Political Landscape

The Afghanistan Election Conundrum (8): Controversies over voter registration


A voter registration confirmation sticker on an AAN's staff member’s tazkera. The sticker includes the following features: province and district, the name and code number of the polling centre to which a voter is linked, whether he/she is a kuchi or not, a serial number to identify the voter individually and a hologram. The sticker also uses 'optical variable ink’ which also prevents counterfeiting. Photo: Ali (2018: Yawar Adili)

A voter registration confirmation sticker on an AAN's staff member’s tazkera. The sticker includes the following features: province and district, the name and code number of the polling centre to which a voter is linked, whether he/she is a kuchi or not, a serial number to identify the voter individually and a hologram. The sticker also uses 'optical variable ink’ which also prevents counterfeiting. Photo: Ali (2018: Yawar Adili)

As the Independent Election Commission (IEC) struggles to prepare for parliamentary and district council elections due to be held on 20 October 2018, one key prerequisite – voter registration – is not going well. Registration turnout, so far, has been very low, in part, due to security fears stemming from a new system aimed at reducing fraud: fixing stickers onto Identification cards after voters have registered. The problem is that the Taleban then know, who has registered. A proposal to increase turnout by fixing stickers to a copyof people’s IDs, has proved controversial and led to an open dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and two members of the IEC on the one hand, and the majority of IEC members and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah on the other. The proposal has subsequently been rescinded. Yet, say AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili and Thomas Ruttig, it has left a strong impression of chaos and lack of forethought. This dispatch also examines the debacle surrounding the appointment of a new chief electoral officer and translates the newly-published electoral calendar into English.

This is part eight of a series of dispatches looking at the preparations for the parliamentary elections. Part one dealt with political challenges; part two with an initial set of technical problems, including the date, the budget and the use of biometric technology; part three with electoral constituencies; part four with controversies surrounding the appointment of a new IEC member, after its former chief was sacked by President Ghani; part five with a demand by political parties to change the electoral system; part six with the date of the polls and with voter registration, and; part seven with a deficient polling centre assessment.

Voters – but not that many – start to register for the October elections

On 14 April 2018 (25 Hamal 1397) the IEC launched the first phase of voter registration, covering provincial capitals. It was supposed to end on 13 May (23 Saur) but has been extended for another month. The second phase is scheduled to take place between 15 and 28 May (25 Saur to 7 Jawza) in district centres, and a third phase from 30 May to 12 June (9 to 22 Jawza) in rural villages.

As AAN wrote in a previous report, the need for a completely new voter register came from a provision in the 2016 Electoral Law (articles six and eight) that requires the IEC to prepare a voter list by linking each voter to a specific polling centre. This means that, for the first time, people will only be allowed to vote in the polling centre where they are registered. It also means that voter registration is being done from scratch and will not simply be an exercise in registering those never previously registered or who had come of voting age since the last election.

This provision was an attempt to stem the massive fraud of previous elections, which had been facilitated by the lack of a reliable central voters list and the highly inflated number of voter cards in circulation. This, in turn, was a result of massive over-registration in the past: a total of 21 million voter cards were distributed throughout the various previous registration and top-up exercises for an estimated maximum total voting population of 15 million people (see AAN’s previous report here). This enabled multiple voting, among other forms of manipulation.

Article six of the Electoral Law states that voters should be registered based on their tazkeras or other identification documents specified by the IEC (the law was cautious because some Afghans, especially women in rural areas, do not have tazkeras). (1) The IEC, however, in its decision of 26 November 2017, specified that “only” tazkeras could be used for registration, to limit multiple registrations. This made it necessary for prospective voters who did not possess a tazkera to first obtain one. Therefore, the IEC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority (ACCRA) to issue around ten million tazkeras in a bid to include and enfranchise those who did not yet have them.

The IEC developed a voter registration procedure whereby eligible voters present their tazkeras at a registration centre. The voter’s information is then recorded on a registration and a confirmation form. Confirmation of registration – in the form of a sticker – is then separated from the registration form and fixed onto the reverse side of the voter’s tazkera; the voter is asked to use this same tazkera to vote.

The voter registration confirmation sticker includes the province and district where the voter lives, the name and code of the polling centre to which she is now linked, whether he is a Kuchi (because Kuchis are not tied to a specific polling centre) and a unique eight-digit serial number which, as former head of the IEC Secretariat Shahla Haque told AAN on 17 May 2018, was to identify individual voters. There are also various anti-counterfeiting features, including a hologram and a watermark and the use of what is called optical variable ink to prevent people making fake duplicates. The registration forms with the same features, along with additional information which remain in the registration books, are scanned and transferred to the national data centre. The scanned data is entered into the database by IEC employees and at the end of voter registration, a voter list will be developed for all polling centres and stations.

