Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Elections (31): A review of the disputed presidential election and its aftermath

Ali Yawar Adili 25 min

On the first anniversary of Afghanistan’s fourth – and much disputed – presidential election of the post-Taleban order, we look back at the events surrounding the election and its aftermath to provide a concluding overview. AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili reviews what happened before, during and after the election, looks at the votes that swung the outcome and discusses the aftermath of the contested result. He concludes that the fact that this is the second time a presidential election has led to a power-sharing government indicates that Afghanistan’s political system is dysfunctional, incentivising manipulation and contestation.

Female officials count votes at a female pooling station in Sayyed Abad Girls High School, Bamyan, as agents and observers watch. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 28 September 2019

The 2019 presidential election took place exactly one year ago today and has been another protracted affair. It took five months to announce the final results, which were then rejected by almost all candidates, including Dr Abdullah, the then incumbent Chief Executive of the National Unity Government. Dr Ashraf Ghani, who was declared the winner, and Abdullah the declared runner-up who had hoped to force the race into a second round, held parallel presidential inaugurations on 9 March. The ensuing political stalemate continued for another three months, until a new political power-sharing agreement was reached on 17 May 2020, almost eight months after the election and, as in 2014, pressed for and mediated by the United States. While the agreement prevented the escalation of the political crisis, the domino effect of the electoral dispute lingers on, triggering a power struggle over the formation of the cabinet and over who should lead negotiations with the Taleban.

As a summary of what happened on 28 September 2020 and its repercussions over the subsequent year, this report looks at the following issues in turn:

  • The delays to the election
  • An assessment of the biometric machines: did they help to verify voters?
  • Election day and turnout
  • The fight over the results
  • Four categories of disputed votes that swung the outcome
  • Rejection of the results by the other candidates
  • The double inaugurations
  • The political agreement – and continuing political impasse
  • The elections not yet held: Ghazni, provincial and district
  • A disputed presidential election and a dysfunctional political system
Identification officer checks voters’ tazkera before allowing them to proceed to vote as the BVV operator captures the fingerprint of another voter at a polling station in Markaz Bamyan Boys High School. Photo: Ali Yawar Adili, 28 September 2019

A delayed election

The 2019 presidential election was held on 28 September 2019 after having been delayed several times. It was first planned for 20 April 2019, but on 30 December 2018, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) moved the date to 20 July 2019 (AAN reporting here). On 20 March 2019, the IEC announced a second delay, moving the election to 28 September 2019. This sparked a debate about the continued legality of the National Unity Government. According to article 61 of the constitution, the presidential term expires on 1 Jawza of the fifth year following the elections – which would have been 22 May 2019 – and elections for a new president should be held within 30 to 60 days before the end of the presidential term, ie between 22 March and 22 April 2019. The constitution omits to mention what happens if elections are not held within the timeframe, and it is thus not clear whether the sitting president’s term should be extended until elections are held or whether transitional governance arrangements should be put in place for the interim period. (This problem also came up when the 2009 presidential elections were postponed under President Hamed Karzai (see AAN reporting here and here).

President Ghani’s office asked the Supreme Court to provide a legal opinion, which it did on 20 April, extending the president and vice-presidents’ terms until a new president was elected. The ruling was rejected by the other candidates who continued to call for an interim arrangement, such as a caretaker government, after 22 May 2019 (see AAN’s reporting for the legal arguments here). They also threatened with civil unrest. Rattled by the threats, on the morning of 22 May, the government implemented hasty and heavy-handed security measures, positioning large trucks and containers at strategic positions so they could block roads in the city, if needed. However, no massive demonstrations materialised, and Ghani was able to consolidate his extended presidential term until the election finally did take place in September (see AAN reporting here). The debate about the constitutionality of delaying the elections and extending the presidential term remains open. 

The back and forth over the election date engendered uncertainty and doubt among the candidates, their political allies and the voters as to whether the election would go ahead at all. Since the delays took place in the context of ongoing peace talks between the US and the Taleban, there was a widespread assumption that the negotiations could culminate in a cancellation of the election in favour of an interim power-sharing arrangement. Media reports that the US and the Taleban had indeed agreed to an interim government that would be in charge for 14 months further contributed to a climate of scepticism and suspicion (AAN reporting here).

