Afghanistan’s 28 September 2019 presidential election has finally meandered to what may be its end after almost five months, with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) declaring incumbent Ashraf Ghani the first-round winner. However, the result is too narrow and disputed, and the manner of dealing with complaints not transparent enough to quash doubts in his victory. Runner-up, Dr Abdullah, has now also declared himself the winner and said he wants to form his own government. There are all the ingredients for a deepening political crisis at a time when Afghans needs a crisis least – with peace talks with the Taleban planned, talks that will need broad political consensus on the ‘Kabul side’. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig here takes a first look at the declared result, its reliability and the looming crisis (with input from Ali Yawar Adili).Observations and Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials look on in front of the Data Centre in Kabul on October 2, 2019. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP
Afghanistan’s IEC has declared incumbent Muhammad Ashraf Ghani the winner of the 2019 presidential election. According to the results, which came through in the late afternoon of 18 February – 143 days, almost five months, after election day – Ghani received 923,592 votes (50.64 per cent of the valid votes). This result brings him over the 50 per cent threshold and, if recognised by his competitors, would spare him a second round of voting against the runner-up, his erstwhile coalition partner and Chief Executive of the current, but practically defunct National Unity Government, Dr Abdullah. According to the IEC figures, Abdullah received 720,841 votes (39.52%), trailing Ghani by over ten per cent (IEC chart here). (1) One election commissioner, Mawlana Abdullah, who refused to sign the final IEC decision and registered his protest on the document (photo here), is considered an Abdullah supporter.
The share in the vote taken by all the candidates apart from the front runners remained under five per cent. This included feared warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (read an AAN dossier here), with 3.85 per cent of the vote, which made him a distant third, and a brother of the late mujahedin leader Ahmad Shah Massud who ended with a disappointing 0.22 per cent of the vote. (2)
The number of valid votes has been given as 1,823,948. This represents less than a fifth of the registered electorate, just 18.8 per cent of the 9,665,745 voters who, according to the IEC, had registered to vote. (Many other citizens were unable to register because of the conflict and Taleban threats or had chosen not to do so, possibly because of disappointment in the outgoing National Unity Government.) Ghani’s vote represents just 9.6 per cent of the registered electorate, Abdullah’s 7.5 per cent.
Significantly, there were only microscopic changes from the preliminary result published on 22 December 2019 (AAN analysis here). After the preliminary results, there was a complaints process, overseen by the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) and audits and recounts ordered by the EEC and carried out by the IEC. In comparison to the preliminary results, the total number of valid votes had dropped by a mere 453. The total number of votes counted for Ghani dropped by 276 (from 923,868) and for Abdullah by 149 (from 720,990). This did not even change the two digits behind the decimal point of both men’s results. Given just how many votes were questioned and deemed suspicious – more on which below – this was extraordinary.
Following what has happened since the election has been a struggle. As AAN has pointed out virtually every time it has written about these elections, missing data, a paucity of statistics and confusing information have characterised the IEC’s communications with the Afghan public and observers. We repeat again: the IEC has still not provided a detailed lists of which polling centres were open and which closed on election day. Especially, as this is a known entry point for fraud, this is key to Afghan citizens and observers being able to assess the elections. This lack of transparency is highlighted again by the IEC’s fluctuating figures for turnout and the way it has dealt with complaints – looked at in detail below.
Fluctuating turnout figures
The IEC has so far neither published a final turnout figure (including the number of invalid votes), nor a figure for how many votes were ruled invalid and why. This is a crucial omission. The IEC’s turnout figures have fluctuated wildly over the last five months, often with little, or at least insufficient, indication as to why.
On election day, the IEC first said it estimated fewer than two million voters had participated. In the evening of the following day at a press conference, it spoke of 2,196,463 votes having been cast, but did not mention how it had arrived at the figure. It seems, however, it was likely collected from election officials phoning in, and there might have been miscommunications as well as attempts to boost the vote. Members of the presidential team had expressed the expectation that the turnout would be 4 to 4.5 million. Five days after the election, one IEC commissioner published a turnout figure, of 2,695,890, that had apparently been used by, but not officially published by the IEC. By 23 October, the figure had dropped to 1,932,673; this time, it represented only biometrically-verified (‘BBV-ed’) votes. At this time, there was also a debate as to whether non-BBV-ed votes could be also counted under certain circumstances, but the IEC stuck to its initial decision only to validate BVV-ed votes. After that, ‘de-duplication’ (when duplicated votes, for example, where two ballots have matching fingerprints or tazkeras (IDs) are reconciled) and other checks brought the turnout figure down further, on 2 November, to 1,843,107. These wide discrepancies, between 2.7 and 1.8 million votes, have never been fully explained.
The figure of valid votes now given (1,823,948) is around 20,000 (over 1%) below the last turnout figure the IEC gave before announcing the final result. Those 20,000 votes appear to have been invalidated before the latest round of audits and recounts (ordered by the Election Complaints Commission and which started on 5 February) which brought down the number of valid votes by 452. However, it remains unclear when exactly and why the 20,000 votes were invalidated.