This new voter registration method will be able, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah promised a meeting of elders, influential people and youth on 15 April 2018, to “seriously prevent large-scale and organised fraud.” He said that, this time, the voter registration would be different from what they had been in the past.

Low turnout

The IEC has been releasing voter registration statistics, albeit not on a daily basis, and they are not looking good. The latest data from 22 May 2018 (English here and Dari here show that over the course of just over a month (14 April to 21 May), a total of 2,461,488 voters (1,688,676 male, 718,409 female, as well as 53,961 Kuchi and 442 Hindu and Sikh) registered to vote in 34 provincial capitals and districts. (The IEC does not provide a gender breakdown of Kuchi, Hindu and Sikh voters.) These figures does not represent the actual number of voters who have successfully registered as there has yet to be a verification process of voters, intended to exclude multiple registrations. Media reports from various provinces have described the turnout as low, with security threats highlighted as a major reason. (2)

Two domestic election observer organisations have mentioned another reason – the lack of public awareness about voter registration – as being behind the low turnout; see statements by the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) on the first day of registration (14 April) and Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), on 15 April.

Stickers on tazkeras

From the outset, there were warnings that the registration confirmation stickers on paper tazkeras were discouraging voters from registering. On 15 April 2018, a day after the first registration phase began, FEFA, said that, according to observations conducted by 700 volunteers, the turnout on the first day of registration was very low, highlighting, it said, that the stickers on the back of voters’ tazkeras were a “deterrent.”

Similarly, on 28 April 2018, Tolonews blamed the stickers as one reason for low turnout. It quoted MP Nazir Ahmadzai as saying that those living in insecure areas could not have their tazkeras labelled for fear that the Taleban – who have called for an election boycott (more details below) – might punish people with documents showing their willingness to vote.

Broader security dilemmas

The Taleban have threatened anyone who registers to vote. On 14 April 2018, President Ashraf Ghani, while launching the voter registration campaign, called on the Taleban to participate in the upcoming elections or act as a political party as per the government’s peace offer. A day later, on 15 April 2018, the Taleban rejected this offer in a statement published on their website, saying the country was under occupation and their “first priority was how to protectthe country and people from occupation.” They called on “Muslim and Mujahed people to boycott the cosmetic and fake process under the name of election[s].” (3) Tolonews also reported, on 28 April, that it had been told by the Taleban that the elections were about deceiving people and that they would use all options available to stop any election-related activity.

Media also reported that the Taleban have been warning people in certain regions not to participate in the elections. For instance on 28 April 2018, Reuters reported that the Taleban had threatened villagers in Balkh province that they would “burn down the house of anyone” who voted. A resident of Rahmatabad village, in Balkh told Reuters that the Taleban, during a visit to his area, had assembled the villagers in the local mosque and warned them that if they went to registration centres and voted, the Taleban would burn down the village. Shams, a resident of Balkh’s Dowlatabad district, said, “’The most recent visit by Taliban tax collectors levying ushr (land tax) and zakat (an Islamic tax) included an explicit warning to stay away from the elections.” Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, while denying that any warnings to burn down houses had been made, admitted that the Taleban were telling people to stay away from the elections. However, one Taleban commander was quoted as saying that “[b]urning a house is a small punishment if they are caught in supporting this U.S. operation to prolong their stay in Afghanistan.” The Taleban’s position regarding the upcoming elections and the overall deterioration in security seems to be the chief reason for the low turnout in voter registration in provincial capitals which tend to be more secure. Phases two and three of voter registration, in districts and villages, will also likely see low turnout given many of these more rural areas are more vulnerable to insurgent attack.

The Taleban have already backed up their threats with violence. On 10 May 2018, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report verifying 23 election-related security incidents since voter registration started on 14 April 2018. Not all attacks were claimed by or attributed to the Taleban. They had resulted, said UNAMA, in 271 civilian casualties (86 deaths and 185 injured) and the abduction of 26 civilians (read the report here).

