The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan 2014: Better late than never

Afghanistan 2014: Better late than never

When Afghan President Hamid Karzai ratified the country’s new Election Law on July 20, he removed the last obstacle for presidential hopefuls wanting to go public and embark on a full-fledged election campaign. Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding this presidential election didn’t end with Karzai’s signing of the law. While candidates are now allowed to openly run for next year’s presidential election, additional measures must taken to ensure the security and inclusivity of the votes, and the legitimacy of the results.

According to Qayom Karzai, the president’s brother and a potential presidential candidate, "Security and inclusiveness of the election are the two most significant determining factors for the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential elections. No eligible Afghan should be excluded from the elections, and no part of the country should be abandoned for security or any other reason." He added that, "to prevent election fraud, alternatives elections mechanism should be developed to ensure fairness and transparency in the process and nation-wide acceptance of the presidential election outcome." But providing security for roughly 17,000 polling centers is an enormous task.

With 34,000 U.S. troops scheduled to go home just before the 2014 presidential election, it will be difficult for the Afghan security forces to spread out across the country and secure the polling centers. On top of that, the Taliban have stepped up their terror campaign in remote areas and are inflicting heavy casualties on these forces and civilians. According to Seddiq Seddiqi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, "Casualties in the country’s national police have increased by 22 percent for the same period from last year (2012). Around 300 Afghan National Police  officers were killed alone in June of this year." These numbers, unfortunately, will only increase as the election date approaches.

Next year’s presidential election is unique and historic, and yet extremely politicized.  Preparing for it has exposed ethnic rifts, which are actually being promoted by some Afghan politicians. The inclusivity of the election – giving Afghans residing in any corner of the country an equal opportunity to vote – is what will define its legitimacy. Excluding any constituency could invalidate the results and delegitimize the future government, provide the grounds for a potential civil war, or increase support for Taliban insurgents and their radical ideology. 

One of the ways to ensure this inclusivity would be to hold a legal "phased election" in areas where the security challenges are high. Article 65, Clause 1 of the previous election law states that, "If a security situation or unpredicted events and conditions make the holding of elections impossible, or undermines the legitimacy of the elections, the [Independent Election] Commission may suspend the elections from the specified date until the removal of the peril or improvement of the conditions." Article 65, Clause 2 adds that, "If the conditions referred to in clause (1) of this Article are confined to one or several constituencies, the Commission may suspend the elections in those constituencies until the removal and improvement of the conditions."

To give the government flexibility in these situations, the new Election Law is ambiguous about what emergency and unpredictable conditions could mandate a phased election, ultimately leaving the decision to the commission. Article 56, Clause 5 says that, "In case of riots, violence, storm, flood or any other unexpected event in polling stations and centers that make the process of voting impossible or difficult, the chairperson of the polling center shall stop voting and shall immediately ask for the instructions of the Commission."

Given that language, the following two scenarios for a phased election fall within the available legal framework:

  • The presidential election would be held on April 5, 2014, as scheduled, but a phased election would occur at a later date for insecure areas not covered by the Afghan security forces on polling day, as stated in article 56 of the new election law.
  • A week-long phased election would occur across the country in four or five polling zones established by the commission. Voting would begin on April 5, 2014, and continue from zone to zone every 24 hours until the voting is complete.

The first option is feasible only if a very small number of the 17,000 polling stations cannot be secured on election day, while the second option could pre-empt and prevent widespread election fraud and insurgent activities, including the three impediments that almost invalidated the 2009 presidential election:

  • Security: If voting were held zone by zone, the Afghan government could deploy enough forces to protect the voters and the polling centers, complicating the Taliban’s ability to disrupt the voting process. The visible security measure could also boost public confidence and increase participation in the election.
  • Election Observers: A phased election over several days would also allow election observers to move from zone to zone in numbers that would ensure the election is transparent and fair, and that reliable evidence of irregularities or fraud is available.  According to Zia Rafat, a former member of the Election Complaints Commission, "Approximately 20% [of the] independent observers were available in the 2009 presidential elections. Most of the presidential candidates had no observers to collect evidence and monitor the process." But, Nader Nadery, Chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, adds that "nearly 65% of voting stations were covered by [the foundation]".
  • Ghost Votes/Voters: By increasing the number of security forces and election observers present in a given area through a phased election, the government could prevent voting irregularities like the thousands of ghost votes that were cast in 2009. A single-day election would leave no room for fixing errors, and could permanently damage the legitimacy of the election. Voting in phases would allow observers to increase transparency, prevent multiple votes, adjust procedures if there are any problems, and provide a timely response to any security crisis. While some may argue that a phased election could lead to people voting in multiple zones, the expense and risk of traveling from one zone to another make this an unattractive option for candidates and voters looking to stuff the ballot box.    

Regardless of what the election commission decides – single-day voting or a phased election -it is crucial for both Afghans and international observers to realize that some level of irregularity and fraud is inevitable. After all, this will only be Afghanistan’s third election since the fall of the Taliban. But taking appropriate and timely measures that ensure the security and inclusivity of the election will restore the Afghans’ faith in the election process and encourage them to responsibly decide their future.

Hamid M. Saboory is a political analyst and a former employee of the Afghan National Security Council. He is also a founding member of the Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3) think tank.