There were some 291,000 to 311,000 votes which many teams, especially Dr Abdullah’s, had disputed. They belonged to three categories: 102,012 votes cast outside polling hours; 137,630 initially-quarantined votes with discrepancies regarding their biometric data and; between 50 and 70,000 votes with invalid photos details (find a summary of this dispute in this AAN analysis).
The ECC ordered various kinds of audits and random sample recounts of these votes, handed over its suggestions on how to deal with its findings to the IEC, and then declared its job was done. The IEC is the body charged with carrying out these audits and recounts. It finally ruled that all of these disputed votes were valid (see here and here).
An election watchdog organisation, Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), said, a day before the announcement of the final results, that the IEC had carried out the audit “without any plan,” even though it should have shared its workplan with the ECC. TEFA also claimed there had been technical faults in the audit such as the use of wrong audit forms.
The ECC also seemed to have been unhappy with the way the IEC carried out the audits and recounts. A leaked email, dated 16 February 2020, showed that the ECC had ordered its provincial offices to refrain from participating in the “recount and audit process.” A source from the ECC confirmed to AAN on 17 February that the email was genuine. No explanation is known for this, but it can be assumed that the ECC had recommended a less across-the-board decision on the votes than the IEC finally took. It also seems ECC observers did not take part fully in the IEC’s final audits.
As AAN has reported, the ECC is also partly to blame for the lack of clarity and transparency. There was a lack of consistency too in how the ECC in Kabul and its provincial branches handled certain types of problems in the complaints adjudication process.
The Afghan media indirectly confirmed these differences of opinion, reporting a “lack of coordination” between the two commissions, including a no-show of the ECC (according to the IEC) or a missing invitation (according to the ECC) which led to a delay in the start of the audits. By its declaration that its job was done, however, the ECC, had given the ICC a free hand to decide these crucial votes as it wished.
Dr Abdullah also declares himself winner
As soon as it was clear that the IEC would announce the result on Tuesday 18 February, and with rumours circulating in Kabul that the preliminary result would not change and Ghani be declared a first-round winner, that same day Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the head of Abdullah’s campaign team and a former IEC chief, declared on Twitter (quoted here) that their team was “out of the election process.” He said both the IEC and the result it would announce lacked legitimacy.
On the same evening, Dr Abdullah proclaimed himself the winner of the election in a press conference. He based this on what he called the counting of “the transparent and biometric votes.” He declared the result announced by the IEC to be “illegal” and “a coup” and accused the electoral commissioners of “treason”. He said he himself would “establish an inclusive government” and asked his supporters to stand against injustice and fraudulent votes.
Abdullah based his claim of victory on his view that the IEC “decisions on the disputed votes [ie the 300,000 votes cast outside hours or with problems with the biometric data or photos] were illegal” AAN heard from members of his team saying that Abdullah had actually won by getting around 52 per cent of the vote; they argued that all of the votes from two out of the three categories of disputed votes were actually fraudulent and should have been tossed out. Since most of them had been cast for Ghani, they argued, excluding these votes, would bring Ghani’s votes down to around 700,000.
Calls for Abdullah to proclaim himself the winner and form his own government had been coming thick and fast over the previous few days. First, Jombesh leader Abdul Rashid Dostum (formally still Ghani’s First Vice President) came out with the idea in a speech made on 13 February in Jowzjan province, in which he even suggested it should be done “in the north” of the country. (This evoked memories of the late 1990s when Dostum for a few years ran a quasi-autonomous north with its own currency while the Taleban controlled Kabul and most of the south.) He was indirectly quoted in this Afghan media report, while his spokesman (and Abdullah’s running mate) Enayatullah Babor Frahmand confirmed the idea on Twitter, albeit without the northern angle. Afghanistan’s north is mixed ethnically, but is predominantly non-Pashtun and mainly voted for Abdullah, while Ghani, a Pashtun, received most votes in the more solidly-Pashtun south – see a map showing voting patterns in this AAN analysis.)
Meanwhile, the announcement of a ‘violence reduction’ agreement between the United States and Taleban is expected any day – as a precursor to a wider bilateral US-Taleban agreement that would also open a door to intra-Afghan peace negotiations between the Taleban and Kabul (AAN analysis here and here). Pressure on the IEC had been growing over the past week or so to finalise the election result. The pressure came mainly from the incumbent’s camp. They were hoping a victory would give Ghani a strong mandate to represent the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in the talks with the Taleban.
However, as in previous elections, this poll was again marred by a lack of transparency, doubts about the impartiality of IEC and ECC commissioners and leading administrative personnel, and suspicions of fraud. (3)
The Biometric Voter Verification devices’ firewall did prevent masses of fake paper votes entering the count, meaning this election was probably the cleanest since 2001. However, this does not mean it was so clean – and the electoral institutions so well-functioning and independent – that all the major players are ready to accept the declared winner.
