Dr. Hussain Yasa, Chief Editor of the daily Outlook Afghanistan
The world applauded third Afghan Presidential Polls held on 5th April 2014. There were two main reasons for the accolades. Firstly there was a visibly high turn-out. In all areas which they could safely reach, which included the North, Central Highlands (Hazarajat) and the urban areas of Pashtun dominated Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, electoral observers witnessed Afghans queuing to cast their ballot.
Secondly, the ANSF successfully mounted a massive security operation and provided protection and reassurance to voters and the electoral staff.
The domestic and international observers have applauded Afghans for defying the security threats and saying no to the Taliban who had vowed to disrupt the process. Afghans wherever they could reach the polling stations, turned out to express their deep desire for a change in the current leadership of their country. They voted to escape the widespread corruption and mismanagement of the country which brought it to the brink of being a collapsed state.
The next step
The appreciations Afghans won were for the Pre-Poll and Polling phase of the elections. Now, the process has entered the next crucial stage which is the Post-Poll phase. In this the Electoral Institutions, including the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), have to turn the votes into a popular decision made by Afghans about their future leadership.
The slow progress towards announcing the partial results has become a matter of concern for all those Afghan voters who thirst for a better future with a more effective president.
The IEC is scheduled to announce the preliminary results on April 24, 2014. But already it has been tardy in announcing partial results based on returns received from the polling stations across the country. These returns have been piling up in the IEC since soon after polling closed on the 5th of April.
As per the electoral procedures manual, immediately after the polls close, the staff in each polling stations have to count the ballots in the presence of observers and candidate agents. At the end of this count the returning officer prepares a sheet. On it in addition of the code of the polling center and the ballot box three details are mentioned. These are firstly the total turnout with exact numbers of male and female voters; secondly the number of votes gained by each candidate and thirdly the number of invalid votes.
The count in each polling station does not take more than a couple of hours. It is the first official counting of the ballots. The results sheets are given to the observers and agents and should be displayed outside the polling station. At the end of the process the officials put the votes back in the ballot boxes and seal them. Boxes are dispatched to the provincial capital and from there to Kabul and the headquarters of the IEC.
It is the duty of the IEC to announce the partial results of each polling station after receiving them from the authentic returning officers through cable, email or phone. Therefore the question arises as to what is holding back the announcement of the partial results? Furthermore why is the IEC confusing partial results with the preliminary results?
The preliminary result will be the total of all partial results and it is this which has to be announced on April 24, 2014. The final result will be announced later still, after the recount of the votes at the IEC headquarters and conclusion of all electoral complaints by the ECC.
The credibility of an election depends not only on high turnout or successful security arrangements but also on the fairness and transparency of the count, which ultimately has to reflect the will of people. The mysterious delay in releasing partial results is already provoking questions as to whether the authorities might be reluctant to announce the true mandate on time.
The inner circle of the presidential palace has already concluded that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has received the required votes to become the next president. This is a bitter pill for the ruling circles to swallow. The nightmare scenario now would be for the presidential palace to influence the IEC to nullify the public mandate.
But anyone seeking to interfere with the process at this late stage faces real problems. It is not easy to change the results of the constituencies where Dr. Abdullah Abdullah scored the majority of his votes. In polling centers in these areas, voting was held in the presence of observers and result sheets have already been issued. It is not plausible to show a high turnout in the polling centers where people could not reach because of the high security threat posed by the Taliban. These are mostly in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. Any attempt to increase the votes in favor of any candidate against Dr. Abdullah Abdullah from those areas would be incongruous and open to challenge.
The IEC has already announced a total turnout of 7.3 million. This was despite a situation where tens of polling centers ran out of ballot papers much before polling time was over. This happened mostly in the pro Dr. Abdullah Constituencies. The partial results collected by the observers and the polling agents of Dr. Abdullah indicate that he has crossed the vital 50% mark. They have carefully assembled all their result sheets.
On April 13, 2014 IEC issued a press release saying that it had received 85% of the result sheets from 34 provinces. But due to reasons they did not choose to publish; only 10% results from 26 provinces were announced. The results of eight provinces, which predominantly voted for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, were not announced. A staff member of the IEC database center, speaking on condition of anonymity, informed that the IEC had originally prepared to announce 30% of the results. But the plan was changed for untold reasons.
The expereince of systematic rigging in the two previous Presidential Elections (2004 & 2009) leads many to expect that the Presidential Palace will until the last minute scrabble for ways to defer acknowledging Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as the winner.
The post-poll conduct of the IEC encourages suspicions. It has given rise to well-founded fears that the Afghan Electoral Institution are under pressure to alter the mandate and take the elections into a runoff. The large turnout of real voters has meant that it is no longer feasible for anyone to impose the Palace’s favorite candidate. However the Palace’s fall back strategy may be to trigger a second round and in the politicking before this vote, to make Dr. Abdullah accept a coalition setup of the Palace’s choice.
The concluding remarks
- The IEC and ECC need to do more to safeguard the credibility of Afghan electoral institutions, which were tarnished by their performance during the two previous Presidential Polls. They should play their due role in promoting real democracy rather than oligarchy.
- The Afghan Electoral system still needs further reforms; in particular the procedural manuals need more safeguards to guarantee the fairness, transparency and authenticity of elections.
- The lack of transparency in vote counting is damaging the faith of people in the ballot. The successful transformation of the conflict in Afghanistan depends on reinforcing people’s faith in the ballot box rather than the bullet.
- There is still a chance of reversing the trend, according to which rigging became more institutionalized in each successive election.
- The future political role of all eight candidates, not just the winner, depends upon the election process producing a broadly accepted result. None of these men would have a role if Afghanistan slipped back into conflict.
- The team in the Presidential Palace needs to understand that any attempt to tamper with the popular mandate would undermine confidence in the political process, and do irreparable damage to Afghanistan’s democratic transition.
- The international community should move beyond the praise it has generously extended for the successful conduct of the first two stages of the election. It should maintain its vigilance for the rest of the process.
- All Afghans should respect the popular mandate, which has been delivered through an act of collective courage. They should avoid stealing or manipulating votes or otherwise sabotaging the democratic process. The ultimate beneficiaries of such a misadventure would only be the Taliban who were so resoundingly rejected by the Afghan people on 5th April.