Calling all voters
Afghanistan’s parliament has shown that it does have teeth, after all. It has voted down one mostly mediocre set of ministerial candidates and will probably rebuff at least some of the latest set. Ambitious progressive politicians like Daoud Sultanzoy are delighted at their victory. But what is going to happen to these parliamentarians on May 22 this year, when ...
Afghanistan’s parliament has shown that it does have teeth, after all. It has voted down one mostly mediocre set of ministerial candidates and will probably rebuff at least some of the latest set. Ambitious progressive politicians like Daoud Sultanzoy are delighted at their victory.
But what is going to happen to these parliamentarians on May 22 this year, when the Afghan Parliament is up for re-election? Sultanzoy, for one, told me he expected to be swept away, along with most of the Parliament’s few liberal members. Their opponents are better organized, not just at getting the vote out but also — in some cases — at stuffing the votes in. No measures have yet been taken to combat the fraud which made the 2009 elections an international laughing-stock.
No wonder Western officials want to delay the elections. But delay — even if accompanied with some tough measures against fraud — doesn’t solve the most serious of these problems. Pashtuns are the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, yet they are greatly under-represented in the electoral process. In a vicious circle of disenfranchisement, the Taliban threat deters Pashtuns from voting, more than any other group; the real views of Pashtuns are then under-represented in the outcome; and the Taliban then can exploit their resulting resentment. Even according to the official results, which over-estimate real turnout, as few as five percent of the population (maybe ten percent of eligible voters) took part in the southern province of Zabul, for example. The reality was probably much worse.
As a consequence, some Pashtun friends of mine would complain that campaigners against fraud were discriminating against Pashtuns, because the fraudulent votes that were disqualified were disproportionately those cast in the South. They were wrong — but they had a point. The electoral system itself discriminates against those living in insecure areas. That’s bad for democracy and bad for counter-insurgency.
This is even before looking at the disadvantage that women face when trying to vote in southern Afghanistan. Female turnout in the south was lower than ever. Claims of high turnout by women in these most conservative areas — where it is rare for women to leave the home — are usually a sign of fraud, not emancipation.
After all, a system where one ethnic group is going to have to cheat if it is to have fair representation is hardly a healthy one. So, faced with the prospect of our biggest investment in Afghanistan — democracy — going down the drain, should we look for some more radical solutions?
Here’s one. Use the cell phone.
I know, this sounds outlandish. Estonia and Russia might be able to manage election by mobile phone, but Afghanistan? In some ways, though, Afghanistan is precisely the kind of place where new technology might provide a way around the logistical challenge caused by its extreme topography and security problems. For example, a system for paying police salaries using cell phones (via Roshan’s M-Paisa service) is being tried in Wardak province: see here (page 10) and here. For the elections, any system that does not involve recruiting tens of thousands of people, and the mass movement of millions, is both cheaper and safer. Afghanistan’s 2009 election day, in case we forget, saw more violence than almost any other day since 2001.
Voting is increasingly plagued by apathy, but mobile phones have unstoppable popular appeal. Afghan cell phone subscribers outnumbered voters in the 2009 election by more than two to one: six months ago they were expected to exceed 10 million, while under 4.3 million voted in August 2009. Mobile coverage isn’t perfect, but many of the areas that don’t have mobile coverage don’t have access to traditional polling centers, either. Using a phone, both men and women can vote safely from their homes without the need to risk being spotted and attacked by the Taliban. Cell phone transmitters would need to be protected, as the Taliban could stop the vote by taking them down — but there would be fewer of them, reaching more people, than the polling center and warehouse network which needed protection in 2009. Voting would be safe, it would be easy, and it would be cheap.
The solution to fraud is reform of the electoral authorities: this proposal instead addresses disenfranchisement and ethnic bias in the vote. Fraud could happen, just as with the traditional system, at two levels: the first when the votes are submitted, the second when they are received and collated electronically (which would need the cooperation of at least one and maybe all of Afghanistan’s mobile service providers). The second is easier to combat: I am assuming that the system for logging votes would be an automated one, with voice-recognition software. So there would be an electronic record of votes cast, which at least would provide some basis for combating fraud. The first is trickier. To prevent fraudsters treating cell phones as they did voter registration cards — gathering a collection of them — there would have to be a requirement for the phones to be registered, and a PIN number issued to every registered voter. Since the registry is highly inaccurate, there is still room for impersonation. But if the registering of phones is carried out properly, with monitoring by independent observers, it could improve on the very lax registration process carried out in 2009.
Not all Afghans yet have phones. Giving out free phones with the SIM cards would test donors’ generosity — though in practice only one mobile phone would be needed per household, since it could be used with multiple SIM cards. So how about a trial run of allowing mobile phone votes as an alternative means to vote, in areas where cellphone coverage is particularly good?
If we weren’t starting from a backdrop of massive fraud and disenfranchisement, it might not be worth the effort. There will be a host of technical problems, including preserving secrecy of the ballot. But those are the problems that Western donors are good at solving — whereas rescuing Afghan democracy might be beyond their reach, if yet another election happens like the one last year.
Gerard Russell is a former British and UN diplomat, and is now a Fellow of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He publishes a blog at www.gerardrussell.com.
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