Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Under Fire: The status of the 2014 election observation

Thomas Ruttig 11 min

Election observers can play a useful role, nudging – both directly and through their governments – Afghan election authorities towards greater transparency and accountability, writes AAN’s Thomas Ruttig. However, this year’s international observer missions have, compared to the elections in 2009 and 2010, shrunk significantly. This is for different reasons, among them organisations’ fear to be targeted and, after the killing of an election monitor in the Serena attack, to lose more of their staff. The hope is now on this year’s well more than 10,000 domestic observers and the large crowds of candidate-linked monitors – however, many of them are neither well trained nor impartial, says Thomas Ruttig, casting a closer look at factors that complicate the monitoring of the elections.

The elections have literally come under fire. Only three days before, insurgents attacked the Ministry of Interior, the institution charged with securing the vote, killing at least six policemen. Shortly before that, two high-profile attacks claimed by the Taleban targeted IEC installations in Kabul: one on an IEC office in west-Kabul on 25 March, killing one provincial council candidate, two police men and two office staff, and one attack on the headquarter of the IEC on 29 March 2014, the insurgents failing to enter the building, though. From Sar-e Pul province came the news on 2 April 2014 that a provincial council candidate and nine of his supporters had been shot. Earlier, the attacks on the Taverna, restaurant popular with the expat community, on 18 January 2014 and on the Serena hotel on 21 March 2014, as well as the assassination of a British-Swedish journalist on 11 March 2014, had started to scare off international election observers and journalists. The first two were claimed by the Taleban, the latter by a shady splinter group, see an AAN analysis here. The insurgents, in their communications, have rejected the elections as a ‘plot of the invaders’ (see for example the Taleban’s threats against elections and election workers here), with the exception of Hezb-e Islami that is backing a candidate.

Although the bulk of the observation during previous electoral cycles has always been done by Afghans – either by Afghan organisations or the Afghan staff of international organisations – the presence of international observers had been important. Their presence, and the implied oversight, provided extra legitimacy to elections, as well as expertise and at least some moral protection for their Afghan colleagues who were facing threats from both insurgents and candidate supporters (this author was present in 2009, when a then minister, today a political party leader, threatened the provincial head of one of the main Afghan observer organisations over the phone not to publish reports on the vote rigging in favour of a certain candidate). Although often under pressure to reproduce the optimism many governments try to spread when looking at Afghanistan (as illustrated by the initial, upbeat reports of the EU observers in 2009), international observers can play a very useful role: nudging – both directly and through their governments – Afghan election authorities towards greater transparency and accountability.

Observer numbers dwindling, journalists cancelling coverage

It is worrisome that the ANSF, including the Afghan intelligence organisation NDS, that has recently received much praise from Afghans and internationals, were unable to prevent a whole series of attacks. It shows that there are significant holes in the security network that was laid out for the polls over the past months, including the operations to secure insurgency-affected districts (see for example here). It seems that the security forces were aware of these holes and were not really sure if they could plug them on time: on 1 April 2014, the Afghan government ordered, according to the New York Times, “at least 11 restaurants and several guesthouses” to close until after elections – in an attempt to limit the risks. NDS officials contacted by AAN, however said that they had issued no such closure-orders, but had only pointed out to restaurant and guesthouse owners the security measures they had not deemed good enough.

As could have been expected, the already low number of international observers dwindled further after the attacks, as international organisations are showing increasingly risk-averse behaviour. 200 were expected this year, according to an AP report – in 2009, it had been 1,200, says the same report (although these numbers may be inflated). The US Democratic Party’s National Democratic Institute (NDI) that had observers during all previous elections, sent all its international staff out of the country after one of its observers, a former Paraguayan diplomat, got killed in the Serena attack. The NDI now leaves the job to the 80 to 100 national staff it has registered as domestic observers in eight provincial offices. (Its ‘sister’ organisation, the International Republican Institute (IRI), present during earlier polls, has decided to abstain altogether this time.) The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), also not new to Afghanistan, had initially planned to deploy 22 people to eight provinces; now, it will be present with, as AAN learned, seven or eight people and stay in Kabul. Even IFES, the organisation that provides technical support to the IEC, “has relocated its advisors to Dubai“, reports the Spanish daily El País. Democracy International (DI), a for-profit non-governmental observer organisation, says it is keeping its 16 observers in the country, but cancelled potential additional personnel and their people will probably not go out on election day (see also here‏).

The OSCE mission of 15 – not observers in the strict sense of the word, (1) was pulled out temporarily after the Serena attack; it had staff there. Seven mission members have in the meantime returned, now accommodated elsewhere. A similar OSCE team played an important major role computing and double-checking incoming election results in 2009 and 2010. The European Union’s 16 people observers, as probably most of the other international observers, will stay in their compound on election day, the immobility of the mission causing, according to El País quite some frustration among its members. The EU mission’s head, Dutch Member of European Parliament Thijs Berman, however, said that already in 2009 security restrictions had made the “observers largely ineffective”, and that this time the team would not go out, but focus on data analysis.

