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Impartiality Critical to Ensuring Afghanistan’s Election Credibility

April 16, 2014

Election day in Afghanistan exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, with long queues of men and women turning out to vote for a new president in what many are declaring a sign of increased political maturity and belief in democratic systems among Afghans today.

Afghan women wait in line in a rainy Kabul to cast their ballots in Afghanistan's April 5 election. Estimates show a turnout of over 50 percent, 37 percent of whom were women.

Afghan women wait in line in a rainy Kabul to cast their ballots in Afghanistan’s April 5 election. Estimates show a turnout of over 50 percent, 37 percent of whom were women.

Estimates show a turnout of over 50 percent – 37 percent of whom were women – all the more significant in an environment where fear of violence was on high in the lead-up to the election and threatened to impact voter turnout. Instead, Afghans defied threats and attacks by insurgent groups and came out in large numbers to cast their vote. On Sunday, Afghans heard the first official report of partial results, with two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, appearing to take the lead with a run-off likely.

Over one thousand mosques were dedicated as polling centers with separate stations for male and female voters. Many see this as an indication of increased tolerance and acceptance of democratic processes by Afghan religious scholars, who, according to The Asia Foundation’s latest “Survey of the Afghan People,” rank among the most trusted institutions in Afghanistan.

Election day in Afghanistan exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, with long queues of men and women turning out to vote for a new president. Photo/Flickr user UN/Fardin Waezi http://bit.ly/P5VBda

Election day in Afghanistan exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, with long queues of men and women turning out to vote for a new president. Photo/Flickr user UN/Fardin Waezi http://bit.ly/P5VBda

In addition to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC), Afghan media played a significant and responsible role in increasing public participation in this year’s election. In the two-month lead up to the election, media outlets continuously focused their coverage on the importance of political participation and the first-ever transfer of power from one elected president to an elected successor. This included daily roundtable discussions surrounding various topics related to elections between experts, public service announcements, and singing competitions in support of elections. On election day, the majority of media channels focused more on turnout than on security incidents or irregularities in the process. Many argue that such reassuring messages by the media led to the rise in the number of voters who came out as the day went on.

According to the latest figures from the IEC, a record 362,780 individuals comprised of candidate/political party agents and observers were accredited to monitor the election. Security organizations were able to provide adequate security to polling centers and election workers, with few incidents reported on polling day that affected the process. For example, following an attack by insurgents on a polling center in Kunduz province, security forces were able to quickly respond and clear the area of insurgents in one hour, and voters reportedly appeared at the reopened center shortly thereafter to cast their ballots. Despite the fact that over 900 polling centers remained closed on polling day due to insecurity, many Afghans including members of parliament, media, and civil society have declared the security provided to voters at over 6,000 centers across the country a major achievement for Afghanistan’s security organizations.

While public engagement in the April 5 election is impressive and certainly something to celebrate, as anticipated, concern over fraud is on the rise as final results are tallied. In certain parts of the country where observers and/or candidate agents were not present or not in adequate numbers to ensure sufficient oversight, the potential for fraud was no doubt significant. Despite these challenges, the IEC and the IECC can take certain measures to mitigate fraud, which will require a sound, transparent, and impartial management to be successful. Broken down in three phases, these are:

  • Phase 1: Take preventive measures by closing polling centers where the IEC had no control on the election process due to insecurity. The IEC has already implemented this measure by announcing closure of over 900 such polling centers before and on election day.
  • Phase 2: Implementation of a set of detective measures that require a joint effort between the IEC and the IECC to review reports and complaints of fraud from candidates, observers, as well as the use of available data from previous elections on invalidated polling centers. Such data can assist the IEC and IECC with the investigation of similar cases of fraud in polling centers detected in the 2009 and 2010 elections.
  • Phase 3: At its most critical phase, the IEC and IECC must take measures to make proven fraudulent ballots ineffective through a transparent mechanism open to observers and candidates.

Now that the Afghan people voted with great courage and determination to elect their new president, it is of utmost importance for the IEC and the IECC to maintain their impartiality and ensure that they are putting measures in place not only to detect fraud, but also that it is an effective process conducted in a coordinated effort between both commissions. The preferred timeframe to finalize most decisions on fraudulent ballots is between April 5 and the announcement of the preliminary results, expected on April 24, 2014. It is important to make most of the decisions on invalidation of fraudulent ballots before announcing preliminary results as any decisions by the IECC changing the election outcome following the announcement of the preliminary results carry a greater potential to be perceived as politicized decision-making by the commission.

Equally important, however, are the presidential candidates themselves who play a critical role in ensuring election credibility. Representatives of all presidential candidates need to monitor the tally process at the IEC and report errors or anomalies in the process to the IEC and the IECC, provide timely responses to the IECC when required to help expedite fraud investigation by the IECC, and most importantly, acceptance of the outcome, if proven to be the result of a reliable, transparent and impartial decision-making process by the electoral authorities.

Abdullah Ahmadzai is The Asia Foundation’s deputy county representative in Afghanistan. He can be reached at aahmadzai@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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