The politics surrounding the US-Taleban negotiations have continued to be at play after the election. Ghani’s concession late last year to release three senior Taleban prisoners in exchange for two American University of Afghanistan lecturers and then, earlier this year to release 5,000 government-held Taleban prisoners, as the US had agreed with the Taleban he would do was agreed, diplomats told AAN after speaking to Palace aides, in return for the US supporting his re-election. Meanwhile, AAN heard from sources close to Dr Abdullah that he had backed down on his demand for the nullification of the results and establishment of the post of a prime-minister (more on this below) because of the calculation that whoever would be president would not serve a full term; this hunch was based on the possibility talks with the Taleban could lead to an interim setup. In late March, while the electoral impasse still ran deep, US Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmai Khalilzad also told journalists in an off-the-record meeting (the author listened to an audio record of the meeting received from a journalist) that administration would be “temporary” and for a “limited period if, God willing, the issue of peace moves forward” – an indication that Abdullah’s estimation of Khalilzad’s thinking might be accurate. 

Improved use of biometrics to verify voter registration?

Previous elections in Afghanistan have all suffered from logistic and operational difficulties and were plagued by massive fraud and candidate complaints. The result was that after the previous election cycle, potential voters had little trust in elections. In an effort to prevent large scale fraud happening yet again, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) introduced a Biometric Voter Verification (BVV) technology ahead of the 2018 parliamentary election to verify the identity of voters at the polling stations on election day (AAN’s reporting here). However, the biometric machines, which were supposed to be a panacea for fraud, turned into a headache on election day and a source of contention between the IEC, the ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) and the political parties. Polling staff had not received proper training, or training at all; the devices had not been field-tested; and the procedures and contingency plans were incomplete (AAN reporting here) . As a result, the IEC was forced to take a decision in the early hours of voting to also authorise voting without capturing the biometric data of the voters. This led to a dispute between the IEC and the ECC, with the ECC deciding to invalidate the votes that had been cast without being biometrically verified and the IEC rejecting the decision. In the end, the ECC was forced to back down and the votes were counted, despite the fact that procedures had not been followed (AAN reporting here).

When the electoral law was amended in advance of the 2019 presidential election, it stipulated that the IEC was required to use BVV technology in all phases of the election (AAN’s reporting here). In May 2019, however, the IEC made it clear that it would be impossible to implement this provision of the law for voter registration, but that it would still use biometric technology on election day (AAN reporting here).

The IEC also added additional technical features to the BVV ahead of the 2019 presidential poll, including a preinstalled digital list of the voters, digital result forms, time stamps marking when the BVV device starts and stops working, and QR codes for polling stations, ballot papers and voters’ IDs (see AAN reporting here). Another feature which could have prevented allegations of fraud, but that was not added, was a time lock, ie the time on the device could not be changed after it was set for the hours of the election. 

On election day, two technical problems turned out to be widespread: slow and (temporarily) malfunctioning BVV devices and disturbingly large numbers of voters being turned away because their names were not on the voter list (AAN reporting here). 

The IEC had stipulated in its polling and counting procedure that it would invalidate any votes that were cast without the proper capturing of biometric data (registration number, fingerprints and photo; see AAN reporting here). After the election, Ghani’s State-Builder team and his supporters said they would accept votes without biometric data if the IEC decided to count them, while some of his backers threatened to force the IEC officials to count votes not backed by biometric data.  Eight days after the election, on 6 October, the IEC and ECC issued a joint statement, reconfirming the polling and counting procedure and saying that the IEC would only count the votes cast through the biometric system as valid (see the details in this AAN report).

All in all, the biometric technology did not streamline the voting, vote counting or result tabulation or provide much needed transparency, as intended, but it does seem to have deterred attempts at mass fraud, as illustrated by the huge difference (of about a million) between the IEC’s initial turnout figure of around 2.7 million and the final valid votes of 1.8 million. The stipulation, that only votes with the biometric data of voters captured by the BVV machines were valid, caught and eliminated those one million votes. 

Election day

The IEC had planned to open 29,586 polling stations in an unknown number of polling centres on election day. Out of them, 3,006 were reported as closed on election day. Out of the remaining 26,580 that were reported as open, a total of 2,299 polling stations were invalidated; the remaining 24,281 stations were included in the preliminary results. The total of 5,305 polling stations that were either closed or invalidated, constituted 17.93 per cent of the total number of polling stations they had planned to open (see table 2 in this AAN report). The IEC’s decision number 122 (here in Dari) on the final results put the final number of polling stations included in the final results at 24,258, which means that an additional 23 stations were removed from final results count, bringing the final number of stations to 82 per cent of the total stations planned to open. (1) The IEC never made it known how many stations were never planned to open due to lack of access caused by the conflict. 