Even the media seems to have reconsidered following the elections from up close. The US newspaper Stars and Stripes reported last week that “several international journalists” were “cancelling plans to travel to Kabul to cover the elections”. AAN heard of a number of such cases, too (but was asked to refrain from mentioning media outlets’ names); journalists said that this was due to the security situation, but also due to a declining interest of their editors at home, who prefer to focus more on other crisis countries such as Ukraine or Syria.

Representatives of the largest Afghan observer network, the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) have expressed regret about the decreased number of international observers and said they will miss their expertise.

No monitoring for 30 per cent of the polling sites

The monitoring now rests foremost – “or, in fact, entirely”, as UNAMA’s deputy head of mission Nicholas Haysom put it at a media briefing on 31 March 2014 – on domestic observers. UNAMA head Jan Kubiš, during a press conference on 2 April 2014, called them the “guardians of the electoral process“ and added that international observers could “not match the numbers, coverage and access of domestic observers.”

Indeed, the number of Afghan observers registered looks enormous at first sight. On 30 March 2014, the IEC announced that it had distributed registration cards for 200,000 ‘observers’ (UNAMA put it exactly at 213,408 on 31 March 2014), including 300 internationals. The latter number also includes the above mentioned 80 to 100 national NDI staff, though, as well as those who will not leave their compounds. Shortly before the elections, the IEC announced the final number to be 325,000 ‘observers’. These are of course the maximum numbers. Some observers will register, but might not participate in the end.

The figures cover 1550 organisations and very diverse ones at that, though. Among them are genuine observer organisations, but also other civil society groups (past elections saw ‘observers’ from the Jalalabad Barbers’ Association or the National Trade Union), the so-called candidates’ agents, political parties’ representatives, Afghan and foreign journalists, as well as “special guests”, which covers diplomats. Professional observers, according to IEC officials, are actually in the minority, numbering around 10,000 in the days before the elections. As per 3 April 2014, the IEC still expected registration figures to trickle in from the provinces, estimating the final total of professional observers to be around 20,000.

The two biggest professional domestic observer organisations are the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) and the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA; the website contains only a few items though) which split off from FEFA in 2009 (2). Both say they will deploy several thousand observers. (3) In contrast, the campaign manager of presidential candidate Dr Abdullah, Mahmud Saiqal, claimed on 29 March that their the campaign had registered 22,000 observers with the IEC and planned to enrol another 8,000. This fielding of large numbers of candidate agents is largely meant as a show of strength; the envoys cannot be understood as an army of well-trained election observers. The total figure has fluctuated and my not yet be fully known, illustrating how massive an effort it is to deal with the registration of observers. Each provincial council candidate, for example, is allowed one observer per polling station. With around 2700 PC candidates and between 122 (Nuristan) and 2472 (Kabul) polling stations per province, the registration administration required puts great strain on the provincial IEC offices.

This might be one reason that the registration of observers has been slow, making long-term observation – the only way to get a full picture of the election process – more difficult. In late March 2014, only 67 of the mentioned 1550 Afghan organisations had received their letter of accreditation from the IEC. At that time, 26 political parties had also been accredited but it was not clear whether they were included in the above figure or were counted separately.

FEFA’s Operations Manager Mohammad Naeem Asghari told AAN that FEFA plans to have 468 mobile observers and 9532 stationary observers deployed to particular polling stations, watching and reporting what is going on there and in the vicinity. The stationaly observer groups will be managed by 68 of the mobile observers – two in each of the 34 provinces, operating from the provincial capitals. On election day, each observer team will submit three reports: one at the beginning of the day to describe how they find the polling stations prepared, the second after voting is over and a third one after the counting. FEFA expects to observe 70 per cent of the polling stations in all 34 provinces; the remaining 30 per cent include secure polling stations where FEFA expects the probability of fraud to be very low, but also polling stations in areas where the insecurity is considered too high, Asghari said. He explained that FEFA’s observation strategy is based on lessons from previous elections, focusing particularly on areas where there was widespread fraud in 2009 and 2010 or during the campaigns. Asghari added that FEFA was not sure whether the ANSF had been honest when determining its capability to provide security for the polling stations (see here for an AAN analysis of the distribution of polling stations – also of last-minute removals by the IEC).

TEFA’s chief Mohammad Naeem Ayubzada told the media on 8 March 2014 that it planned to deploy 5,000 observers, including 1,600 women (in a subsequent email to AAN he upped the number to 7000, even though in a separate interview with AAN a few weeks back he also indicated that the training had not yet started). TEFA collaborates with local civil society organizations and also claims to be able to cover 70 to 80 per cent of all polling stations, planning to observe the process until the end of the complaints period, which has been scheduled by the IEC for 27 April 2014 for the presidential election and for 30 May 2014 for the provincial council elections. (If there is a second round in the presidential election, scheduled for 28 May 2014, there will be a separate timeline for that.)

