Afghanistan: Fractious Vote – Analysis
By S. Binodkumar Singh*
After months of delay and bitter allegations of fraud and corruption, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) on December 22, 2019, published the preliminary results of the Presidential Election held on September 28, 2019. According to these results, incumbent President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani won the Election. Out of 1,824,401 total votes, Ghani secured 923,868 (50.64 percent) – enough to win in the first round of voting – defeating his main challenger, incumbent Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who secured 720,099 votes (39.52 percent).The head of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, came a distant third, with 70,243 votes (3.85 percent). The remaining 5.99 per cent votes went to 11 other candidates. Eight of these candidates– Rahmatullah Nabil, Faramarz Tamana, Enayatullah Hafiz, Mohammad Hakim Torsan, Ahmad Wali Masood, Mohammad Shahab Hakimi, Ghulam Farooq Najrabi and Noor Rahman Lewal – had together formed the Council of Presidential Candidates on April 15, 2019.The Presidential Election was contested by 14 candidates.
There was a total of 9,665,745 million (the exact number released by the IEC on August 18, 2019) registered voters, out of which1,929,333 exercised their right to vote, i.e. around 19 percent. 104,932 of the registered voters, i.e., around one percent, was found invalid. During the 2014 Presidential Election, the voting percentage was 58 percent.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Special Report, presenting the findings of election-related violence from the start of the registration for the Presidential Election on June 8, 2019, until September 30, 2019, two days after the election, indicated that attacks targeting the electoral process caused 458 civilian casualties (85 deaths and 373 injured). The report further added that attacks during the day of the polling, September 28, alone killed 28 civilians and wounded 249.The report also revealed that more than 80 per cent of all civilian casualties in the election-related violence of 2019 and about 95 per cent of all civilian casualties from election-related violence on polling day were attributed to the Taliban.
On September 26, 2019, urging Afghans to boycott the vote, the Taliban had issued a statement declaring, “We ask fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that, may Allah forbid, no one is harmed.” The civilian casualty levels were higher on polling day in the 2019 elections, as compared to polling day for the first round of the 2014 Presidential Election. UNAMA documented 159 civilian casualties (32 deaths and 127 injured) on April 5, 2014, the polling day for the first round in 2014.
Based on the IEC’s election timeline, preliminary results were scheduled to be announced on October 19, 2019. However, on that day, IEC chief Hawa Alam Nuristani announced the postponement of preliminary results for Presidential Election, saying that the delay would further ensure the transparency of the electoral process and restore the people’s confidence. On October 27, 2019, citing several technical issues slowing the counting of ballots, Nuristani announced that the Commission will declare the preliminary results of the Presidential Election on November 14, 2019. On November 13, 2019, however, IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi stated, “Unfortunately due to technical problems and other issues, we will not be able to announce the election results tomorrow.” The IEC spokesman did not provide a new date. The final results, as per original schedule, were to be declared on November 14, 2019.
Meanwhile, welcoming the preliminary results in a televised speech, Ghani told a jubilant crowd gathered at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, “With the announcement, we are moving now from darkness to light and from uncertainty to a bright future.”
However, hours after the announcement of the preliminary results of the Presidential Election, Abdullah’s team accused Ghani’s team of taking the IEC’s side, and alleged that the preliminary results were announced without separating the “clean” and “fraudulent” votes. The team in a statement asserted,
Our people accomplished their role in the September presidential elections and were waiting for the results of their ‘clean’ votes. Unfortunately, those who do not believe in the people’s right to election and for democracy have affected the election’s transparency by committing systematic, widespread fraud which led to a fraudulent announcement of preliminary result.
According to Abdullah’s team 300,000 suspicious and fraudulent votes have been counted and they demand the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) to invalidate them.
Alarmingly, competing claims were made by the two frontrunners for Afghanistan’s presidency, Ghani and Abdullah, as early as on September 30, 2019. Both declared victory, echoing an election crisis five years ago when competing claims by the two men led to months of turmoil. Ghani and Abdullah were also the top two candidates in the 2014 Presidential Election, and months of confusion followed as both men accused each other of fraud. The US eventually stepped in to broker a power-sharing deal under which Ghani became President and Abdullah accepted the post of Chief Executive.
Separately, on December 23, 2019, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another Presidential candidate, at a press conference accused the IEC of stealing his votes and claimed that the devices of 2,400 polling centres were stolen, and ballot boxes were sent back empty.
Moreover, the Council of Presidential Candidates, in a statement issued on December 22, 2019, declared that they did not accept the preliminary results of the Presidential Election and suggested the establishment of a “National Participation Government” to end the crisis.
Allegations of fraud in the Presidential Election were made by other politicians as well. On September 30, 2019, claiming that massive frauds were committed in Khost Province, Humayoun Humayoun, former Deputy House Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament stated,
Ballot boxes were stuffed during the night time in favor of President Ashraf Ghani in remote districts. They transferred the ballot boxes to district administrative compounds and used 10 finger prints to manipulate the biometrics system.