As in previous elections, procedures began to crumble when the time came to take the decisions that would make the difference between who won and who lost, and whether there was need of a run-off or not. Unresolved shortcomings in the methodology of validating or invalidating ballots culminated in the dispute over what turned out to be the decisive 300,000 votes. Inconsistencies in decision-making between the ECC’s Kabul centre and provincial branches also put its position on shaky ground and allowed the IEC to cut through the mess of repeated audits and recounts with across-the-board decisions which are now the basis for the Abdullah team’s rejection of the result.
In ‘normal’ times, such a disputed election outcome would be dangerous enough for Afghanistan. However, it comes just when broad political consensus is absolutely critical ahead of the planned intra-Afghan peace talks. A months-long failure to announce the names of the members of the allegedly already-nominated 15-member negotiation team had already nurtured suspicions that Ghani wanted to try to monopolise the Kabul negotiating team. Even though Afghan law does not set a minimum threshold on turnout and stipulates that only one vote above 50 per cent is sufficient for a candidate to be declared a first-round winner, with his razor-thin margin, and the prospect of a second parallel government (in addition to the Taleban’s), Ghani’s mandate looks shakier then ever.
An even graver long-term problem is that this election has showed just how much Afghanistan’s political system is stuck in a dead-end. Turnout was the lowest ever; fewer than a fifth of registered voters went to the polls; some may have been unable to get there because of insecurity and Taleban threats; others appeared do wonder why they should bother. They faced a choice between two frontrunners who have been the incumbents of an uneasy quasi-coalition government in which they have largely paralysed each other. Meanwhile, the poverty rate of this country of 35 million-or-so has slipped above the 50 per cent mark – and keeps on growing, according to the World Bank. (4) Some citizens have also turned their back on a government that carries out a campaign of bombing and night raids against some of their own constituents. And any day now, UNAMA’s annual Protection of Civilians report will be released and seems likely to show that, again, ten thousand civilians were killed or injured in 2019.
Between Ghani and Abdullah, no new political forces or faces have been able to emerge. Indeed, it feels like there is no breathing space for newcomers; potential young leaders are simply co-opted, and the old guard, the surviving mujahedin leaders (‘warlords’) remain as influential as ever. Elections for parliament, supposed to provide a checks-and-balance to the power of the president, have become heavily monetised, and now favour mainly non-political businessmen. The discussion about whether the election should have been held in the first place (and democratic procedures at least formally upheld) or dropped in favour of an elusive peace and an ‘interim government’ – largely prompted by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad – only further undermined the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s constitutional institutions. Afghanistan is looking more like an oligarchic than a democratic system. (5)
All of this is a bad omen for the prospective peace talks. If Ghani, Abdullah and others cannot agree on a united team, and a common negotiating position, they will only play further into the hands of the Taleban.
Edited by Kate Clark
(1) Ghani and Abdullah were also the main contenders in the 2014 election when they had to go in to a run-off. In the first round Abdullah was ahead with 45.00 per cent of the votes; Ghani had 31.56 per cent. The counting after round two ended in a deadlock; after US mediation, Ghani and Abdullah agreed to join in a National Unity Government and greed not to publish the results. Later, however, the Ghani campaign unilaterally leaked the alleged result which said that Ghani won the second round with 56.44 per cent (4.485.888 votes, and that Abdullah had received 43,56 per cent (2.972.141 votes). It can be assumed that – given there was no BVV-based vote verification – the turnout was inflated.
(2) The IEC even published different accounts of how many candidates’ votes had finally been included in the result: the list presented at the press conference had 13, with the name of Hanif Atmar, who’s electoral campaign has disintegrated, Tipp-exed out (photo here); the list on the IEC website 14. (On both, the total number of votes is the same, and on the list shown at the press conference the figures do not add up.)
(3) The exaggerated turnout figures on 28 September and in early October 2019 were probably attempts at fraud, ie bringing non-BVV-ed paper votes into the process.
(4) The World Bank’s January 2020 Afghanistan Development Update under the title “Navigating a Sea of Uncertainty” says:
While detailed household survey data is not available, poverty is expected to have worsened during 2019.
According to the latest figures available published in 2019 in the “Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey“ (ALCS) of the Afghan National Statistics and Information Authority (formerly the Central Statistics Office), in cooperation with the European Union, the World Bank and the Afghan Ministry of Economy, Afghanistan’s poverty rate stood at 54.5 per cent in 2016/17. In other words, more than half of the Afghan population has to live on less than one Euro a day (just over 1USD). This rate is more than three per cent above that in 2003 (51.4%), the data from a post-Taleban year. The poverty rate in 2011/12 stood at 35.8 per cent (see also here).
(5) In 2019, the Economist Intelligence Unit categorised Afghanistan as ‘authoritarian’ (map and table here), which it defined as:
Authoritarian regimes are nations where political pluralism has vanished or is extremely limited. These nations are often absolute monarchies or dictatorships, may have some conventional institutions of democracy but with meagre significance, infringements and abuses of civil liberties are commonplace, elections (if they take place) are not fair and free, the media is often state-owned or controlled by groups associated with the ruling regime, the judiciary is not independent, and there are omnipresent censorship and suppression of governmental criticism.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020