The vast majority of those casualties, reported UNAMA, occurred in one incident on 22 April 2018, when a suicide attacker detonated his improvised explosive device (IED) in a crowd outside a tazkera distribution centre in a Hazara-dominated neighbourhood west of Kabul city. 60 people were killed and 138 injured (198 civilian casualties in total). The aim of the attack appeared to be two-fold, disrupting the elections and, in particular, trying to stop Hazaras from voting. This was the conclusion of Abdul Karim Khalili, head of High Peace Council, former vice-president under President Hamed Karzai and leader of one of the Hazara mujahedin factions; he said the attack was aimed at “preventing participation of a specific segment of society [eg the Hazaras] in the process of determining their future political destiny and preventing their presence in decision-making structures.”

The 22 April attack also prompted the Shia Ulema Council to issue a statement on 25 April 2018 calling on people not to register or apply for a tazkera until the government could ensure the security of voter registration centres. Its head of cultural affairs, Rezwani Bamyani, told Tolonews that it did not mean the council was boycotting the elections, but rather was setting preconditions for participation. However, the council does not represent all Shia Ulema. Many consider the voter registration process too important to boycott. The Bamyan Provincial Centre’s Ulema Council (Shura-ye Ulema-ye Markaz-e Bamyan), for example, issued a counter-statement on 27 April encouraging people “to appear at the voter registration centres and make yourselves eligible voters.” It said that anyone who opposed the elections or somehow prevented people’s participation in this national process was striking “an irreparable blow to the collective destiny of the people” and was “intentionally or unintentionally aligning themselves with the enemies of peace and progress of the country.”

Political leaders from the Hazara community also called on people to go to voter registration centres. For instance on 7 May, Muhammad Mohaqeq, leader of one of the larger Hazara political parties and Deputy Chief Executive, urged religious scholars during a meeting to support voter registration “since the enemy considers election as a factor of stability [and] tries to prevent our people from [participating in] elections by carrying out violent operations. Therefore, the people should take voter registration seriously, for the sake of their destiny.” However, earlier in the wake of the 22 April attack, he also cautioned that “today a big question on people’s mind” was “if today the security of people is not ensured during registration and distribution of tazkera, how will security be ensured on election day when millions of people should turn out?”

UNAMA confirmed in its 10 May 2018 report that putting stickers on tazkeras was only one of a number of security concerns. It said that “In some areas, the Taliban have reportedly threatened election-related staff with death or cutting off their fingers if they continue their work on the elections, and teachers have been warned that their schools will be targeted if they are used for voter registration purposes, resulting in school closures.” On 19 May 2018, Pajhwok reported that local residents had closed a school a month ago, after it was designated as a voter registration centre in a refugee township in Pul-e-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar, as they feared Taleban attack. The school closure came after students stopped attending classes. About 1,100 students have been deprived of education.(4)

Another incident which may have been linked to the elections has been brought to the attention of AAN. An eyewitness described seeing the bodies of two travellers who, he said, had been stopped and killed by the Taleban in the Ziwallat area of Jalrez district in Maidan-Wardak province on 10 May 2018. The eye-witness said he believed that one, from the Chap Dara area of Bamyan, was killed because he had had a voter registration confirmation sticker on his tazkera. (The other was from Ghorband valley and, he said, worked transporting injured government forces.) Whether the killing was election-related or not, this eye-witness and others believed it was – and that, in itself, is significant.

Taleban threats come in a context: in much of the country, they have the potential to act on them. According to the most recent quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published on 30 April 2018, only slightly over half of the country’s 407 districts were either under the government’s control or influence, ie 229 districts (56 per cent) as of 31 January 2018. The remaining districts were either under full “insurgent control” (13 or three per cent), under “insurgent influence” (59, or 14 per cent) or “contested” (119, or 29 per cent), indicating security problems that influence the preparation and carrying out of the elections.

Defense Minister Tareq Shah Bahrami and Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmaktold the Wolesi Jirga in early May (media report here) that they considered 216 districts to be insecure and that security forces would launch clearing operations there before the start of the second phase of voter registration. Bahrami said that 7,183 army personnel would be involved in the voter registration process across the country. (Barmak also announced that 10,000 police would be tasked with election security, with four to eight police posted at each polling centre.) However, the recent trends have not been promising. There is no sign that the government has been expanding its control or influence since the two ministers spoke to MPs. On the contrary, between the start of the Taleban’s annual military campaign announced on 25 April and 17 May 2018 , they had overrunat least five district centres in Badakhshan, Badghis, Faryab, Ghazni, and Kunduz, (as observed by the Long War Journal).

Initial incentive and coercion measures by government to boost turnout

The government has tried to help government employees and their families to register. It called on ministries to give a day off to their employees for registration, as family members of AAN staff working with ministries reported. President Ghani instructed 34 provincial governors in a video conference on 19 April, to ask government employees to accompany their eligible family members to voter registration centres to register. He also instructed the Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs to ask ulema to speak about the importance of voter registration in their Friday sermons and encourage people to participate.

