Political Landscape

Not a Promising Start: The vetting of the presidential and provincial council candidates


Buried in a pre-election assessment report by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) are concerns about the transparency with which presidential and provincial council candidates have been vetted. Peter Manikas, NDI’s Asia director, said at a press conference earlier this month that they were concerned that “a number of people who should have been eligible candidates were excluded from the process and some who were ineligible were in fact included”. It had not, he said, been “a propitious start” to the elections. As Afghanistan gets into pre-election politicking, Kate Clark and Gran Hewad ask whether there is cause for concern that even at the very first stage of the 2014 elections, there was a lack of transparency and fairness.

The National Democratic Institute, one of the main international non-profit organisations supporting free elections worldwide, sent a high level delegation headed by former US ambassador, Karl Inderfurth, to Afghanistan from 3 to 9 December. Interviewing widely (presidential and many provincial candidates, officials including President Hamed Karzai, media, citizen monitoring groups, women and youth), the aim of the visit was to scrutinise “the political environment, the framework of the upcoming elections and factors that could affect the integrity of the electoral process”. Its assessment, issued four months before the April ballot, tried to accentuate the positive but also pointed out shortcomings and dangers. On the vetting of candidates, the assessment found “some apprehension about a lack of transparency in this process and the work of the IEC [Independent Election Commission]”.

NDI’s general recommendation on all matters was that observers have to be present at every stage of the elections to help safeguard against fraud and give the electorate confidence in the result. Yet at the very first stage, the vetting of the candidates, it said observers had not been allowed to monitor proceedings. Nor had the detail or reasons behind including some candidates and excluding others been made public. AAN also followed the process in detail.

Vetting Stage 1: the Independent Election Commission, results announced 22 October

The initial decision on which of the candidates would be allowed to stand was made by the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and announced on 22 October 2013 (see our analysis of the original candidates list here) and the IEC decisions on who could stand here). The rules on who can run in the elections are clear (see AAN analysis of the new electoral law here): presidential candidates have to have 100,000 voter cards of those who back them, coming from at least 20 provinces, deposit one million Afghanis (around USD 17,500) into the IEC account and to have no second nationality; provincial candidates must have finished all twelve grades of school, have at least 300 voter cards of those who endorse them and deposit 10,000 Afghanis (USD 175) into the IEC account.

The first thing to mention is that there was very little indication of any legal amassing of voter cards showing actual widespread support from real voters for the various presidential candidates. If this had been done, one would have seen campaign teams travelling the length and breadth of the country drumming up support from voters for their candidates in order to accumulate the necessary cards. Instead, reports were legion of the buying of voter cards from brokers (see for example here and here. This factor does not appear to have played any part in the IEC’s judgements on the candidates.

Nevertheless, the voter cards were apparently formerly checked with the voter registry, although it subsequently became clear the IEC had shown ‘flexibility’ on this because of the dire state of the registry. IEC deputy chairman, Abdul Rahman Hotaki, said they had “considered a 50 per cent error margin for women applicants and a 30 per cent for the men” when they compared the copies of the voter cards brought by the candidates with the voter database”. In the case of women PC candidates, this would reduce the threshold to 150 voter cards being sufficient for registration. FEFA’s report said the IEC had previously confirmed that the database has technical problems and the candidates’ list of voting cards could not be accurately compared with the database.

The IEC whittled down the presidential contenders from 27 to 10 and provincial councillors from 3056 to 2704 (with 323 women reduced to 308 (see IEC press statement here, announcing the results on 22 October but in rather sketchy circumstances which left observers not much wiser about who had been rejected and why. (It is also worth noting that both the IEC and the IECC vetting results were delayed by several days, ie the official election time-table may already be slipping). The head of the IEC, Yusef Nuristani, told journalists how many candidates have been rejected, but refused to give any names (he referred them to the IEC website instead); four failed candidates told AAN they had not been informed of the decision beforehand, but learned of it through the media. IEC commissioner Sarir Ahma Barmak argued, when speaking with AAN, that the IEC had “distributed all information to the applicants when they first came to the IEC. There were information packages which explained all requirements and conditions for a candidate. 
 We have told them what was needed, so [there was] no need to call them again before the announcement of the [final] list.”

