Analysing the 2009 Afghan election as they are unfolding is quite a unique experience. An observer from Global Democracy, recently quoted in Kabul Weekly (26 August 2009), aptly called this “a mysterious election” in which “even the number of voters is not known”. And mysterious it is.
Even the most basic analysis is shaky in the absence of reliable data on population figures, the number of voters in any given area, or the number of people who actually voted on election day. Additionally, ten days after the vote there is still no clarity on how many ballots were cast, what the gender and provincial breakdown of the vote was, and which polling stations actually opened.
Counting is ongoing and the count results are being released in batches. Saturday’s third batch represented 35% of the polling stations and a little over 2 million valid votes. Karzai’s lead had slowly increased – as expected – now having received 46.3% of the counted votes, with Abdullah at 31.4% and Bashardust at 13.6%. There is however no transparency on how counting decisions are made, on for instance which districts and polling stations are counted first or which counting data is released. The IEC has made it known that up till now 200,000 votes have been excluded from the count, but there are no details of where these votes were cast or why they were excluded. International observers to the process spend their days at the count centre but have very little insight into what is going on.
The count at polling station level has not simplified the process and bizarrely there seems to have been no mechanism to aggregate the primary data – other than waiting for the result forms to physically arrive at the tally centre. The system has triggers that are supposed to flag manipulation and tampering (for instance the “tamper evident bags”), but the complexity of the process seems to work against an easy comparison of the data gathered at the various steps.
In the meantime the subject of fraud and fraud allegations continues to grab the headlines. The ECC, according to the latest count, has received 691 category A complaints (i.e. complaints potentially material to the outcome of the elections). The main international actors have decided to keep a low profile on this issue, so as not to be seen to pre-empt the formal processes of vote counting and complaints adjudication. Although it is probably wise to give the IEC and ECC a chance to deal with the fraud investigations within their legal mandates, the silence on the side of the internationals – with the exception of some US statements and controlled press leaks – means that the allegations of fraud are now largely viewed as a tool in the hands of losing candidates. The absence of strong impartial voices threatens to obscure the fact that fraud of a widespread and organised nature undermines the credibility of the system and the elected government, regardless of who is ultimately declared the winner.
The current count is said to only include the so-called “clean” polling stations, against which there have been no significant complaints or suspicions of electoral malpractice. It is unclear what happens once the IEC runs out of clean stations. If Karzai reaches or almost reaches the magic “50% plus one vote” before that happens, the IEC could theoretically decide to quarantine and exclude most of the remaining suspicious votes and declare a winner. This would leave the internationals, who have been patiently waiting for the legal process to run its course, with little opportunity to raise their concerns over the process and to seek guarantees with regard to the new government set-up: the IEC will claim to have decisively acted against fraud and the winner will claim that the victory was a legitimate one, based on the popular vote.
In the probably more likely scenario in which the 50% mark is not reached while still tallying the clean stations, things get even murkier. There will be huge pressure on the IEC to release suspicious polling stations with large numbers of votes back into the count. This will follow the same pattern as found in the 2005 parliamentary and provincial council elections, when candidates knew exactly which of “their” ballot boxes needed to be de-quarantined in order to secure enough votes in their favour. There will also be huge pressure on the ECC to refrain from large scale disqualification of votes, even though the evidence may warrant it. Most importantly, it will be practically impossible to determine how the Afghan voters really voted. Decisions on issues such as whether there should be a second round or not, will be viewed as either arbitrary or politically motivated, in the face of the very fluid data.
Trying to analyse the process also means that you are constantly moving from one reality into the other. There are the stories from the provinces; the disbelief and the disenchantment that this was allowed to happen on the internationals’ watch. There is the narrative which currently dominates the international press and that views the fraud allegations as part of a political contest between the incumbent and his contestants. There are the government officials and the Karzai supporters who truly believe (or say they believe) that Karzai won up to 70% on the strength of his popularity. There are the rival candidates who make similar claims. There are the voters, upset (but not necessarily surprised) that their vote has been made irrelevant through fraud or allegations of fraud. And there is the international community, torn between its desire for a relatively smooth resolution and a salvageable election, and the realisation that this may well be a defining moment – in terms of its future relationship with the new government and the prospects for reform and institution-building.
There will be posturing and there will be conspiracy theories. There will be attempts to forge compromises in the interest of national unity and stability. There will probably, finally, be some sort of resolution. But the real impact of these elections will not be so easily detected. It will depend on how the voters – those who voted and those who did not – look back on what happened during these weeks. It will depend on what they think this process has taught them about government, democracy and international involvement.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020