There has also been some coercion. The media has reported government agencies refusing services to clients who did not have registration stickers on their tazkeras: see for example this report by Tolonews report from 6 May 2018 which featured two people, one from Kabul and one from Jowzjan complaining about this. Kandahar police chief General Abdul Razeq said when he registered on 17 April 2018 that he had instructed all government agencies not to accept applications from citizens who did not have a tazkera or a voter card (see media report here and here). A relative of an AAN staff member who is a teacher at a Kabul high school was told by the school principal to register to vote, or her salary would not be paid.

AAN also received reports that many citizens had come up with their own strategy to avoid being punished by the Taleban for having registration stickers on their tazkeras: obtaining new tazkeras and claiming, falsely, they had either lost their old one or did not have one. This would enable the voter to use the new, marked tazkeras for both registration and voting only and the old ‘clean’ ones for day-to-day business, thereby making it less likely that, should they be stopped by the Taleban, they could be identified as registered voters.

A controversial solution for low turnout

As registration continued to be low, the IEC and the government came up with two solutions: firstly, on 10 May 2018, the IEC announced it would extend voter registration in provincial capitals by a month, until 12 June (22 Jawza 1397). Secondly, the IEC came up with the idea of allowing registration stickers to be put on copies of voters’ tazkeras, not on the original. This, it said, would enable voters fearing encounters with the Taleban to use their original tazkeras for normal business, and the copy with the sticker only on election day.

This idea, however, became highly contentious, dividing both the IEC and government leaders, and threatening to trigger the collapse of the entire IEC. The dispute came to a head on 10 May 2018 when four IEC members rejected the proposal in an internal vote, while two others, including chairman Gula Jan Abdul Badi Sayyad, supported it. Those opposing the ‘sticker-on-copy’ proposal argued it could undermine safeguards against multiple registrations and thus facilitate fraud. Later in the afternoon of 10 May, according to sources privy to this discussion, the president – who supported the idea of using a copy of the tazkera in order to boost registration turnout – called in IEC members to a meeting. He questioned the IEC’s authority to decide on the issue and told those IEC members who had voted against it to resign. This unfolding of events was also reported by social media activists (see for example here as well as the media the following working day (see here). (IEC deputy head for administration and finance Mazallah Dawlati confirmed during a television debate about elections on 22 May that President Ghani had indeed told those IEC members who disagreed with the proposal to resign (see full video here).

The Palace reported later that evening (see here and here) that the IEC had decided that staff could fix stickers onto copies of tazkeras “if applicants [potential voters coming for registration] want [this].”  This stance was backed up by an IEC press release issued later that night (here and here) The IEC statement said that people “living or travelling in insecure areas” had shared their concerns about putting stickers on original tazkeras and as safety was “extremely important for the IEC,” it launched a widespread consultations with stakeholders, in particular political parties, tribal elders and civil society. The result, it said, was a consensus that “eligible voters would be able to go to voter registration centres with copies of their tazkeras” and have stickers labelled on them. However on election day itself, eligible voters would have to bring their original tazkeras along with the copy of their tazkera in order “to enjoy their right to vote.”

The IEC also said, without going into detail, that it would “take necessary measures to prevent duplicate registrations.” It warned that those who registered more than once would be deprived of their right to vote on election day and perpetrators would face prosecution.

Three days later, on 13 May 2018, a document was leaked to the Afghan media (see here and here bearing the signatures of the four commissioners who were told to resign. The document said that “the IEC, through its decision number 30-1396, dated 18 Jaddi 1396 has approved the regulation for voter registration and the preparation of the voter list according to which voter registration confirmation [stickers] are stuck on the back of original tazkeras” The document said that no changes had been brought to this regulation and cited article 19 of the electoral law according to which the IEC “cannot amend relevant regulations and procedures during the electoral process.”

Those who signed this decision were IEC deputy chair of operations, Wasima Badghisi (a Tajik from Badghis), deputy for finance and administrative affairs, Abdul Qader Quraishi (an Uzbek from Balkh), Mazallah Dawlati (an Aimaq from Ghor), and Maliha Hassan (a Hazara, born in Kabul). Those who did not sign the document were IEC chair Gula Jan Abdul Badi Sayyad (a Pashtun from Kabul), Rafiullah Bedar (a Pashai from Nangrahar) and Sayyed Hafizullah Hashemi (a Pashtun from Laghman) (see AAN’s previous report on the IEC members’ profiles here and here). (According to an AAN source privy to the IEC’s internal voting on the issue, as well as media reports, Hashemi had been travelling when the decision was made. Media reports)  also quoted IEC deputy heads as saying that they took the decision in the presence of United Nations representatives, including UNAMA chief election officer Grant Kippen, and acting IEC CEO Shahla Haque.

