Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

AAN Election Blog No. 32: We have a new universe – and an old problem

Martine van Bijlert 4 min

The saga of the Afghan election vote count and recount is nearing its conclusion, although even the concluding phase may still drag on for quite a while. The process (oops*) has become so technically complicated and politically multilayered that voters, candidates, donors and observers have lost track of what is happening and how worried they should be.

On the technical side, much attention has been focused on the IEC audit of the three-thousand-something “suspicious ballot boxes” and the selection of a correct sample. So much so, that there seems to be a sense that once the audit has been finalised, the outcome of the elections – at least in the case of the Presidential vote – will be known. Which may not be the case, as the ECC is still immersed in the investigation of the remaining complaints that could affect the outcome of the elections.
The audit of the suspicious boxes was ordered by the ECC on 8 September and was in essence an instruction to reimplement the IEC’s internal “fraud triggers” which had been discarded along the way (see an earlier AAN blog, as well as Jean MacKenzie’s recent blog). It would have obviously made sense to do the audit before announcing the provisional results on 16 September but the IEC decided otherwise, in an attempt to create a fait accompli and to get the ECC bogged down in cleaning up after them.

In the week after there were frantic UN-led efforts to find a compromise that would avoid an open clash between the ECC and the IEC, as well as a further delay of the results, and that would look like procedures were being respected after all. The outcome: the IEC would conduct the audit by means of “weighed sample” (or is it weighted sample?), hand over the results to the ECC, after which the ECC would rule on the consequences for the electoral results. The details of the arrangement, which had remained unclear even to those who were regularly briefed, were finally clarified in yesterday’s ECC press release.**

Two electoral statisticians were flown in by the UN to calculate and recalculate what the sample should look like and to instill confidence in a process (oops) that has became rather difficult to follow, let alone understand. Assorted diplomats had only just started to absorb the UNAMA-led briefings on the meaning of “the universe” (which turns out to be the total from which a sample is taken) and the fact that the sample consists of “polling units” rather than polling stations or ballot boxes, when they were told shortly after that there was now a new (more correct) universe, which had resulted in the need to add and subtract a number of polling units.

The drawing of the sample also had an absurd glow to it, with a panel of three (Eide, Kippen and Najafi) taking turns pulling a number out of a container to make three- or four-digit figures, which then corresponded to a polling station on an undisclosed list, leading to the compilation of a sample list – which was not shared. The list was not shared for obvious reasons – to avoid tampering by outsiders – but this also meant that for the assembled observers there was not much to observe, other than that a little ceremony had taken place.

The process (oops) of implementing an audit according to the highest statistical standards that can still be humanly explained, is largely aimed at the international community. It seeks to reassure governments and donors that the fraud is being rigorously and transparently dealt with. It however does not change the fact that the audit is being done by the very organisation that sought to include the suspicious votes in the first place. Repeated references to the fact that the process (oops) is being monitored by observers should reassure nobody who has been paying attention over the last few weeks.

To Afghan voters and non-voters, in the meantime, it is obvious that the final outcome of this election will be largely politically determined (even though it is given a technical and procedural verneer). Many of them do not neccessarily have a problem with that, as long as it does not drag on too long and does not result in an equally problematic government. Dealing with the fraud in their eyes has much more to do with exposing and punishing those who were involved in defrauding the election, than with calculating complicated samples and drawing numbers out of a hat.

The description given by Peter Gailbraith of how his boss Kai Eide responded to the consistent reports of fraud, and the implied allegation that Eide is politically and personally partial, has obviously done great damage to the UN’s reputation and its potential to act as an impartial arbiter – at a time when there is a great need for such a role. The US, who is not seen as impartial but who is looked to for leadership by both Afghans and internationals, seems drifting, internally divided and without a voice (let alone a vision). The other actors are waiting for the results of the audit.

We are moving towards a resolution, which is necessary. But let’s not fool ourselves, or each other, that we are in any fundamental way dealing with the mess left by massive fraud. Or that we have satisfied those that are upset about how their elections – both Presidential and provincial council – have been taken from them.

* There have been calls in Kabul to start fining Kai Eide for every time he uses the word “process”. I am now also trying to cut down, just in case.

** There is still a fair amount of confusion over the exact way in which the audit will take place and how it will affect the results. Several articles have maintained…. But in reality… ECC press statment says… I have now rewritten this section a couple of times and every time I think I have it covered I keep running into new variations, confusions and details that don’t quite add up. This calls for a new blog. As soon as I think I understand.


Democratization Elections Government


Martine van Bijlert

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