Poorly documented, even frivolous complaints and accusations

Many organisations registered as observers are not necessarily impartial. The many candidates agents will be keen to uncover irregularities conducted by rivals, but will be prone to overlook those in favour of their own candidate. The same goes for the observers sent by the political parties who have members as presidential, vice-presidential and provincial council candidates. There is, in addition, a growing politicisation among civil society groups, with “several prominent figures either overtly or covertly campaigning for different candidates, dispensing with their organizations’ principle of impartiality“, as Afghan analyst Malaiz Daud put it. Commentators and analysts, too, do not always disclose in their op-eds that they in fact support certain candidates, as a look into their social media accounts often reveals. And journalists cannot really be counted, as observers as they do not report on the full range of technical details; their reports, however, provide precious eyewitness accounts.

In addition, also the security situation is likely to hamper observers’ impartiality, potentially leading to the inability to fully report violations. The media-advocacy organisation Reporters Without Borders just launched an appeal to all Afghan local media outlets to reinforce provisions for the protection of their journalists, especially those reporting from provincial polling stations, saying that the recent attacks were “bent on imposing a climate of terror and sabotaging the democratic process,“ counting on an “dissuasive impact on media preparing to cover the election”.

Already during the 2009/10 elections, there was a large number of poorly documented or even frivolous complaints and accusations, only a part of which could be explained by a lack of training or understanding of the process – Afghanistan’s political forces have mastered the methods of spinning, sabotaging and fraud rather quickly. This time, the capacity of the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC), that will have to deal with the flood of complaints, has even been doubted by the otherwise so careful UNAMA mission. The mission’s deputy head, Nicholas Haysom, said in the already mentioned media briefing on 31 March 2014, “I think they have grown as an institution. Have we seen them work under pressure? No, we haven’t yet and I acknowledge that there may be a question mark still.“

The IECC had started its roll-out into the provinces with four months of delay, in February 2014, less than two months before the elections. In mid-March, it had only three commissioners per province. The original plan was to deploy 12 staff members per province. Before that, for weeks, the people in the provinces had to hand in their complaints at the offices of the IEC, the very institution the IECC is supposed to watch.

First observations

FEFA has already published two significant reports, continuing a tradition started by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in cooperation with UNAMA before the Loya Jirga elections in 2002: the verification of political rights (freedom of speech and information, peaceful assembly, association and movement, and also the principles of non-intimidation, non-discrimination and non-partiality) during the election period.

The first thematic report concentrated on challenges for female provincial council candidates during the registration period. One of the main findings was a relatively high degree of intimidation. Out of 272 candidates interviewed, 67 said they were intimated through “threatening phone calls and night letters from a number of MPs, members of Provincial Councils and insurgent groups“ as well as “hate speeches and negative preach[ing] by Mullahs, tribal elders, district governors and some illegal armed groups like Hezb-e-Tahrir against female candidates.“ FEFA noted the most cases of intimidations in Paktika, Farah, Takhar, Nimroz, Paktia, Daikundi, Kunar, Nangarhar, Baghlan and Kandahar. Candidates also reported “biased and partial conduct of the IEC staff during [the] nomination process“, including favouring “some candidates based on gender, race, regional and political affiliation … mostly in southern and eastern provinces.“ It called on the Ministry of Hajj and Auqaf (Pilgrimage and Religious Endowments) to notify mullahs to clarify the rights of women to vote and to be elected and to punish those using hate speech against women.

In its second publication about the earlier stage of the election process, from 2 February to 4 March, covering all 34 provinces, FEFA reported that the IEC’s civic education activities were “not extensive and many districts specially in the south has been reported with significantly low level of awareness of electoral process and electoral timeline.” It also reported a “minimum number of … domestic observers, but none of international long term observers in provinces, but local media is highly engaged both at the national and provincial levels.“ On security, it says that the FEFA teams reported “an increased level of security concerns among campaign workers”, mostly driven by Taleban threats to disrupt the electoral process, but “data suggests that [the] level of violence and security incidents related to the elections is lower comparing with the 2009 presidential elections.” The largest portion of reported violations of the electoral laws was the use of government resources by particular candidates (56 per cent of all cases). FEFA also observed 123 campaign events and noticed “violations including threats, abuse of public resources and negative campaign[ing] in 26” of them.

Furthermore, the Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSF) – a major umbrella organisation – warned that due to the lack of information provided by election officials, the risk that election equipment will be stolen “will increase“.

These first reports indicate that access for monitors and the transparency of the electoral institutions will be two major issues during the upcoming elections. Combined with the low numbers of international observers, the inability of the largest Afghan observer organisation to monitor 30 per cent of the polling stations is concerning. It is particularly in these ’30 per cent’ that fraud is likely happen, risking to taint the outcome of the elections in the eyes of many Afghans.


(1) The term observers is used here for all these groups, although some organisations already in 2009/10 already preferred to speak of “election and democracy support” instead.

(2) The tensions between FEFA and TEFA came to the fore when in summer 2013 the two groups were unable to agree on a joint civil society candidate for the selection committee that was to decide on the new members of the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC).

(3) This website also mentions two other organisations but does not give figures: the Afghanistan National Participation Organization (ANPO) and the Afghanistan Youth National and Social Organization (AYNSO); the latter cooperated with the IRI in the past.


Elections fraud IEC IECC observation observers polling stations