In October, Afghanistan held the long-delayed parliamentary elections, a process which has since gone from good to bad and now to the ugly. The elections were significant for many reasons. The current parliament, which overstayed for over three years, was legally bound to be replaced by a new parliament in 2015. However, due to the technical unpreparedness and political reasons, the elections were not held on time.
On the other hand, the election was a litmus test not only for the National Unity Government but also for the new elections and the new electoral law, which was passed by president Ghani in 2015.
Despite doubts, Afghans braved serious security concerns and went to the polls, exceeding turnout expectations.
While there remain significant concerns about the vote, there has also been promising developments in the country’s electoral system. Widespread participation by the Afghan people in the ballot was among the major gains of holding the vote.
Several reforms were introduced to enhance transparency in the elections and win people’s trust and confidence. Those reforms were part of the agreement that led to the formation of the National Unity Government in 2014.
In July 2015, President Ashraf Ghani appointed a 14-member electoral reform commission. The commission, composed of two groups, came up with two sets of proposals for reforming the electoral system of Afghanistan. Several structural reforms were introduced in both the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Elections Complaints Commission (ECC), including introducing a new election law.
Moreover, election commission drafted voters’ registration list for the first time. Only individuals who have had their names on the voters’ registration list was allowed to vote. In other words, having a name on the voters’ list was one of the pre-conditions for voting. Though the voters’ list was associated with some anomalies, the introduction of the list was a fundamental step in ensuring transparency in the elections. Technically, the list has to be updated every year to ensure that legitimate potential voters cast their votes in the elections and prevent fraudulent voters.
Secondly, national ID cards were substituted with the existing voting cards. Unlike the previous elections, voter showing a valid ID was another precondition in the election. Substituting of the ID card with the voting cards that were specifically designed and used for voting in all the elections that were conducted since 2003, was another major reform adopted in the 2018 parliamentary election. Rough estimates have put the number of voting cards at 20 million, 10 million more than the actual voters. The abundance and easy technicalities associated with getting the voting cards even in the market have been described as one of the major reasons for electoral fraud in past elections in Afghanistan. Even ordinary Afghans with the basic computer skills could make voting cards. In addition, though subject to discussions in some cases, the national ID demonstrates the true age of the ID holder, which prevents underage voting.
The third important reform aimed at enhancing transparency in the elections was the usage of specifically designated stickers posted on the voting ID cards. The election commission had launched a six- months long countrywide campaign to post stickers on potential voters’ National Identity Cards. The IEC estimates show that about nine million stickers were pasted on voters’ IDs.The measure added a new filter to the existing screening procedure of voters, those who did not have the stickers posted on their ID cards were not allowed to vote.
Usage of the biometric system was also part of the electoral reform that was introduced in the electoral system. Every voter had to go through the biometric system prior to casting their vote in their relevant polling center. Due to the absence of the national central data pool, the machines could only prevent double cast of vote by the same individual in the same polling station. However, the machine has been designed to store voters’ data for later consumption.
Conservative estimates have put the turnout at 40-45 percent, which is equal to the turnout in 2010 parliamentary elections. Such a high turnout in the election was something that very few would have believed in a few months ago. Given the security situation and the socio-economic and socio-political situation of Afghanistan, the turnout out was promising.
While ostensibly associated with allegations of fraud, the recent parliamentary elections offer many lessons.
During the entire electoral cycle, particularly on the election day, the Afghan security forces performed beyond expectations. They shouldered thorough responsibility of security provision before, during and after the election day, which elevated respect for the Afghan security forces not only among Afghans but also Afghanistan ’s international partners.
Usage of the biometric system was also part of the electoral reform that was introduced as part of reforms in the electoral system. Every voter had to go through the biometric system prior to casting their vote in their relevant polling center. The biometric machines failed to properly function in some areas due to the weak performance of the Independent Election Commission. The absence of the national central data pool, the machines were able only to prevent a double cast of vote by the same individual in the same polling station. However, the machine has been designed to store voters’ data for later consumption.
The reforms were welcomed by the Afghans, the political groups and the international community. It was widely viewed as an act that has the potential to pave the way for opening windows of opportunity for introducing more transparency in the electoral system in Afghanistan and can serve as stepping stone for winning the trust of Afghans and other stakeholders in future.
However, mishandling the reforms in their execution phase, widespread problems in the election day logistics, and anomalies in the post-election processes by both the commissions- the Independent Election Commission and the Election Complaints Commission- painted a bleak and terrifying picture of elections among Afghans. This situation has forced many Afghans to think that the high ranking officials in the commissions, particularly the ones on the policy level, are not in a position to discharge their duties professionally and technically. It is widely believed that sound management by both the commissions would have averted many of the problems in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Allegations of the unprofessional treatment of the ballot counting process, missing of a sizeable number of ballot boxes, frequent changes in the results, and long and unexpected delays in the election results are some of the specific areas that were badly treated by the officials of the IEC. Many Afghans believe that the delay is intentional and is made to earn time for the IEC officials to strike deals behind the screen deals with the parliamentarians and change the results according to their will.
The reforms introduced needs to be further cemented in the electoral system, mainstreamed in the electoral system and seek ways to secure and strengthen the nascent electoral infrastructure in Afghanistan.
*Ahmadullah Archiwal is a Kabul based researcher and can be reached at [email protected]