According to Humayoun, less than 35 thousand people participated in the elections in Khost Province, but the officials report the number of voters manifold higher.
Similarly, Bismillah Afghanmal, former Member of Parliament (MP) claimed massive vote-rigging took place in Kandahar and Zabul Provinces as well:
Ballot boxes were stuffed in the houses of powerful individuals in Arghandab, Panjwai and Spin Boldak districts, in collusion with the election workers and in coordination with the governor and district administrative chiefs.
Further, on December 26, 2019, at a gathering organized by Hizb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami in Kabul with participation from politicians from several Afghan political parties including Hizb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami (led by Karim Khalili), Hizb-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Islami, Hizb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami Mardom-e-Afghanistan (led by Mohammed Mohaqiq), Afghan Millat Party and Paiwand-e-Milli Party, the political leaders vowed to defy the establishment of a Government arising from “electoral fraud.”
On the other hand, sharing the preliminary findings of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), a Kabul-based civic-action body that monitors elections, Naeem Ayubzada, Director of TEFA stated, on October 9, 2019, that they had collected 75 percent of the result sheets from 34 Provinces. Ayubzada asserted that some electoral teams had threatened TEFA officials not to disclose the information regarding the Presidential candidate who had obtained the most votes. He further stated that TEFA would share their findings in the event the electoral commissions failed to maintain their impartiality in the vote counts and the announcement of the final election result.
Separately, on October 28, 2019, election observers raised concerns of the possible influence of the Dermalog, the German-based company that provided biometric devices to the IEC, on the results of the Presidential Election. Naeem Ayubzada, Director of TEFA, said,
Dermalog is not an electoral company to know the management of the election process, secondly, if this company takes responsibility, there is no trust and confidence in it and there are chances of fraud. Dermalog Company has its own links with the government and also with international players.
Similarly, Yousuf Rashid, the head of Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), another independent institution working to enhance transparency and accountability in democratic processes in Afghanistan, stated,
The commission’s status and credibility as an independent body are facing questions. The interaction they had with Dermalog, whether in the shape of a contract or an agreement – they have to give the management of the data and the information and statistics to Dermalog. At the moment, Dermalog has the same status as the election commission while the commission itself works as a technical secretariat of this company.
Disturbingly, on October 21, 2019, news was leaked that the locks of the doors of the Data Server of IEC, where biometric data was stored, were found broken. Initially, the IEC denied any such incident. However, a day later on October 22, 2019, IEC member Raheema Zarifi confirmed the intrusion into the Data Server room for biometric devices and announced that an investigation into the incident had been launched. The Presidential candidates blamed the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who seeks to hold the office for another five-year term.
In order to address the allegations of fraud, on December 22, 2019, a few hours after the announcement of preliminary results, IECC announced that the protesters were obliged to submit their complaints within following three days to the IECC, and the Commission would deal with the complaints within 37 to 39 working days. Zuhra Bayan Shinwari, Head of IECC noted, “IECC assures everyone that it will neutrally and independently fulfil its obligations to record and address the electoral complaints with full transparency and on time in accordance to electoral law.”Based on the electoral law of Afghanistan, candidates can register their complaints within three days after the announcement of preliminary results and the IECC is required respond to them within 15 days.
Significantly, on December 26, 2019, at a press conference, IECC, announced that the 16,500 complaints had been registered in connection with the Presidential Election. Of these, about 8,000 were filed by Abdullah Abdullah’s team;4,400 were filed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s team; about 4,000 were filed by Ghani’s team; and 15 by Rahmatullah Nabil’s team. Officials at the IECC also said that they will increase their efforts to address the complaints in the following 36 days. The process of filing complaints with the IECC began on December 23, 2019.
Meanwhile, another ominous outcome of the preliminary result is that a map published by the IEC shows a treacherous division between the North and South. Ghani won in the 16 Southern and Eastern Provinces, while rival candidate Abdullah received the highest number of votes in 18 Provinces in the North and Central Provinces of Afghanistan. The division not only reflects a deep ethnic divide in the country, but also suggests that another feud between the leaderships of two sides, and their position on key issues, is in the offing.
There appears no likelihood of compromise between Ghani and Abdullah as the former has completely endorsed the preliminary results and the latter has rejected the outcome and declared it fraudulent and bogus. Given the very small margin of less than 12,000 Ghani votes above the 50 percent threshold and the pending complaints procedure, a second round of election is still possible in Afghanistan. IECC has an obligation to adjudicate any complaints it receives transparently and thoroughly, so the election process can conclude in a credible manner. With the announcement of the preliminary results, the controversy around the Presidential Election is far from over and the current polarised climate could be a repeat of past controversies.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management