The issue became more dramatic when Shahla Haque, acting head of the IEC Secretariat, resigned in protest against the proposal on 13 May 2018 and, a day later, on 14 May 2018, during the weekly Council of Ministers meeting, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah weighed in on the issue and spoke publicly against putting pressure on IEC members. There have been conflicting reports as to who proposed the ‘stickers-on-copies solution’. Chief Executive Abdullah suggested that the solution had been proposed by the Afghanistan Central Civil Registration Authority ACCRA. President Ghani’s spokesman, Harun Chakhansuri, however, said on 14 May it had been the Chief Executive’s own proposal (see media report here). (5)

Shahla Haquespoke to AAN on 14 May. She said that, aside from any legal arguments against fixing the sticker on a copy of voters’ tazkeras, it also made fraud easier because it is far easier to produce a copy – or multiple copies – and use them to register in various voter registration centres than to try to get multiple tazkeras. Secondly, she said, it would not solve the issue of low voter registration turnout, as stickers were only one security concern. Other, more serious concerns, she said, had also “led to low turnout.” She said that many voter registration centres had not even opened. The IEC had planned, she said, to open 1,419 registration centres for the first phase of voter registration, but security agencies had told the IEC that 44 would not open for security reasons. As registration had got underway, Shahla said, a further 87 centres had also remained closed (131 in total or about nine per cent).

According to media reports, in Uruzgan alone, 53 of 65 registration sites remained closed, as did 77 of an unreported total in Paktika and 7 out of 20 sites in Logar’s provincial capital Pul-e Alam (see here; here and here).

Moreover, even in Kabul voter registration had been low according to Haque, despite the fact that people in Kabul do not often travel to provinces and generally do not have the same security concerns about having a stickers on their tazkera.

She suggested that, even for those who do travel to insecure areas, there could be a solution, which, according to her, was to carry a copy of their tazkera when travelling to reduce their vulnerability to the Taleban threats.(She in fact echoed a solution that was later on adopted, see below)

The four dissenting IEC members reportedly contemplated resigning collectively. This apparently led to a diplomatic intervention. (6) In the end, the decision to fix stickers onto tazkera copies was overturned and the threat of the IEC falling apart was averted. The IEC confirmed this on 16 May 2018, announcing that voter registration would take place “based on original tazkeras” (see statement here). IEC member Maliha Hassan told AAN on the same day that the press release regarding the decision to put stickers on tazkira copies had been taken down from both the IEC’s website and Facebook page. She also said that ACCRA had been told to issue duplicates of tazkeras for those who travel (so they could carry the duplicates and not those original with stickers). This compromise  throws the country’s national identity tazkera system into disarray while also providing a backdoor for those who do obtain duplicate copies, who fear for their security as a result of registration. (7)

Although the controversy was resolved after six days, it tarnished the credibility of the IEC (as their internal voting based on majority rule was not respected and appeared to have been influenced by an external source). It also raised questions regarding interference by the government, in particular the presidential palace, especially as this is not the first reported interference by the president in the IEC’s work. For instance on 21 April 2018, Afghan media reported that during a video conference,President Ghani had ordered provincial electoral officers (‘PEOs’, also known as heads of the IEC provincial offices) not to release voter registration details to the media but only to IEC headquarters. FEFA executive director Yusuf Rashid criticised the president’s move, saying it would pave the way to fraud. He added that FEFA’s observers had been prohibited from “taking pictures at registration centres” which, he said, would “question the credibility of the process.” Rashid told AAN on 22 May 2018 that FEFA’s observers had begun to face this problem four or five days after registration began, and that IEC employees at voter registration sites were still being inconsistent in providing information regarding registrations.

No head of the IEC Secretariat

One immediate impact of the sticker dispute was the resignation of the acting head of the IEC’s secretariat. It came, not only when the IEC is trying to ensure smooth voter registration, but as another key activity was starting – candidate nomination. It began on 26 May. Now, there is no leadership in the secretariat at all. This particular debacle should never have arisen. The vacancy at the head of the secretariat has been there for more than seven months.

