The vote count in Bamyan outside the IEC warehouse. Photo: Qayoom Suroush
Initial observations appear to show that Dr Abdullah has won the majority of the vote in Bamyan – with Ashraf Ghani so far second by a large margin. Bamyan is important – a province which is generally secure and has a highly motivated electorate. It is also the one province with an overwhelmingly ethnic Hazara population, so is a good microcosm for understanding how Hazaras – the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan – may have voted. AAN’s Qayoom Suroush spent a week in Bamyan before, during and after the elections, and offers insights into the intricate considerations driving local decision-making and the pros and cons of the various presidential candidates – and their vice presidents – in the eyes of many Bamyanis. He also scrutinises the election process, from the way campaign teams and observers worked in Bamyan to prevent attempts at fraud and the difficulties faced during the initial count after the vote.
How people seem to have voted and why
The observation of the count immediately after the vote (backed up by the preliminary results) suggest Abdullah got the vast majority of the vote in Bamyan, supported by his second vice president, Muhammad Mohaqeq. Mohaqeq is a heavy-weight Hazara politician and former Hezb-e Wahdat commander, but his natural stronghold is the north (he is from Balkh). Neither Abdullah nor Mohaqeq had strong local supporters in Bamyan before their candidacy. Indeed, when Mohaqeq was in Bamyam in July 2012, the last time before the campaign, his house was fired upon by unknown gunmen for unknown reasons. It took the campaign until 20 days before the election to open an office with trusted local staff.
Instead, Bamyan is counted as the stronghold of the other powerful Hazara leader, current Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili. Like Mohaqeq, he is a former Wahdat commander; they lead two of the rival political parties which emerged out of post-2001 Wahdat splits. Khalili is supporting Ashraf Ghani whose second vice president is a member of Khalili’s Hezb-e Wahdat, Sarwar Danesh, also Hazara and a former minister of justice and acting minister of higher education. One would also have expected another vice presidential hopeful, Habiba Sarabi, who was Bamyan’s governor for most of the last decade, to pull in votes for her ticket led by Zalmai Rassul. Yet Ghani, and particularly Rassul, appear to have done badly in Bamyan province; the question is why.
Most importantly, said Khairullah Hamidi, a Bamyani civil society activist, was that Mohaqeq, of all the possible Hazara vice presidents on offer, was the most powerful, carrying “more weight” than the intellectuals Sarwar Danesh and Habiba Sarabi. “If Khalili, himself had been on the list,“ Hamidi said, “the result would surely have been different.” Hamidi also pointed out that Abdullah is a mother-tongue Dari speaker, while his main presidential rival Ashraf Ghani is Pashtun with a Kuchi (nomad) family background. There are decades-old conflicts over land between Pashtun Kuchis and Hazaras in many parts of the Hazarajat (see AAN report on the Kuchis here) and, says Hamidi, many people from Bamyan “did not vote for Ghani because they do not have good memories of dealing with Kuchis.” Hamidi said Mohaqeq “is also known for his serious and straight-forward approach” in criticising the government and standing up for Hazara rights. It helped that he has not been in the current government for a long time, having left his job as planning minister after a controversy with the, then finance minister, Ashraf Ghani in 2004 (see here). Khalili, Danesh and Sarabi, on the other hand, served in the government for a long time, which seemingly did not help their reputation with the electorate: their image suggested they were unlikely to bring change.
Even Abdullah’s rivals admit they may have lost in Bamyan. A member of Khalili’s office blamed “a well-financed and well-trained network of clerics [who] preached against Ashraf Ghani for at least six months”, spreading rumours that he was pro-west and secular. The clerics had insisted it was haram (religiously forbidden) to vote for him. A high-ranking official in a different campaign team, who used to be with Khalili in Yakowlang during the war against the Taleban, suggested that Khalili himself may have been to blame. He said that when Khalili had fled to Dara-ye Chasht in western Yakowlang after the Taleban captured Bamyan city, “he was crying that he would never forget the locals there for all his life. But within weeks of his arrival back to Bamyan in 2001 after the fall of the Taleban, his office was filled with the white-clothes and fresh faces of Hajis from Quli-ye Khaish [his place of birth].” The official referred to the local people in Yakowlang as having kept Khalili alive, but said that, when Khalili got back into power, he only favoured his kin and forgot those who had helped him during the dark days of the struggle against the Taleban.
Another reason why Abdullah may have won in Bamyan is that several of the top candidates in the provincial council election supported him – and vice versa. Based on the unofficial count for the provincial council elections, the frontrunners seem to be Abdul Ahmad Benawa, who is from the part of Hezb-e Islami that is supporting Abdullah, and Hussaindad Khalili, who also supported Abdullah. Among the female candidates, Tayba Khawari seems to have won the most votes. Again, she supported Mohaqeq and was supported by Mohaqeq’s supporters.