Significantly, observers – whether independent or the candidates’ representatives – had not been allowed to view IEC proceedings and the reasons for rejection or acceptance of individual candidates have never been published. The leading Afghan elections watchdog, FEFA (the Free and Fair Elections Forum of Afghanistan, previously named the Free Elections Foundation Afghanistan), published a report on 6 October which said:

According to article 12 of the law on the composition, duties and responsibilities of the IEC, it must review the documents of candidates overtly in the presence of representatives of political parties, civil society organizations, media and national and international observers. However, 
 IEC did not observe this legal principle
 The IEC only allowed the observers to observe the location of where the IEC staff enter data into the database and did not allow them to observe the entire process.

Vetting Stage 2: Appealing to the Independent Election Complaints Commission, results announced 20 November

Those who were rejected were able to appeal to the IECC (see reporting here). On 20 November, it announced that one presidential and 76 provincial council candidates had been re-admitted, but there was still little clarity concerning the basis on which the individual IECC decisions had been made. Minutes of the IECC deliberations were not published, nor were the grounds for including or excluding individual candidates. Documents showing that candidates who had lived abroad for many years had never had or no longer had dual nationality were not released and so on. Again, observers had been excluded. (One rejected presidential candidate, Sayed Ishaq Gailani, told AAN his representative had been allowed inside to stand at a distance on the first day when the IECC investigation team was reviewing the candidate’s applications according to the IEC database, but security staff had prevented his entry on the second day.)

At a conference on the elections on 9 December, which brought together activists and NGOs concerned with the elections, including The Liaison Office, Equality for Peace and Democracy, Cooperation for Peace and Unity, Peace Training and Research Organisation, Sanayee Development Organization, Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan and Mediothek Afghanistan, the deputy chair of the IEC, Abdul Rahman Hotaki, said: “The IEC did invite some civil society organisations to observe the verification process but they didn’t come. Probably, it was because it was during Eid.” This claim was roundly rejected by civil society activists: “No, [Hotaki] wasn’t being accurate in that statement,” said Nayem Azghari, a senior FEFA officer who was one of the five panelists at the conference. “Our observers and even some staff from the central office were present not just on working days, but also on the weekends, but we were not permitted to observe.”

“The IEC and IECC haven’t said anything to me yet about why they delisted me,” rejected presidential candidate Ishaq Gailani told AAN on 7 December. On the same day, however, IEC spokesperson Nur Muhammad Nur told AAN they had shared the reasons for rejection with the individual candidates. However, Nur would only elaborate publically on why they had re-admitted Daud Sultanzoy to the presidential candidates’ list (he had provided a certificate to prove the returning of his second, US citizenship):

As far as the issue of having second citizenship, this is a matter pertaining to the privacy of the applicants so I can’t share it with you
 There were two deputy candidates that have been delisted because of having second citizenship and some candidates. I can’t give more information in this regard.

Nader Mohseni, spokesperson for the IECC, was a little more forthcoming:

[Sultanzoy] submitted the certificate of citizenship returning so got reinstated. Nader Na’im also submitted the certificate of returning of his British citizenship. The rest of the candidates submitted their residence and travel documents with the US and other visas which approved their one citizenship.

Overseeing the elections

The importance of the 2014 elections, both presidential and provincial cannot be underestimated. As NDI said:

If broadly viewed by the Afghan people as inclusive and transparent, the upcoming polls could play a pivotal role in advancing stability and democratic development. A deeply flawed election, however, could exacerbate political tensions and seriously impair the ability of the new government to meet the security, national reconciliation and economic challenges that lie ahead.

The very first part of the election process has been marked by such muddle and obscurity that alarm bells should be ringing about the capacity of the IEC and the IECC to act as the impartial, transparent arbiters of the election which voters need them to be. It is they who, after all, will ultimately rule on whether the presidential and provincial council ballots in April 2014 are free and fair. When the commissioners were appointed, electoral watchdogs like FEFA and also AAN expressed concerns at the way it had been done and what this bodied for the future. On the IECC, AAN reported “there are allegations that [the commissioners] are too close to the Palace and the current, but out-going, vice presidents”, and on the IEC appointments we said, “[it] has the necessary varnish of professionalism, its individual members were chosen the old way: through powerful networks”. As we then summed up:

The wrangling over [who would be appointed to the IEC], the balancing of relations, the ignoring of the law when convenient, the direct interference of the Palace and the absence of a strong reaction all provide an indication of what the 2014 electoral process may be like.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape