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This installment of AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections with Scott Worden.
1) You were an election monitor during Afghanistan’s parliamentary voting nearly two weeks ago. What were your major observations from your time there? What overall impressions did you receive from Afghans regarding their perceptions of the vote?
My own observation of the election was limited to 10 polling centers in Kabul, where the process went well. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) staff were well organized and knew the procedures, voters and observers were orderly, and there was a general air of enthusiasm about the process. One thing that stood out about the voting in Kabul was the sheer number of candidate agents that were on hand to observe the process — perhaps not surprising given more than 600 candidates on the ballot there. This was good because having that many eyes on the process reduced the opportunity for fraud or bias on the part of IEC officials. The other encouraging sign was the high percentage of young people that were involved in the polling. Many of the voters, IEC workers, observers, and agents we saw appeared to be under 35, which indicates that the next generation of Afghan leaders may be familiar with and supportive of democracy.
Unfortunately, outside of Kabul and other relatively secure areas of the country the process was reportedly much worse. In last year’s election the most fraud occurred in areas where violence or remoteness of the polling locations prohibited independent observers from monitoring the vote. Based on reports we were hearing after election day, the same will be true this year. There were more incidents of violence across the country this year than last. And in the provinces that had difficulty with ballot stuffing last year, there are again reports of stations being closed to voters while corrupt officials continued marking ballots. There were also significant cases of people voting multiple times with duplicate or forged cards. Overall, then, the picture that emerges is mixed — with improvements over last year in some areas, but still many significant irregularities that could negatively affect the results.
2) As time has passed, complaints have mounted about the fairness of the vote, and it is believed that nearly 60% of complaints filed could have a credible effect on the final tally. Was this outcome expected, or are you surprised by the level of credible issues with the voting?
The high volume of complaints is not surprising given the enormous difficulties that were known going in to the election and the fact that many of the main obstacles to sound elections, including lack of a voter registry, insecurity, and endemic corruption were not improved from last year. Moreover, with more than 2500 candidates competing for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga [lower parliament], nine out of every ten candidates running in the election will lose, and each will have their own grievances, both legitimate and not. In some ways, the number of complaints is a good sign, indicating that people care about the integrity of the process and understand there is a legal mechanism to address disputes.
More than the numbers of complaints filed, however, voting patterns revealed in the preliminary results will indicate whether irregularities occurred. Key red flags to look for include:
• Improbably high vote totals in remote and/or insecure areas, particularly given the overall low turnout.
• In more tightly contested urban areas, only a few candidates with large blocs of votes each in particular polling stations.
• Having a higher number female than male votes in a polling center, particularly in the more socially conservative South and East.
• A significant number of polling stations that were scheduled to open on polling day that did not report results.
• Having more than 1000 or so polling stations either excluded or “quarantined” by the IEC for further investigation based on their anti-fraud triggers.
The most important factor is whether the IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) are able to address irregularities in a proactive and transparent way. So far, the IEC has been much better this year at identifying and excluding suspicious results. The ECC has been less clear about how it is resolving complaints and the reasons for its decisions, which is a concern.
3) The AP has reported that recounts have been ordered in parts of at least seven provinces. Could a recount alter final perceptions of the vote’s fairness?
The large number of candidates running in each jurisdiction means that the margins of victory will be very narrow, and therefore even small amounts of fraud can affect who wins and loses. It is then a good sign that the IEC has ordered a recount of polling stations that turned in suspicious results. But for the IEC’s actions to be credible, it must explain clearly the reason behind ordering a recount and must conduct the recount in front of candidate agents and observers. One problem that emerged during the Provincial Council elections last year was that despite intense scrutiny at the beginning of the process, attention lapsed before the Provincial Council results were certified, and results were changed just before being certified without anyone knowing how or why. This time, the IEC should be sure to conduct its recounts in public, with ECC involvement, to improve the credibility of the process.
The bottom line is that if the IEC and ECC find significant fraud and exclude tainted results in a transparent way, then the electoral process can be considered a partial success even if it was plagued with irregularities on polling day.
Scott Worden is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was a Senior Expert on the National Democratic Institute observation mission for the 2010 elections, and served as a Commissioner on the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission in 2009.