Factional ties and vote banks less important than expected
Before election day, many had expected that political parties (or rather networks relating to the old tanzims, the political-military factions which developed during the war) would play a crucial role in how the people voted. Some believed the Bamyan vote would be a good yardstick to see which of the four Hezb-e Wahdat factions is most important and powerful. Many candidates tried to gain the support of these political networks, as they were seen as Bamyan’s main vote banks.
But election day showed a different picture. As remarked by civil society activist Hamidi, the election showed no one in Bamyan can be counted on as a steady vote bank, including the leading members of the big factions.
The result final will show in more detail how the people voted, but what seems obvious from initial results is that Khalili and Sarabi lost in Bamyan and, although many people gathered and ate the lunches provided by Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassul’s teams, many still voted for Abdullah even though his rally had fewer participants. Bamyanis have shown they will eat the food provided, whoever has cooked it, but will then vote for whomever they wish.
How the elections went in Bamyan – the main campaign teams
But let us have a look back at the election process that produced the result, starting with the efforts of the different campaign teams in this province.
Arriving a day before the election, Bamyan city looked like a town of Ashraf Ghani supporters. His team had held the biggest rally and his billboards and posters were all across the city. Ghani’s supporters had two campaign offices in Bamyan: a two-storey office in the bazaar for administrative affairs and the provincial office of Hezb-e Wahdat Islami, the post-split part of Wahdat led by Vice President Khalili. The building used to be Khalili’s main office when he was leading Wahdat fighters against the Taleban who had then captured Kabul, but were yet to take Bamyan.
On 4 April 2014, just a day before the election, Nesar Ali Nesar, the office manager of Hezb-e-Wahdat, predicted a win for Ghani in Bamyan. He said they had been organising campaign events for four months: “We have active district councils in most of Bamyan districts. So we are sure of winning the majority of Bamyan’s vote.” He believed the only areas where Ghani would not win would be in the districts of Waras and Panjab. He pointed to the influence of two local strongmen there: Rassul supporter, Mohammad Akbari, now an MP and leader of the faction Hezb-e Wahdat Melli Islami (he has an opposition to Mohaqeq and Khalili dating back to the jihad) and Sherzai supporter, MP Sayed Jamal Fakuri Beheshti. Initial vote counts have, however, suggested that even in these districts the Abdullah/Mohaqeq ticket has done well.
Going by the size of the rallies and the number of billboards, posters, events and office staff alone, Zalmai Rassul’s campaign team looked second in Bamyan. His local campaign manager Rohullah Daneshyar, a professor at Bamyan University, said their main problem was their lack of internal cohesion: “Since there are many political parties supporting Rassul, including Hezb-e Harakat, Hezb-e Mellat, Hezb-e Ensejam, Hezb-e Eqtedar Melli and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Melli, everyone is just doing what they think is right, while there should be a unified approach.” There were also rumours of clashes inside the Rassul team. For instance, during Rassul’s rally in Bamyan, the announcer did not mention one of the supporting parties, Harakat-e Islami of Sayed Hussain Anwari (a Shi’a, but generally non-Hazara tanzim). The party supporters were outraged and said they would no longer vote for Rassul.
Abdullah’s team was late to get a campaign office together and, in the end, it was led by MP Abdul Rahman Shaidani, who used to be a commander in Hezb-e Wahdat, close to Khalili. Shaidani had more recently been a member of a rival, post-2001 Hazara party, Hezb-e Mellat, led by MP Jafar Mehda’i who supported first Ghani and then Rassul. However, Shaidani left Hezb-e Mellat to join Abdullah’s campaign. Shaidani told AAN he expected Abdullah to win with 80 per cent of the vote.
Election day: a lack of observers, bad weather and high turn out
The night before the election, it rained in Bamyan city, and in some districts like Waras and Panjab it snowed. It was still raining and snowing when election day dawned, and the air was cold. The District Field Coordinators (DFCs) in the rural areas would later say the bitter cold had caused many voters to stay at home. In Bamyan city, though, despite the rain, people were waiting in long queues to vote from early morning. At the Boys High School (1001001 PC), they were there at 6.40 am. Voting started at 7.10 when Bamyan’s new governor, Ghulam Ali Wahdat, arrived in the polling centre; after he had cast his vote, security officials allowed others in. Some provincial council candidates had arranged cars to help voters through the harsh weather and transport them from far-flung areas to the polling centres. There were several reports that, on the way, the drivers were asking the passengers to vote for the candidates who paid their transportation bills.