The turnout figures provided by the IEC fluctuated in the weeks after the election. In its first announcement on turnout, on 3 October, five days after the election, the IEC put the total number of voters at around 2.7 million, which constituted 27.8 per cent of the total registered voters of almost 10 million. The number dropped most significantly after the IEC announced that the biometric data of only 1.9 million voters had actually been retrieved from the biometric devices. Those votes then had to go through a ‘de-duplication’ process, that is, they had to be cleansed of any underage and duplicate votes (AAN reporting here). That removed a further 86,226 votes from the final count, reducing the total number of votes cast to 1,843,107 (AAN reporting here). The preliminary results announced on 22 December put the number of total votes slightly lower again, at 1,824,401, with no explanation given (AAN reporting here).   

The final results put the total valid votes at 1,823,948 million. This represents only 18.8 per cent – less than one-fifth – of the total registered voters. Moreover, as highlighted in earlier AAN reporting, the number of citizens registering had been relatively low. Many 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 in particular and elections in general. The figure 1.8 million valid votes thus represent only around 12 per cent of the total population of voting age, which is roughly calculated at 15 million by Afghan authorities. 

The fight over the final results: a second round or not?

The process of announcing the preliminary and final results was plagued by complaints and disruption by Dr Abdullah’s supporters, who accused the IEC of including fraudulent votes into the count. In its electoral calendar (see it annexed to AAN’s earlier report here), the IEC had scheduled the announcement of preliminary results for 19 October (22 days after the 28 September election) and final results for 7 November (19 days after the preliminary results). The preliminary results were announced only on 22 December, more than two months after the initially-planned date. Abdullah’s supporters had blocked the IEC’s audit and recount first in 14 and then in seven provinces for some weeks (see AAN reporting here). 

Abdullah’s campaign wanted four categories of votes (more on this below) to be excluded from the preliminary results, while the IEC argued that he could make his case with the ECC after the announcement of the preliminary results. Abdullah seemed to realise that it would be difficult for the ECC to reverse the preliminary results announced by the IEC. The announcement of the preliminary results was made possible after the ECC had given assurances in a public debate that that only the biometric votes that had been cast during the specified polling hours would be counted as valid. At this point, Abdullah called on his supporters to allow the IEC to finish its work (AAN reporting here). 

Following the preliminary results, the ECC registered around 16,500 complaints (almost half by Dr Abdullah’s campaign) mainly about the discrepancy between the result forms and biometric data of voters and votes cast outside polling hours (for details, see AAN reporting here). It took the ECC more than 40 days to adjudicate those complaints (for details of adjudications, see AAN reporting here). The implementation of those adjudications turned into a battlefield between the IEC and ECC (more on this below).

The final results were announced on 18 February 2020, almost five months after the election (see AAN reporting here). According to these results, Ghani received 923,592 votes or 50.64 per cent of the total number of valid votes. This put him just over the 50 per cent threshold, meaning the election would not need to go to a second round. The margin of victory was fewer than 12,000 votes). According to the IEC figures, Abdullah received 720,841 votes or 39.52 per cent of the total (AAN reporting here).

Four categories of disputed votes that determined the outcome

The fiercest controversies, before, during and after the announcement of the final outcome of the election, focused on four categories of votes considered by the Abdullah team to be suspicious (see AAN’s statistical overview of the votes and complaints here). In the end, the IEC considered most to be valid, which was important because it meant that Ghani went over the 50 per cent of the vote threshold meaning he did not have to face a second round. 

The IEC never published the details as to which candidates these disputed votes had favoured, but AAN has received documents from sources within the Election Support Group (made up of international donors who supported the election). These documents show who the disputed votes were cast for, as discussed below.