On 21 October 2017, the previous chief election officer or CEO, Imam Muhammad Warimach, was dismissed by President Ashraf Ghani on 21 October 2017 (see AAN’s previous reports here and here. He continued to serve as CEO until 16 January 2018 when Shahla Haque, until then head of the IEC’s training department, was appointed as the acting head.

Like the IEC commissioners, the chief election officer is a very important appointment, which, according to article 22.3 of the electoral law, is made by the president from among three candidates proposed by the IEC. After Warimach’s sacking, the IEC advertised the position on 20 February 2018. Within the six-day deadline, 29 people applied according to an IEC press release. The IEC started shortlisting on 12 March.

Shahla Haque had told AAN before she resigned that she had not applied for the position as she lacked certain legal requirements for the post (the applicant should have a degree in certain fields, which did not include hers – medicine). A UN election specialist expressed concern to AAN that, if Haque were replaced, things could unravel – especially if a new chief election officer with no experience was appointed. According to this source, things had been moving well with election preparations since Haque had served as the CEO. (See also AAN’s previous report.

On 21 May 2018, the IEC announced their selection of candidates: Ahmad Jawed Habibi (former deputy head of the IEC Secretariat for operations and currently an adviser with the Ministry of Finance), Abdul Basir Azemi (former deputy minister of water and energy) and Ahmad Khaled Fahim (head of the Swedish Committee in Afghanistan). They put forward their choices to the president for him to then appoint one of them as the head of the IEC Secretariat (see the IEC’s decision here and media report here). There are accusations against two of these candidates. Multiple sources told AAN that a corruption case had been brought against Habibi about actions he had taken during the 2014 elections in his capacity as then deputy chief election officer. They said he had close allies within the president’s camp. The same sources said that Azemi, who is Herat MP Qazi Hanafi’s son-in-law, also has a corruption dossier against him. He is affiliated with Jamiat and is in the Chief Executive’s camp. AAN is not in a position to confirm these corruption accusations against either man. The final candidate, Fahim, is affiliated with and supported by Hezb-e Islami. He ran the Nasrat English and Computer Course in the Shamshatu camp in Peshawar around 1995-2002.

The appointment of the chief electoral officer may take some time. Warimach was appointed by a panel that included President Ghani, Vice-President Sarwar Danesh and Chief Executive Abdullah. A likely disagreement among the government leaders cannot be ruled out given the backgrounds of the three candidates. This important appointment has yet to be finalised. Meanwhile, the date of the election, 20 October,creeps ever closer.

Conclusion: Saving the 2018 election?

The IEC began registering voters in mid-April. It is an important step in preparing for October’s parliamentary and district council elections and for next year’s presidential and provincial polls. Threats by the Taleban and actual violence by it and ISKP have helped dampen turnout. The decision to put voter registration confirmation stickers on voters’ tazkeras made many people vulnerable if they travelled to or through rural areas where Taleban checks were likely. Attempts by the government and the IEC to find a solution ended in controversy, as is so often the case on Afghanistan’s bumpy ride before an election. Sensible arguments and legal provisions collided. Diplomatic intervention was required to prevent the process from derailing, as the IEC was close to disintegration. Actually, neither of the options on how voter registration stickers should be applied – on original tazkeras or copies – could solve the fundamental security threats facing Afghan voters.

The solution has been a compromise that has prevented the disintegration of the IEC, but also leaves a backdoor open for those voters who fear for their lives. The new divisions that have emerged within the IEC as well as between the IEC and the government could linger, with the prospect of them emerging once again whenever the next hard decision or controversy arises.

The bigger security issue, of course, is the Taleban’s control of large parts of the country and the registration centres – which will become voter centres on election day – there. In several provincial capitals, a number of centres are closed, despite those towns or cities supposedly being under full government control.

The government’s incentives and attempts through coercion to get Afghans to register also reflect the fact that it is not easy to convince or mobilise large parts of the population, especially given their experience from earlier polls, and consequent loss of their trust in the legitimacy of the elections and therefore their interest in them. For many, the risks may well outweigh the gains, as low turnout even in the relatively more secure cities demonstrates.

 

(1) For instance, on 6 May 2018, Pajhwok reported that 80 per cent of residents in Pato district in Daikundi province did not have a tazkera. According to the report, Haidar Ali Dawlatyar, a civil society activist in Daikundi, said people in Pato were ready to pay money from their pockets to finance mobile tazkera distribution teams.