Ballot shortages and voter ferrying
In general, where snow did not hamper voting, turnout was high, with an impressive female portion, too – at least in the provincial centre. Many female, and some male, polling stations ran out of ballot papers, particularly in the city. Whereas early ballot shortages indicate the possibility of ‘early stuffing’, in Bamyan city the fact that there were plenty of independent observers on the look out for signs of fraud should have made that more difficult. In the districts the situatin may have been different.
Ballot-shortages reportedly started as early as 10.45 am in the Band-e Kosa polling centre (1007131) in Waras district, with many people still standing in line. Nesar Ali Nesar from Hezb-e Wahdat (Khalili) and Dr Nassim, Bamyan provincial head of the Afghan Mellat party (a party of Pashtuns, although Nassim is Hazara) said they had received the same report. Two days later, the DFC responsible for Band-e Kosa polling centre in Waras district also said there had been a lack of ballot papers, but when AAN checked the related ballot box at the warehouse of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), there were at least 50 unused votes left. The DFC then justified the reports saying, “We had 100 ballot papers left but at least 300 voters in the queues when I reported the shortage to IEC. But when the people understood we would be facing lack of ballot papers, they left for other polling centres.”
The Kart-e Solh High School polling centre (1001168) in central Bamyan reported it was running out of ballot papers for women at 11.09. By noon, when AAN arrived, at least 200 women were still waiting to vote, but the polling stations for women were already closed. Two female provincial council candidates, Zahar Adel and Hajar Ibrahimi, tried to convince the waiting women to let themselves be driven to the Sayedabad polling centre up by the airport (about a 15 minute drive) and vote for them there. Some women got into the cars, while some elderly men shouted at the IEC staff saying it was “treason against the people’s vote” not to provide enough ballot papers for everyone. Later that day, the commissioners of the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) told this author these men had also filed a complaint about the shortage of ballot papers.
In the polling centre at the Tay Buti Girls School (1001167), also in central Bamyan, at least 200 voters were still standing in queues at 12.30 when IEC staff told them there were only 50 ballot papers left. Ballot shortages were also reported from the Sumara PC (1001010), the Lalakhel mosque PC (1001005), the Shahedan school PC (1001013) and the polling centre in the Shirin Hazara High School all in the centre of Bamyan, as well as from the Netaq PC (1005095) and the Tangi-ye Safidak PC (1005075) in Yakowlang district. Around 3 pm, when AAN returned to the Boys High School PC (1001001), it had run out of ballot papers for women. By that time, the only polling station still open for women voters in Bamyan city was the Sayedabad High School (1001002) with its four polling stations, all for women. Apparently, the IEC sent or allowed extra ballot boxes to be used sometime around 3 pm, but by the time the boxes arrived, many voters had already left.
The IEC supplied a total of 24 new (contingency) polling stations in the centre and in Yakowlang, compared to what had been planned, but in the end the majority of the extra 14,400 ballot papers were not used, simply because people had already voted in other polling centres or had gone home.
Observing proceedings in the provincial IEC warehouse after election day, it turned out that many boxes from the districts had come back with unused ballot papers in them. This suggests the problem of ballot papers shortages was not a general one, but rather a problem of distribution and not knowing how many voters live where. Nobody in Bamyan mentioned the possibility that the ballot-shortages may have been linked to early ballot-stuffing – a suggestion that has been raised in Kabul and elsewhere.
Gathering the votes; the IEC warehouse
The IEC staff in the warehouse worked according to the rules, as far as AAN could see. As the electoral material arrived in the warehouse from the districts, staff registered the numbers of the four locks on the ballot boxes, the seals on the tamper-evident bags (TEBs) and the result sheets, in the presence of the responsible DFCs. They also checked the result forms in the sealed TEBs, without opening the bags, to see if they had the stamp and signature of the head of the respective polling centre. The TEB packets were put in one separate box to be sent to Kabul, while the staff attendance sheets, observers lists, and complaints forms stayed in Bamyan; complaints forms from the voting centres were given to the IECC each evening. The ballot boxes, with the ballots, were put into a separate container for each district. They will remain in the province, in case they are needed for investigation or a recount. The TEB box was sent to Kabul by UN helicopter on 10 April, five days after the election.
A few problems were observed in the warehouse – most of them technical in nature and probably negligible, but also a few rather serious ones. Among the latter were at least 12 boxes with more than one lock broken, rendering the 7200 votes they contained vulnerable to rigging or tampering. (The 12 were out of a total 453 boxes plus the 24 contingency boxes that were supplied to polling centres that had run out of ballots). For instance, among the Kahmard district boxes, two boxes had all four locks opened; the IECC registered the polling stations numbers to investigate. Also boxes from Jalmish, in Shebar district, lacked locks. These areas are the most insecure in the province and therefore most susceptible to fraud. The responsible DFC however told the staff of the IEC main office that the locks had broken during transport. The IEC staff fastened new locks, registered them and made a note on the register form. They did not conduct any further investigation at that time.