The four categories of disputed votes were: 

  • 137,630 ‘suspicious’ votes that had initially been quarantined by the server were all ruled by the IEC as valid and thus included in the preliminary results. The votes, which came from 4,563 polling stations in 34 provinces, represented the difference between the votes shown by the biometric machines (218,155 voters processed) and the votes uploaded to the server (the biometric data of 355,785 voters). In dealing with the complaints against these votes following the announcement of the preliminary results, the ECC ruled that ten per cent of the stations containing these votes (309) should go through a special audit, which checked three criteria: the biometric data, the journal and the paper result sheet. It decided that if at least 65 per cent of these 309 polling stations met the three criteria, the 137,630 votes from all the stations would be validated. If they did not, all the votes would be sent for another special audit, using the same criteria. In this case, the votes from any polling station that met the criteria would be valid, and those that did not meet the criteria would be invalidated (see AAN reporting here). 

The documents AAN received show that around 58 per cent of these votes (around 79,825 votes) had been cast for Ghani, 32 per cent for Dr Abdullah and ten per cent for the rest of the candidates. 

  • 102,012 out of time votes which had been cast either before opening at 7 am (47,534 votes) or after closing at 4 pm (54,478 votes). These votes were cast in 7,354 polling stations in all 34 provinces. 

The IEC ruled that 88,063 of these votes were valid and that the remaining 13,949 votes should go through an audit and recount before the announcement of the preliminary results. With little clarity about outcome of the audit and recount, the IEC decided to include 102,012 votes in the preliminary results. The candidates who disputed these votes, saying they were invalid, took their case to the ECC by filing thousands of complaints. In dealing with those complaints, the ECC ruled that 15 per cent of the votes from 1,103 polling stations should go through special audit (criteria: biometric data, journal and paper result sheet). If 65 per cent of the audited (1,103) polling stations met the above criteria, ie had valid biometric data, journal and result sheet of election day, all 102,012 votes and 7,354 stations would be considered valid. If not, all of them would be invalidated (see AAN reporting here).

According to the document AAN received, 51 per cent of these votes (52,026 votes) had been cast for Ghani, 38 per cent for Dr Abdullah and 11 per cent for the rest of candidates. 

  • Special audit and recount of 2,423 polling stations The IEC divided these stations into two categories: 1,287 stations which had been reported as open but whose biometric devices, memory cards and biometric data were missing and; 1,136 polling stations which had been reported as open but did not send any result forms or digital photos of result forms or memory cards of the biometric devices. Prior to the announcement of the preliminary results, the IEC had ruled that these polling stations should go through a special audit. As a result of the audit, the IEC invalidated 2,125 stations and validated the remaining 298 stations and thus included the votes cast in them in the preliminary results. The IEC did not explain where it found the biometric devices or data for the 298 polling stations or how many votes were involved. As a result of adjudicating the complaints filed by the candidates following the announcement of the preliminary results, the ECC ruled that all these 298 polling stations should be recounted (details in AAN reporting here).

According to the document AAN received, 27,641 votes were involved in this category. 89 per cent of them (around 24,600 votes) were cast for Ghani, eight per cent for Abdullah and three per cent for the other candidates. 

  • Stations with a discrepancy of six or more between the votes cast and the biometric data The IEC did not provide details on the number of polling stations and votes involved in this category and included all of them into the preliminary results. The ECC, upon adjudication of the complaints filed against these votes, referred them for audit and recount (details in AAN reporting here). (2) 

According to the document AAN received, these stations included 41,037 votes which had been cast in the following order: 83 per cent (34,060 votes) for Ghani, 11 per cent for Abdullah and six per cent for the rest of the candidates. 

The ECC decisions about these four categories of votes – that there should be a special audit of ten per cent and 15 per cent of the first and second categories respectively and a recount of third category and audit, and recount of the forth category – provided a chance for some invalidation of the disputed votes. Even so, the ECC’s order to conduct the various recounts and special audits of these crucial categories of votes – instead of outright validating or invalidating them – was regarded  as the ECC having shifted responsibility for determining their ultimate validity back to the IEC. Nonetheless, Abdullah’s campaign initially appeared hopeful that invalidations might result from the all the special audits and recounts, as on 5 February when the ECC announced its decisions, a senior member of Abdullah’s campaign Nur Rahman Akhlaqi (now the acting Minister of Refugees and Repatriations) wrote on his Facebook that the ECC decisions would mean that at least the last two categories of votes described above would be nullified (he criticised the ECC’s decisions on the two first categories, saying its decision on the 102,012 votes was rather a “middle ground,” not a legal decision expected from the ECC (see footnote 5 of AAN’s previous report here). 

A back and forth then ensued between the IEC and ECC over the implementation of the ECC’s decisions on special audits and recounts. The IEC claimed in a statement on 13 February that a “percentile polling station selection system” had been approved by members of both commissions to randomly select a limited number of stations for a special audit. It also claimed that leadership members and technical teams of the two commissions had used the system to prepare two lists, one of ten per cent and one of 15 per cent of the polling stations (respectively related to 137,639 and 102,012) ordered by the ECC (see above). The IEC said it had invited the ECC, agents and observers to start the special audit on the same day (13 February), but the ECC’s technical team was called back by the ECC and the special audit did not start. 

As the back and forth continued, on 16 February, the ECC deputy chairman decided to send a letter (no 2033) to the IEC. It was a response to an IEC letter (no 448 dated 12 February). The ECC letter noted with a tone of complaint that, while in joint meetings of the two commissions on 12 and 13 February, the ECC had addressed the IEC’s questions and concerns and that “full explanations” of the ECC’s decisions had already been sent as annex to letter (number 2013 dated 9 February), the content of the IEC’s 12 February letter was against all those discussions. The letter also claimed that, while the IEC commissioners and technical team had promised during a joint meeting of the two commissions on 11 February to share an executive plan of the audit and recount the following day (12 February), the IEC had not shared any plan and only provided a presentation about the selection method of the polling stations. He asked the ECC to share a plan with a breakdown list of polling stations, polling centres, districts and provinces so that the ECC could take the necessary preparations at the central and provincial level.

Two days later, on 18 February, the IEC announced the final results. In its final decision, which approved the final results, the IEC said it had implemented the ECC decisions on the first three categories of suspicious votes and the stations under the fourth category had been audited before and there was no need to audit them again. It also said that such cases had not been specified by the ECC. The IEC’s decision provided no details about the outcome of the audits and recount of the three other categories. (3)

It seems that what appeared to be the IEC’s rushed conclusion of the implementation of the ECC decisions regarding these four categories of votes was influenced by outside events. On 14 February, President Ghani, accompanied by his first running-mate, Amrullah Saleh, and acting Minister of Defence Asadullah Khaled met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on the sidelines of 56th Munich Security Conference. The Palace reported that the US secretaries had “stressed” that the US-Taleban would likely be finalised in “upcoming weeks.”  

The impact of these four categories of votes on the final result was critical. Together, they totalled 308,320 votes. Almost two-thirds (190,511) were cast for Ghani and the rest for Dr Abdullah and other candidates. If all these votes had been deducted from the count, there would have been a total of 1,515,628 valid votes. Ghani’s 923,592 votes would have been reduced by 190,512, leaving a total of 733,080 votes which would have been 48.46 per cent of the total votes cast. In other words, if these controversial votes had been invalidated and excluded from the count, Ghani would have not won his first round victory. 

Rejection of results by the other candidates

Out of the 13 candidates that had finally run in the election (4), only one– Faramarz Tamana, who is also the son-in-law of the IEC chairperson – accepted the final results. It is important to note that he had already joined Ghani’s team on 8 December, before the announcement of even the preliminary results on 22 December 2019 (see the joint statement in Dari here). 

The 11 others, especially the second, third and fourth-ranking candidates – respectively Dr Abdullah, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Rahmatullah Nabil – rejected the results. However, they took different courses of actions. 

On the evening of the announcement of the final results, on 18 February 2020, Dr Abdullah proclaimed himself the winner of the election, based on the outcome of “the transparent and biometric votes.” He called the result announced by the IEC “illegal” and “a coup,” accused the electoral commissioners of “treason” and said he himself would “establish an inclusive government” (AAN reporting here). 

Hekmatyar who ranked third called the results “ridiculous,” claimed that his votes had been “shamelessly” stolen and called for a full recount of the votes and a new election in the polling stations whose biometric machines had been missing (media report here). 

Former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil who came fourth called the announcement of the final results the “death of democracy” and called for a “Government of National Reconciliation” comprising also the Taleban (media report here). 

Earlier, during a standoff between the IEC and Dr Abdullah’s supporters, even before the announcement of the preliminary results, the Council of Presidential Candidates, comprising eight presidential candidates (but not Abdullah), called for the formation of an “election-based national participation government.” The council appeared to suggest – without spelling it out – that since the election had gone wrong and could not produce a clear winner, all candidates should form a government which would then organise a fresh election and also lead the peace process with the Taleban (see AAN reporting here).

