Afghanistan is readying itself for its fifth election in ten years. For those who have gone through the previous rounds there is an immense sense of déjà vu: the preparations and technical discussions, the excitement surrounding the politicking, the questions asked too early (who are the frontrunners?), the attempts of international policymakers to make sense of it all. And, most wearyingly, the ever-recurring myopic sense of optimism that this election will somehow be better than the previous ones. It will not. To illustrate this, it is useful to return to what has been written in the past – the warnings, the documented fraud, the reports from the provinces – in the hope that finally we may learn from past experience, even at this late stage.
Since its establishment in 2009, AAN has written over 150 dispatches following the electoral twists and turns, describing what this has looked like in all parts of the country. The full list of AAN’s reporting can be found here. It is worth a browse, even if only to read the titles, which will give a good sense of how crude, absurd and protracted the process can get. A shorter selection can be found here; and an even more paired-down list here.
AAN has additionally released four major electoral reports, which – read together – give a good overview of what the elections looked like, how they have evolved and what to expect. The short conclusion: crude attempts at manipulation and fraud have persisted, the more sophisticated attempts increasingly target the central count and disqualification process, and the absence of a clear arbitrator in the face of a contested outcome leads to protracted wrangling and improvised solutions. All past warnings, alerting policymakers to ready themselves for a rough ride, remain as relevant now, as they were when they were first given.
The four reports explaining Afghanistan’s elections
AAN’s first election paper How to Win an Afghan Election. Perceptions and Practices was released in the week before the 2009 presidential and provincial council elections. It discussed the widely held perception among Afghans that the outcome of the elections would be ‘fixed’ by a combination of international interference, deals between political leaders and outright fraud. This conclusion, based on the experiences of 2004 and 2005, was fed by the obvious pre-election politicking and manipulation that was taking place all over the country, but which had somehow been overlooked, or dismissed as irrelevant, by most internationals who seemed mainly caught up in the technicalities of funding and organising an election. The two “spectacularly problematic” elections of 2009 and 2010 have since then only consolidated both the percentions and practices of interference and fraud. The key questions that were raised at the end of the report remain the key questions today: how to respond to a flawed election; what do ‘good’ elections look like in the context of patronage politics; and what should the role of the international players be?
The second report, Polling Day Fraud in Afghanistan released shortly after the 2009 elections, discusses the various forms of irregularities and fraud that did indeed take place. The report distinguishes between small-scale local initiative, semi-organised activities aimed at coopting whole polling stations, and the highly organised operations that sought to practically monopolise the vote in certain areas. The paper remains a useful and concise primer of what next year’s polling will probably look like in the different areas of the country.
The third report, Who Controls the Vote. Afghanistan’s Evolving Elections, was released on the eve of the 2010 parliamentary elections. It provided an overview of the problems that were likely to plague the impending election, based on a detailed analysis of the under-reported 2009 provincial council results. It warned that “although many internationals believe the upcoming parliamentary vote will be less controversial than last year’s election, all indications are that it will be messy, fiercely contested and manipulated at all levels.” The report predicted that candidate networks would revert to the same bulk vote, ballot-stuffing tactics as in 2009 and drew attention to large-scale and largely undetected manipulation that had taken place within the electoral administration, in particular while the IEC and ECC were deciding which votes to count and which to disregard. The provincial case studies starkly illustrated how, once fraud has occurred, it becomes practically impossible to reconstruct what the real vote would have been.
The fourth report Untangling the 2010 Vote. Analysing the Electoral Data, released in February 2011, provides a detailed, polling-station level look into the results of the 2010 parliamentary vote. The analysis of the polling data confirmed that election day had indeed been as messy as could be expected. More importantly, it showed in detail how the results had been shaped during the remarkably non-transparent audit and disqualification processes by both the IEC and ECC. The report flags how the absence of clear appeal and arbitration mechanisms leave the process wide open to pressure, manipulation and improvisation – which was starkly illustrated in the protracted political wrangling that continued for another six months after the release of the report and that eventually involved the establishment of an ad hoc Special Tribunal and the dismissal of nine MPs almost a full year after they had been elected (for detailed reporting see here under heading 3.1).
All four reports, in different ways, point to the factors that facilitated the effective loss of control over the election process in every election so far and that, to this day, remain unresolved: the absence of an adequate voter registry; the mass availability of voter cards not linked to actual voters, many of which were gathered with the express intent of perpetuating fraud (the conservative estimate is five million too many and – with the current top-up exercise – counting); the lack of clarity on which polling centres have actually opened; the widespread insecurity; and the collusion of electoral and security staff, whether prompted by loyalty, money or pressure, at all levels.
All in all, the main challenge of the election is not getting the logistics right or persuading the voters to come out. It is: figuring out how to deal with the aftermath of messy polling, deciding which votes to count and which to disqualify, and getting everyone to agree with the outcome in the face of widespread and blatant manipulation.
As already noted in the 2010 report, the expectation of widespread fraud should not stop observers from calling out incidences of gross manipulation or misconduct, whether by the IEC or ECC (now IECC), or by candidates and their backers. It is the silence, or late and muted reactions, of international observers in the face of obvious fraud, that have often most confused Afghan voters (in combination with the hasty congratulations not long after the polls have closed). Moreover, given the protracted aftermath of every single election so far, the most useful observer teams are those who stay and follow the electoral process until the very end – which may be weeks or even months after polling day; it is in the last stages that the most decisive irregularities take place.
Finally, the tumultuous aftermath of every election so far illustrates the fundamental problem that Afghanistan’s system of government has no centre of gravity. Authorities are ill‐defined. There is no clear mechanism for arbitration, no power that is respected and impartial enough to convincingly have the final say. This leaves contested processes wide open to political pressure, factional manipulation and improvisation. Where in the past the internationals, with the UN and the US in the lead, often acted as de facto arbiters and enforcers, their influence and credibility has waned.
In 2011 it was noted that, even though with transition looming there was little time or patience left, the international community could still have the clout and the vision to strengthen credible institutions. But whatever the efforts were, the results have been sufficiently meagre to brace ourselves for another contested showdown. It will be fuelled by intense posturing and most probably, eventually, be resolved through a negotiated ad hoc solution. It will probably not lead to the level of violence and political crisis that is being predicted in many of the all-or-nothing prognoses that are being passed around (along the lines of “if this election is not better than those in the past, the situation will spiral out of control”). But it will be a test of the nerves and it promises to be quite a ride. Governments that worry about how their publics may respond, would do well to plan for a messy election, and communicate accordingly, rather than simply hope for the best.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020