and yet nothing has improved’.
Outreach is not the only field where the registration drive is off to a slow start. Technical and procedural limitations of a largely analogue system meant that despite the lower than expected turnout, registrant in Karta-ye Seh and Shah Shahid often had to wait for several hours at a time. Lacking computers or internet access, registration cards were filled out by hand with the information then transferred to a paper database. In Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangrahar province, where two locations – the tribal affairs directorship and the teachers’ training facility – were designated as official registration sites, a local journalist reported problems with printers and cameras, which further hindered an already slow process.
With registration currently limited to provincial capitals, election workers and journalists expressed concern that the process would be even more complicated once the process moved into the district level. The government has announced that there will be no registration in five districts in four provinces – Disho and Baghran in Helmand, Khak-e-Afghan in Zabul, Nawa in Ghazni and Waigal in Nuristan – where there is no government presence at all, but there will be more areas where registration will be deemed impossible due to the security situation. (Waigal has reportedly been retaken by government forces on 7 June.)
Many wondered how with such little turnout in the cities, they would be able to reach out to the populations of the more rural areas, especially since district-level registration centres would only be active for two months in the late summer. On the other hand, as mentioned before, past experience has shown that it is precisely the insecure and difficult-to-monitor areas that provide ample opportunity for over-registration.
Though the new voter registration cards sport a new hologram, this does not preclude the possibility of multiple registrations, which facilitated the multiple and bulk voting in the past elections. Owing to a largely manual system, election workers told AAN that it was still possible for people to obtain multiple voter registration cards from different sites (or, most probably, even the same site).
This was evident when one of AAN’s researchers obtained a voter registration card at one of Kabul ’s three registration centres (where he waited for two hours). He was asked for his home address – a new feature – and national ID number, but the system used to crosscheck the claim of residence could easily be gamed: ‘They ask where you live, then ask for a school or mosque near that location to verify that you are from that area.’ Based on only a paper system he felt little assurance that he could not return in a week to the same, or another, voting centre and ask for another card using the same identifying information.
After every election so far, all parties – still reeling from the controversies that emanated from a deeply messy vote – have insisted that the country needs a better voter registration system. Every time the opportunities provided for timely and early electoral planning have been wasted. This time is not different. Afghanistan is going into another election without a usable voter registry, and this registration drive will do nothing to change that. The best we can hope for that it does not add to the already massive over-registration the country has faced. Observers of the electoral process are advised to pay close attention: the quality of the registration can provide a good indicator of what can be expected during the vote.
(1) See among others page 11 of AAN’s report ‘How to Win an Afghan Election. Perceptions and Practices’.
This article was last updated on 17 Mar 2020