Other politicians also chimed in. Former president Karzai, for instance, issued a statement, “Given the country’s overall situation and especially what happened regarding the process in the last five months and the announcement of its result, it is very natural that the announced results are not accepted.” It is interesting to note that Karzai had opposed elections in the first place and, along with a self-styled “group of national personalities, jihadi leaders, representatives of civil society and citizens,” had issued a statement five days before the election saying the poll would magnify the crisis by sowing more division among the people (AAN reporting here). 

The country briefly has two presidents

When Ghani announced that he would be holding his inauguration on 27 February, Abdullah threatened to hold his own parallel inauguration on the same date. This led to an intervention by US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation Khalilzad, who still only managed to postpone the presidential inaugurations to 9 March (the Palace cited rumours around COVIV-19 and time constraints as reasons for the delay). The postponement was also influenced by the United States’ wish to pre-empt any serious political crisis ahead of their signing of an agreement with the Taleban in Doha on 29 February, as well as a declaration between the US and the Afghan government on the same day (AAN reporting on the agreement here).

Khalilzad returned to Kabul for a new round of attempts to broker an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah before the new inauguration date which had been set for 9 March. Khalilzad had proposed a 40 per cent share of government posts and the chairmanship of a Supreme Peace Council to Dr Abdullah in return for his recognition of Ghani’s presidency. Abdullah turned it down and instead proposed an inclusive government in which the president (either himself or Ghani) would have 40 per cent of the posts and the other candidate would take on an executive role of prime minister or chief executive with 60 per cent of senior government posts. Ghani did not accept this proposal. 

As the date approached, Khalilzad shuttled between the two men, but to no avail. A last-ditch effort to get an agreement pushed the inauguration scheduled for the morning of 9 March into the afternoon. Eventually the bizarre thing happened: two parallel inaugurations held in adjacent compounds in the Afghan capital (AAN reporting here). Attendance of US officials including Khalilzad, as well as European Union diplomats, in Ghani’s inauguration tipped the balance and strengthened Ghani’s position, although it was noticeable that most of the international powers, and the US in particular, had not yet congratulated him as the declared winner. 

On 22 February, before the inauguration and four days after the announcement of the final results, Abdullah had already started appointing his own provincial governors (UNAMA issued a statement expressing concern at the “the events that are ongoing to replace government officials”). Abdullah appointed four provincial governors (to Sar-e Pul, Jawzjan, Samangan and Baghlan) and witnessed the Panjshir governor, Kamaluddin Nizami, switching allegiance to him. He halted the provincial appointments under pressure from Afghanistan’s international backers and to allow for negotiations with Ghani ahead of the inauguration. After the 9 March dual inaugurations, Abdullah threatened to appoint more governors, with sources close to him saying he wanted to appoint governors to at least all 18 provinces where he had received a majority of the votes. 

In response to the parallel presidential inaugurations and Abdullah’s appointments of governors, former deputy minister of defence Tamim Asey said (quoted in this AAN report) the two candidates had “split the country today into three political geographies with two presidents and one amir,” adding in the Taleban leader as Afghanistan’s  third self-proclaimed head of state.

A political agreement, but a continued political impasse

The protracted political stalemate then continued for about three months. After mediation by a group of Afghan leaders led by former president Karzai, the two rivals signed a political agreement on 17 May (see AAN reporting here). The agreement envisaged a power-sharing cabinet and the establishment of a High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) led by Dr Abdullah to supervise the peace process. 

Despite this, the electoral dispute has spilled over into the post-agreement situation. The power struggle between Ghani and Abdullah over appointments to the cabinet and the HCNR has continued. As a result, one year after the election, Afghanistan still does not have a fully constitutional cabinet (as ministers have yet to be approved by the Wolesi Jirga). Some ministers have been serving as acting ministers for almost six months now, which is against the law (an acting minister cannot serve for more than two months). 

The political agreement also envisaged a share for Abdullah in the provincial gubernatorial posts as it stipulates that the appointment of the governors should be made based on a rule agreed by the two sides. So far, 18 governors have been appointed: 16 by Ghani and only two so far by Abdullah. (5) 

The High Council for National Reconciliation, which is supposed to have a Leadership Committee and a General Assembly, has also still not been fully established, more than four months since the political agreement was signed. A presidential decree issued at the end of August, approving the 46 members of the HCNR leadership committee, was rejected by both Dr Abdullah who believed his agreement with Ghani meant he should have control over appointments to the HCNR, as well as other political figures, including some appointees (see AAN reporting here). The General Assembly has yet to be constituted at all.

Failure to hold overdue elections

Alongside the presidential election in 2019, the IEC had also planned (AAN reporting here) to hold three further sets of elections: the pending parliamentary election for Ghazni, originally dropped from the long overdue 2018 parliamentary election because of a political dispute over size of the constituency; provincial council elections which are overdue and; district council elections which were supposed to have been held for the first time since they were mandated in the 2004 constitution at the same time as the presidential poll. (6) Upon pressure from international donors including US officials, the IEC announced on 29 May 2019 it had dropped those elections “due to a shortage of time” (see AAN reporting here). 

As explained in earlier AAN reporting, district councils have a significant potential role to play, as their establishment would complete two important institutions: the Meshrano Jirga and the Constitutional Loya Jirga. The latter is the only body which can change the Afghan constitution. District councils could also provide accountability at the local level by checking the local administration and could contribute to efforts to secure peace agreements, by providing a platform for local communities to feel included and represented. The ripple effect of the failure to hold district council elections is that it raises question about the constitutional status of the Meshrano Jirga and precludes the calling of a Constitutional Loya Jirga. 

Ghani and Abdullah exchanging signed copies of the political agreement on power-sharing-17 May 2020. Source: Dr Abdullah’s Facebook page.

Conclusion: A disputed presidential election and a dysfunctional political system

The presidential poll of 28 September 2019 was marred in many ways and for many reasons. It was held in the context of ongoing talks between the US and Taleban and this engendered a widespread assumption in both Afghan and international donor circles that there would be an interim government which would include the Taleban. The uncertainty over whether there would be an election at all stymied enthusiasm and action. It made campaign teams hesitate, especially about starting to campaign and possibly waste funds. The delay contributed to the campaign team of one candidate, former national security advisor and current acting minister of foreign affairs Muhammad Hanif Atmar, falling apart (AAN reporting here). The doubt surrounding the election also led to a lacklustre campaign with voters reporting that the teams had been far less visible on the ground than in the previous polls. The talks also influenced the course of arbitrating the disputes which followed the poll a year ago. Many, including diplomats from countries supporting the poll in private conversations with the author, thought a runoff inevitable. However, in the run-up to the US signing their agreement with the Taleban, it became clear that a run-off , planned for April or May 2020, would have interfered with the sequencing of events laid out in the agreement. It would have prolonged the period of political uncertainty and the results of the runoff would likely have ended in the same dispute. President Ghani as the incumbent who had already been declared winner in the preliminary results was able to leverage this; at least it appeared that Washington backed him as continuing president in order to get his cooperation on implementing their agreement over prisoners. 

Ghani had pushed for the presidential election to be held with the aim of getting rid of the two-headed National Unity Government and, he said, to secure a strong mandate to lead negotiations with the Taleban. However, in the end, the mandate given by Afghanistan’s electorate was weak. The total number of valid votes were cast by less than 20 per cent of the total registered voters and only around 12 per cent of the voting-age population. One IEC commissioner described this low turnout to the author as a “slap in the face” to the NUG leaders. Ghani’s own votes (923,592) represented only about six per cent of the estimated 15 million voting-age population estimated by the National Statistics and Information Authority for 2020-21.

There is no constitutional or legal threshold for legitimacy of the mandate, but politically, it is weak and not particularly representative, given those who did vote tended to do so on ethno-regional voting patterns; Ghani won majority in 16 provinces predominated by Pashtuns and Abdullah won majority in 18 provinces dominated by Uzbeks, Hazaras or Tajiks.

The biometric technology used in the poll was intended to reduce the time it took to provide results and provide transparency. It did not serve these purposes. It had been introduced at the last minute, just before the 2018 parliamentary election and there had not been sufficient time to properly upgrade and improve it in the run-up to the 2019 presidential poll, especially given the decision to replace all those in charge of the elections, ie the IEC and ECC commissioners. Moreover, technology alone cannot be a panacea, at least for elections in Afghanistan where so much else is wanting. As one example, the IEC had pre-installed each centre’s voter list onto the BVV devices to ensure that only those citizens on the list could vote. However, the list was wanting because of a whole different set of problems with ID cards (tazkeras)

There was a lack of transparency in the way this election was conducted and the way the electoral authorities reported to the public. Data was not released, or released only in confusing or contradictory fashion, as AAN repeatedly reported; it made monitoring and analysis extremely difficult. Given voter and candidate concerns about fraud and fairness, this was yet another fundamental problem in the 2019 election.

One international election specialist working with the IEC rightly put it that, “elections reveal all your state problems.” Largest of those problems is, of course, the ongoing conflict, which meant registration, voting and observation were all restricted, but one can point to many other issues, from lack of voter engagement, or trust in the commissioners or candidates to play fairly to the US being a major player in outcomes. The eventual upshot of the poll – a second power-sharing arrangement, highlights the dysfunctionality of the system. Afghan elections are no longer even proving useful in selecting a winner out of the field of candidates. Rather, they incentivise attempts at manipulation, the contesting of the results and the need for foreign help to resolve the conflict.  

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark.

(1) It is not fully clear how those 23 stations were excluded from the final count. The IEC’s decision dated 18 February, which approved the final results before they were announced, referred to only 11 stations as it said that, after it implemented the final decisions by the ECC, the following stations had been excluded from the count: 

  • Two stations because the relevant ballot boxes were not found;
  • Four stations based on final decision of the ECC ;
  • Five stations based on the decisions by the provincial ECCs.

The 18 February decision also referred to the ECC’s decision invalidating four stations in Faryab province (AAN reporting here); it is not clear whether they are the same as in bullet point two or different. However, the number of stations referred to in the IEC final decision does not add up to 23; this number seems to have been deducted from the number of polling stations announced in the preliminary results. 

(2) The IEC or ECC did not provide the details as to where these stations were located. According a presentation on the final results given to the Election Support Group (which AAN has seen a copy of), the stations were in the following provinces:

Recount of 298 as per ECC decision
NoProvinceNo of Polling Stations to be Recounted
3Sar-e Pul10

(3) Amid this back and forth between the IEC and ECC, there was little clarity as to how the IEC conducted the special audit of the two categories (102,012 out of time votes) and 137,639 suspicious votes as ordered by the ECC. The IEC also did not publish any details of the outcome of those audits. But AAN has seen a presentation to the Election Support Group showing the following sampling and results for them. 

ProvincePolling stations related to 102,012Sample polling stations related to 102,012 votesHaving biometricsHaving journalHaving result sheets
Maidan Wardak45777 
Sar-e Pul70111111 
ProvincePolling stations related to 137,639 votesSample polling stations related to 137,639 votesHaving biometricsHaving journalHaving result sheets
Maidan Wardak242222
Sar-e Pul81111

(4) Initially 18 all-male candidates had registered to run to become the president (see the table of 18 candidates and their running-mates in this AAN reporting). Two tickets were rejected by the IEC because they failed to finalise the legal requirements for registration. Four candidates withdrew halfway through the campaign in favour of the incumbent candidate, while the ticket of another candidate, former national security advisor and current acting minister of foreign affairs Muhammad Hanif Atmar, fell apart before his campaign was in full swing (AAN reporting here).

(5) 16 of these governors were already reported on in an AAN report published on 6 September. Since then, two more have been appointed, for Maidan Wardak and Takhar.

(6) The 2004 constitution envisages seven types of elections: 

  • Presidential election
  • Parliamentary elections
  • Provincial council elections
  • District council elections
  • Village council elections
  • Mayor elections
  • Municipal council elections

Only the first three set of elections have been held since 2004. The IEC had planned to hold the first ever district council elections together with the parliamentary elections in 2018, but dropped it due to various reasons, including lack of enough (especially female) candidates (see AAN reporting here). The IEC also dropped the parliamentary election in Ghazni in 2018 after failing  to resolve the dispute between the residents of the province over the size of the constituency which in turn stemmed from concern over ethnic representation as all the 11 MPs elected in 2010 elections were Hazara due to insecurity in Pashtun areas preventing voters from voting (AAN reporting here and here). Ghazni is supposed to have 11 MPs, but one member, Chaman Shah Etemadi, who was appointed as the head of the ECC secretariat has not been replaced. The current Ghazni MPs were elected in 2010 and have now served for around ten years. According to the constitution, the parliamentary term is for five years. 


Ashraf Ghani Biometric Voter Verification BVV Dr Abdullah Elections national unity government Presidential elections


Ali Yawar Adili

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