(2)For instance on 20 April 2018, Tolonews reported that Muhammad Zaher Akbari, the head of the IEC provincial office in Paktia, warned of threats against a number of voter registration centres in the province. Akbari also complained about low voter registration turnout, calling on security agencies to “boost their cooperation with us in order to move the process forward.” A day later, on 21 April 2018, Tolonews reported that Badakhshan activists and elders had started a campaign to encourage people to register and that people there hadcomplained that insecurity was one of the reasons stopping people from registering.

Similarly, according to a Pajhwok report on 21 April 2018, Ahmad Shah Sahebzada, Helmand’s provincial IEC officer, while citing insecurity as a major reason for public distrust in voter registration, complained that despite the fact that security officials had assured full security, people remained scared and were not coming to registration centres in large numbers. Pajhwok also reported, on 22 April 2018, that, according to Sahebzada, elections were impossible in five out of 14 districts in Helmand province: Baghran, Musa Qala, Nawzad, Khanshin and Dishu, all of which are under Taleban control.

On 7 May 2018, Salam Watandar reported that Abdul Ali Faqiryar, district governor of Pusht-e Koh in Herat province, had said that, despite the fact that there was security in most parts of the district, 14 voter registration centres allocated to the district had been cancelled by the IEC for unknown reasons. Herat provincial electoral officer, Muhammad Daud Sediq Zad, reportedly said that the decision had been taken due to security threats. A number of people in Pusht-e Koh district warned that they would be disenfranchised if the centres were not reopened soon. On 7 May 2018, Tolonews reported that officials from the IEC provincial offices in Khost, Paktia and Paktika had said that turnout for voter registration in these provinces was low and that women’s participation was insignificant. They also listed terrorist threats and growing insecurity as reasons for low turnout in registration. On 9 May 2018, Tolonews reported IEC provincial officials as saying that 113 voter registration centres in the eastern region of the country faced high security threats. According to the report, these centres included: 48 out of 157 voter registration centres in Nangrahar; 38 out of 124 voter registration centres in Laghman province; seven voter registration centres in Kunar and 20 voter registration centre in Nuristan.

Diplomats in Kabul have also noted the low turnout in voter registration. For example, on 6 May 2018, Canadian ambassador Francois Rivest, in an interview with Tolonews, said that the people’s reluctance to register was a challenge and that the ‘international community’ was providing advice to the government and the IEC which, he said, was “looking at steps to improve the level of registration.”

(3) Below is AAN’s working translation of the Taleban’s statement:

Yesterday, during the launch ceremony of the voter registration for elections, the head of the Kabul Regime Ashraf Ghani called on the Islamic Emirate to participate in it and we clarify our position as below:

The Islamic Emirate believes that our dear homeland, Afghanistan, is under occupation. Thousands of foreign soldiers are based in the country and the occupiers are making important civil and military decisions. Considering this, the first priority of the Islamic Emirate is how to protect the country and people from occupation and besides [upholding] other rights, retake the right of deciding political leadership and elections from the occupiers.

If [the questions of] who leads the people [presidency] or [who sits on the] council [Wolesi Jirga and/or district or provincial councils] are decided under the occupation, this will be a big disloyalty to the country and the Muslim nation and it will be only cheating fellow citizens and internationals. It is because we saw how, in previous elections, the people were cheated under the name of ‘election’. The final decision was made by US foreign secretary John Kerry and the National Unity Government was set up at the US embassy by American officials.

Nothing else can be expected from the forthcoming elections. Authority will be given to those who are already accepted by the White House or elected by the Pentagon. Therefore the Islamic Emirate asks its Muslim and Mujahed people to boycott this cosmetic and fake process under the name of election, instead of participating in it and to deliver on their religious and national obligation to fight the occupiers and Americans for the independence of their country and bring about an independent and legitimate system and spend all their talents in fighting the evil of the disbelievers and bring about a pure Islamic system.

(4) The IEC conducted a polling centre assessment in 2017 (see AAN’s previous reporting here, as  result of which it moved the majority of the polling centres to schools. The IEC proposed 7,355 polling centres across Afghanistan. 11 additional centres were added after a complaints procedure, bringing the total to 7,366. A security assessment of the centres by the security agencies showed that 3,190 of them (43 per cent) faced either a medium or high threat, or were in areas not under government control. Stickers on copies or on originals of tazkeras would not make much difference to the threat facing people in many areas, as long as the Taleban threatens or controls close to half of the polling centres.

