Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Just before leaving Afghanistan

It has been a couple of days since the elections. While life in Kabul appears to be returning back to normal, the wide-spread reports of election fraud by colleagues and friends who were stationed outside of Kabul as election observers makes it increasingly clear that Afghanistan had two elections on August 20th, 2009.
One was the one that many international observers like myself witnessed in Kabul: calm, procedures were followed, and there were no visible signs of major fraud. Then there was much of the rest of the country, especially the insecure areas of southern Afghanistan. In these areas I've heard reports of stuffed ballot boxes early in the morning when observers showed up, political pressures exerted by government officials to favor President Karzai, and no sign of the mandated tally sheet posted on polling center doors. It is likely that the most egregious fraud happened in areas where observers could not go due to security concerns. In some of these areas, such as in Kandahar, I hear from reliable sources that at most 5% of the population voted. And yet vote tallies are likely to show much higher turnout.
More and more evidence coming in of whole-sale fraud having taken place in many parts of the country. Also reports that the head of the UN in Kabul and other western officials are trying to negotiate a "National Unity" government as a face-saving way out. The problem is that this kind of solution is likely to worsen the legitimacy of the next Afghan administration.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 21st: The Day After...

"An ECC determination that leads to a run-off vote, would help rescue legitimacy out of what was a fraudulent election."

-- Ashraf Ghani, Presidential Candidate

With reports of massive electoral fraud coming in from different parts of Afghanistan, the view I'm increasingly coming to is that the election we international observers saw in Kabul and other safe parts of the country was a very different one from that in Kandahar, Helmand and other insecure parts of the country. Reports are coming in of fraud by IEC (the Independent Election Commission, whose head was appointed by Karzai) workers, by provincial level and by local level government officials. And then there was voter intimidation to stay away from the polls.

In Kandahar province, observer and local feedback is pointing to a turnout of 5% at most. What will the ECC and the international community do if the official results show a turnout of say 40%? And this in a province where we already know that there was significant over-registration of voters before the elections. So the extent of fraud is a real issue.

The other pressing issue is what will be done about the fraud. The ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) is staffed by internationals and Afghans. After preliminary election results are announced on the 25th of August, they have 2-3 weeks to address all official complaints of fraud that are filed with them. The problem is that the ECC has little capacity beyond Kabul to actually investigate these fraud allegations. And even if they had the capacity, it would take a lot longer than 2-3 weeks to investigate these charges. So then what does one do?

Just double-checked ECC's mandate. If they find evidence of a candidate being involved in electoral fraud, they have the mandate to bar that candidate from political office. Unlikely to happen.

The real question to be asked is what should be done now? Afghans are unlikely to see any first-round victory as legitimate. And the international community has already lost a lot of credibility by putting up with corruption and fraud. An Afghan said to a colleague here that on the day when the decision was made to allow President Karzai to stay on beyond his constitutional mandate, "the soul went out of Afghanistan."

There will likely have to be a political solution to the election result. Hopefully the outcome will help bring greater legitimacy to the whole election process...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20th/21st, 2009, midnight

Afghans Deserve to be Praised for Turning out to Vote Today!
Watching them manage the polling stations and proudly cast their votes gives hope for this nascent democracy, no matter who ends up winning. And if it should go to a second round, the legitimacy of the process might actually strengthened.

There were reports of over 260 security incidents throughout Afghanistan today and, after the security situation in the days prior to the election and the threats made against voters, turnout was expected to be low. And yet, people turned out to vote. Afghans manned the polling stations, sent poll observers to almost all stations, provided the security for the stations, and turned out in greater numbers than expected.
Watching the practice of democracy in action in this nascent democratic, largely illiterate and poor country, was quite an experience. Today, turnout was clearly lower than in 2004/2005, there were problems with procedures, ink washing off, card punchers not working, and other confirmed and alleged fraud. But there is an Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission which will deal with these issues in the coming weeks. For now, the fact that Afghans turned out and followed the procedures of a democracy under the shadow of multiple threats is to be admired!

August 20th at noon in Kabul

Photo: Kabul at 5.30 am with security blimp over calm city.

The streets of Kabul are empty today, because traffic is restricted. A few reports of security incidents already. Polling centers we visited were all functioning as expected, except that the punchers for the Voter Registration Cards (VRCs) were almost all not working. Some voting officials in Kabul are improvising and using scissors to cut off a part of the VRC. We noticed that the ink seemed weak at a couple of the polling stations and are getting reports of this also from others.

I am hearing that Presidential candidate Bashardost is filing a complaint about the ink being weak. He apparently washed the ink of his finger with basic detergent. Am hearing the same from people in Baghlan.

Baghlan Old city and districts around New City is under Taliban control. Police chief killed this morning. Voting not possible.

Other Provinces in North East, with the exception of Kunduz, voting is generally going well with good voter turnout.

Helmand: security preventing voters from coming to the polling centers.

Kandahar: very lethargic turnout, presumably out of fear.
According to the latest information from out campaign office in Ghazni province, insecurity prevents election as well as observation of the process in certain areas.

According one source of information, a total number of 834 polling stations in 14 districts are inaccessible due to worst security in Ghazni process, which is specified as following:
Deh Yak district - 57 polling stations
Zana Khan district - 25 polling stations
Khwaja Omari district - 5 polling stations
Rashidan district - 19 polling stations
Khogyani district - 17 polling stations
Waghaz district - 44 polling stations
Qara Bagh district - 184 polling stations
Ajerestan district - 74 polling stations
Moqur district - 80 polling stations
Aab Band district - 42 polling stations
Gillan district - 51 polling stations
Nawa district - the entire district is unsafe

According to a source from one of the presidential candidate’s staff, “the IEC staff influenced by the local authorities are planning to station the entire boxes in the center of the districts and stuff it in favor of the incumbent. “

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

August 19th, 2009

Not much of a calm before the storm today with an incident in Kabul and several reported around the country. President Karzai has called for a news blackout tomorrow on security incidents, lest it deter potential voters. But, of course, that is a difficult thing to do in a democratic country.

Security will certainly be the major concern tomorrow. A friend who was up in Kunduz with the German PRT said that they were under attack from 360 degrees there. If that is the security situation in the northern part of the country, one can just imagine the situation in the south.

Security will not only be an issue tomorrow. The days following the election will most certainly see different factions trying to assert their power.

One thing that is going to be a real issue is that the IEC external affairs announced that the earliest official preliminary results will be released on August 25th (the news put out earlier was that they would have prelim results announced on Saturday, August 22). This will of course be a problem, because presidential candidate Abdullah and others will have their poll agents recording the numbers from the talley that they are required to post by the next day at each polling station and start announcing their own results. If the official results are significantly different, there could be real issues arising in terms of security and legitimacy.

Another issue is that 12 candidates have withdrawn (but only 7 did it on time & with correct paperwork). Ballots are of course already printed (though as of this morning 20% of the polling stations had not yet received their materials). IEC has no plan to post a note or inform voters of which candidates have withdrawn. Votes cast for withdrawn candidates will be taken out of the numerator and denominator -- making it easier for Karzai to get 50% + 1.

It is night in Kabul now and all seems quiet. City lights twinkling away. Let's hope tomorrow is calm like this too.

August 18, 2009

We have had several meetings with representatives of presidential candidates, members of international organizations and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) about the upcoming elections. Security is on everyone’s mind, especially in light of the two bombs that went off today, one on the road to Jalalabad outside of Kabul, and another in a northern province.

Afghan-led Elections: What is really noticeably different about these elections compared to the last round is that these are Afghan-led elections, with the majority of the leading staff at IEC and EEC being Afghans. Both the IEC and EEC, however, also retain a significant number of international staff.

Anti-fraud mechanisms in place: To counter polling fraud, several mechanisms have been put in place, including the creation of the permanent IEC & ECC; having international, domestic and candidate-sent election observers in place at polling stations; the use of indelible ink (which does not wash away for 10 days) on a finger of each voter; the presence of election observers at each stage of the vote tabulation process; and the posting of preliminary results outside each polling station. With all these mechanisms in place, a significant number of polling stations would have to be captured in order to make a difference in the outcome. So the likelihood of fraud should not be very high … if all goes according to plan that is!

Polling Fraud: Despite all these anti-fraud measures, fraud has already been committed with the widely reported over-registration in particular of women in insecure parts of the country. BBC also reported that one can buy voter registration cards for $10 at a market in Kabul. The question is who would benefit from this type of fraud? Karzai supporters state that support for Karzai is greatest in the insecure, Pashtun-dominated southern part of the country. They therefore think that they have the most to lose. However, it is of course also easiest to commit electoral fraud in insecure areas where there are few election observers...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back in Kabul after several years...

August 16th, 2009

I landed in Kabul today to monitor the Afghan Presidential Elections as part of a Democracy International delegation. Have not been here for several years and how the city has changed. Nice, new airport terminal, knowledgeable airport staff. And on the way to the hotel: entire high-rise building communities, wedding halls, small vendors and shops everywhere, and Kabul is much greener now with shrubs planted along the main roads.

Signs of hope everywhere, despite the car bomb that exploded yesterday outside of the NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing 7 people. These tactics are definitely designed to intimidate people into staying away from the polls this Thursday, August 20th. And it has led to greater caution, esp. among the internationals: Our car took a circuitous route to the place I'm staying to avoid areas of target, there is a blimp floating above Kabul which is apparently fitted with cameras that can recognize a person's face up to 22 kilometers away, and all members of our delegation are required to wear body armor whenever we leave our housing. A hunkering down mentality in the days leading up to the elections...


The latest polls by the International Republican Institute ( and Reuters indicate a significant lead for Karzai, though not at the over 50 percent hurdle that the winning candidate needs to avoid a run-off, second round of elections. These polls indicate that the population is disillusioned by the lack of progress during the last five years and therefore electoral turnout is likely to suffer from voter apathy. But my small sample of five Afghans working at the hotel where I am staying seem more enthusiastic these polls and other news stories. The staff I talked to here are very likely to vote in Thursdays elections.

In all likelihood there is a great difference between voters in urban areas (who are of course more educated and have access to tvs and other media sources covering the elections) versus those in rural areas, especially those in the insecure rural areas. And this will impact the poll turnout. For example, my Afghan colleagues here tell me that in tonights presidential candidates' debate Karzai appeared less statesmen-like than Bashardost and Ghani at times boasting "Afghanistan, which has suffered a lot, was totally lost. I saved it." And at other times in the debate he tried to shift blame for the security situation away from his government, saying that foreign countries were to blame.

All of this makes for an unpredictable and closely watched election in Afghanistan.