The South Asia Channel

Counting the ballots

By Martine van Bijlert As the press continued to recount stories from far-flung districts (outraged elders, stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated electoral staff); as the international actors were “allowing the process to run its course”; as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) stoically continued to announce its batches of preliminary count results, while releasing more and more ...

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By Martine van Bijlert

As the press continued to recount stories from far-flung districts (outraged elders, stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated electoral staff); as the international actors were “allowing the process to run its course”; as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) stoically continued to announce its batches of preliminary count results, while releasing more and more “dirty” ballot boxes into the count; and as the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) was faced with an ever growing number of complaints, on Tuesday September 8, 2009 suddenly all strands came together in what may well become the elections’ most important confrontation.

On Tuesday two things happened. First of all the ECC ordered the IEC to do a monitored audit of all polling stations that showed implausible results (more than 600 votes cast — i.e. more than the number of ballot papers present — or more than 95% of all the votes cast in favor of a single candidate). After that, during the press conference in which the latest preliminary results were announced, the IEC seemed intent on dodging the instruction. Journalists were told that the IEC needed to seek clarification with regard to the reasons of the ruling before they could comment any further — but the ECC order is crystal clear. In fact, all it does is instruct the IEC to implement its original internal safeguards against counting obviously suspicious polling stations.

The confrontation had been brewing for days. There was never much appetite within the IEC to tackle the thorny issue of fraudulent votes, but in the course of last week it became clear that the leadership was seriously considering flooding the count process with unfiltered results. Statistical triggers and algorithms were removed or rendered practically ineffective and there were rumors that the full preliminary result would be announced on September 5 (which did not happen). The advantages from the IEC’s viewpoint were clear. Releasing all polling stations into the count — whether clean, suspect or overtly fraudulent — would provide an escape from the awkward responsibility of excluding large numbers of votes cast in favor of President Karzai (and some of the other candidates). There was probably also an issue of trying to make up for lost time, as the full preliminary results had originally been scheduled for September 3.

There were several tussles over the weekend. An IEC press conference scheduled for Saturday September 5 was cancelled due to “technical difficulties with the counting software.” An IEC decision to disqualify 447 polling stations, which was announced on Sunday September 6, was withdrawn as the IEC’s authority to do so had apparently been contested — indicating that the commission was suffering from both political pressures and internal divisions. The latest batch of preliminary results announced on September 8 — 91.6 percent of the votes counted and Karzai leading with 54.1 percent — finally indicated that the IEC had decided to push ahead with the results and with the release of the suspect polling stations. And now the ECC is stepping in.

The consequences of the ECC ruling will be considerable. Even the most cursory scan of the polling station counts — the latest of which can be found here — shows large numbers of quite obviously manipulated results (round figures, high turnout particularly in insecure areas, absence of the natural “sprinkling” of votes among different candidates). The EU Electoral Observer Mission released a strongly worded statement today in support of the ECC ruling, describing how they had counted 2,451 polling stations where more than 90 percent of the votes had been cast for a single candidate and 214 polling stations where the number of votes exceeded the number of voters assigned to the station (out of a total of 18,877 polling stations). This represents a total of almost 700,000 votes — not counting the stations that have not yet been released into the count. Such figures can alter election results, which explains the reluctance to implement what in essence are common sense measures.

The ECC ruling is appropriate in both its boldness and simplicity — in essence requesting the IEC to follow its own original rules, even though that may mean disappointing powerful patrons. It is a crucial ruling, as it asks the electoral authorities to address what is one of the main weaknesses of the current Afghan government: the fact that laws do not apply to the powerful, nor do they apply to their friends. The ECC ruling thus goes against the grain of power — it will be fought, which means that it needs to be defended and upheld. The internationals cannot cave on this one, even if that means being accused of interference. If interference was ever both necessary and defendable, it is probably now.

This could be one of the much needed signals of possible change.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this post was originally published.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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