Second, there was a lack of observers. FEFA sent one observer for the first day after the election, but he left at noon. FEFA told AAN they had observers in the warehouse on the second day also, but AAN didn’t see any there during the second and third days. Instead, only random provincial candidates’ agents came and went, staying maybe for an hour. They were generally more interested in gathering information about the result than in observing the process.
The third problem was the insecure transportation of the electoral material from the districts to the provincial centre: in some cases, the IEC staff and the ballot boxes arrived in separate cars and at different times. When asked if IEC staff had been with him on the way, a driver who had brought ballot boxes from Yakowlang said only the police had been with him, while the IEC staff had travelled earlier in other cars. This left these boxes exclusively in the control of the security forces.
A fourth problem was that the DFCs and other district-level staff were apparently not all trained well and made mistakes. For instance, many DFCs had forgotten to write the total number of votes cast in a certain polling station on a separate form – which is why the Bamyan IEC, up to today, still does not know the exact total of votes cast in the province.
As to the Yakowlang material, the IEC staff did not include the total of all votes cast in the final result form (this number includes all candidates’ votes + blank votes + invalid votes); instead they had only added up the candidates’ votes. In many cases, the staff had locked the final result forms inside the ballot boxes instead of keeping them separate, meaning IEC staff had to break the locks to take them out and then put new locks; the confusion about the changed lock numbers potentially helping along more fraud attempts. In one case, there was a TEB packet that had been opened (it had come from the Sachak High school in Yakowlang (1005090)) suggesting possible tampering. In another case, polling centre staff had failed to use new boxes for the extra ballot papers that had been delivered after the first batch had been used up. According to the rules, if a polling centre receives and uses a contingency kit of additional ballot papers, they should also use new boxes (to maintain the rule that each box can contain no more than the allocated 600 votes).
Were most complaints ‘invalid’?
At the closing of the complaints period, Bamyan province’s Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC) had registered 20 complaints. According to the IECC, though, there was not yet enough proof for any of the complaints to stand. The forms handed out to polling stations before the elections were returned mostly blank or with complaints that were not ‘valid’ due to a lack of evidence provided, or they were missing names and phone numbers. Four days after the vote, provincial IECC staff told AAN it would address the valid complaints within ten days.
At the Bamyan office of Jombesh (the party led by General Dostum, first vice presidential candidate to Ashraf Ghani), AAN was told that, in the village of Ghandak (Shebar district), gunmen had evicted all voters from the polling centre and filled the boxes for their favoured candidates. One IECC staff member, however, said they had received a phone call claiming gunmen had filled the Ghandak boxes at 7 pm in the evening before the election. He said the IECC still had no evidence for the incident either way. AAN was also told, by many, that the teams of Ghani, Abdullah and Rassul had been paying everyone participating in their rallies – the going rate reportedly being 250 Afghani per person.
IEC and IECC: capacity, impartiality and functioning
Most of the staff in the IEC’s main office in Bamyan have been employed in previous elections; only the head of Bamyan’s IEC, Azizullah Rassuli, is new. However, he has been working with the IEC since 2004. He denies what many believe, that most members of the IEC and the IECC are linked to one of the province’s political factions.
The IECC of Bamyan does not have independent buildings and offices. All three commissioners – Fatima Ashuri, Niamatullah Tanin and Muhammad Shah Amini – are working from a container inside the IEC compound, the very organisation they may need to investigate. At night, they stay at the governor’s guesthouse. They started working in Bamyan only on 9 March, less than a month before the election and the first, and last, of the ‘awareness programs’ they were supposed to hold – briefings for the people of Bamyan on how to vote or lodge a complaint afterwards – were held just two days before the elections.
It seems that the main problem with the election in Bamyan was a shortage of ballot papers in many of the female poling centres in the city and some of the districts, which seems largely linked to knowing how many votes to allocate to certain polling stations. The high turnout, including of women, was largely expected in Bamyan, as the vote is seen as an opportunity for a previously mariginalised minority to assert itself. That Hazara politics would dominate the vote in Bamyan was also to predictable, with voters chosing among their ‘own’ ethnic candidate those they see as most likely to protect their interests once in power. Few (if any) observers had however anticipated that Dr Abdullah might get such a sweeping victory; with Bamyan counted as Khalili territory, ‘his’ ticket was expected to receive most of the votes. The probable Bamyan victory for the Abdullah/Mohaqeq ticket suggests that factional ties (in this case factional ties within the parties into which Hezb-e Wahdat split) was not the main determining factor in how people voted. Neither did the rallies and campaign spending play an important role. Indeed, despite the teams reportedly spending thousands of dollars trying to gain people’s support, the people of Bamyan still appear to have voted according to their own desires.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020