(5) Abdullah’s spokesman Mujib Rahimi, however, contradicted his boss on 23 May 2018, as he told Ariana News that though the proposal had first been made by Abdullah, he opposed it after a number of IEC members opposed it. He also said, “The IEC was compelled [by president] to issue a statement without the desire of the majority of them [IEC members] [and] against [their] approval and the IEC members were complaining and objecting to this and it was there that the Chief Executive announced [his] position and explained that the decision is taken by the IEC, not by the government.”

(6) For instance, Etilaat Roz reported on 21 May 2018 that Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, in a meeting attended by IEC members, called the president’s decision “regrettable and dangerous” and stood by the IEC.

(7) It is not clear who told ACCRA to issue duplicate tazkeras to those who travel, but the IEC’s 16 May statement said: “…the commission carried out technical consultations with ACCRA for addressing the security concerns of citizens and has finally reached this understanding that those citizens of Afghanistan who suspect that they face threat due to having stickers on their tazkera scan go to ACCRA and obtain duplicate tazkeras. ACCRA will issue duplicate to those applicants if they have [their] original tazkera with a sticker with them.”

Annex: The Electoral Calendar

Based on the electoral law, the electoral calendar should be prepared and published by the IEC 120 days before election day. The IEC did publish this on time (see here and here), on 22 April 2018. It looks as follows– AAN has translated it into English and added the Gregorian dates, with important dates in bold):

Number Activity Start date End date Gregorian dates
1 Announcement of Election Day 11 Hamal 11 Hamal 31 March 2018
2 Voter Registration 25 Hamal 22 Jawza 14 April to 12 June
3 Filing of objections and complaints regarding voter registration and addressing them 25 Hamal 1 Sartan 14 April to 22 June
4 Publishing the voter list 23 Asad 23 Asad 14 August
5 Publishing the electoral calendar 2 Saur 2 Saur 22 April
6 Registration of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga and district councils 5 Jawza 22 Jawza 26 May to 12 June
7 Reviewing candidates’ registration information 6 Jawza 6 Sartan 27 May to 27 June
8 Publishing the preliminary candidate list 7 Sartan 7 Sartan 28  June
9 Filing challenges to the preliminary candidate list, as well as corrections 7 Sartan 9 Sartan 28 to 30 June
10 Addressing challenges to the preliminary candidate list 9 Sartan 11 Asad 30 June to  2 July
11 Final date for candidate withdrawal 8 Sartan 10 Asad 29 June to 1 August
12 Publishing final list of candidates 12 Asad 12 Asad 3 August
13 Finalising polling centre list in terms of security 2 Sartan 2 Sartan 23 June
14 Establishing a Media Commission 6 Sawr 28 Hoot 26 April 2018 to 19 March 2019
15 Campaign period for the Wolesi Jirga election 6 Mizan 25 Mizan 28 September to 17 October
16 Campaign period for district council election 11 Mizan 25 Mizan 3 to 17 October
17 ‘Silence period’ (no campaigning) 26 Mizan 27 Mizan 18 to 19 October
18 Filing complaints about the campaign period 6 Mizan 27 Mizan 28 September to 19 October
19 Voting day 28 Mizan 28 Mizan 20 October
20 Tabulation of the Wolesi Jirga 28 Mizan 19 Aqrab
21 Filing complaints about voting and the count and addressing them 28 Mizan 29 Aqrab 20 October to 20 November
22 Announcement of the preliminary results of the Wolesi Jirga elections 19 Aqrab 19 Aqrab 10 November
23 Filing complaints about the preliminary results of the Wolesi Jirga elections 20 Aqrab 21 Aqrab 11 to 12 November
24 Addressing complaints about the preliminary results of the Wolesi Jirga elections 21 Aqrab 14 Qaws 12 November to 5 December
25 Sending the final decision(s) of the ECC to the IEC 14 Qaws 21 Qaws 5 to 12 December
26 Announcing final results of the Wolesi Jirga elections 29 Qaws 29 Qaws 20 December
27 Tabulation of votes of the district council elections 20 Aqrab 17 Qaws 11 November to 8 December
28 Announcement of preliminary results of the district council elections 18 Aqrab 18 Aqrab 9 November
29 Filing complaints about the preliminary results of the district council elections 18 Qaws 20 Qaws 9 November to 11 December
30 Addressing complaints about the preliminary results of the district council elections 20 Qaws 22 Jaddi 11 December 2018 to 12 January 2019
31 Sending decision(s) of ECC to IEC 23 Jaddi 28 Jaddi 13 to 18 January
32 Announcing final results of the district council elections 4 Dalw 4 Dalw 24 January 2019

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape