Who is watching Afghanistan’s elections?

Some international observers pulled out amid security concerns, creating legitimacy fears for presidential vote.

Campaigning in Afghanistan has been marred by violence, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the April 5 vote [AFP]
Campaigning in Afghanistan has been marred by violence, with the Taliban vowing to disrupt the April 5 vote [AFP]

Kabul, Afghanistan – Security has been a scarce commodity in Afghanistan for some time, but the Taliban’s recent spate of attacks intended to disrupt the April 5 elections – and the promise of more to come – have amplified the sense of insecurity.

Assaults targeting international observers and the election commission itself have left open questions regarding the legitimacy and the security of Saturday’s vote.

In an attempt to calm nerves and promise a safe day at the polls, the Interior Ministry, coupled with Afghan Special Forces, planned a press conference on Thursday to answer security questions.

But things did not go as planned; after Wednesday’s deadly attack on the MOI’s compound within central Kabul’s heavily guarded “steel belt”, it started to seem that the Taliban can strike at will.

So can the security apparatus improve confidence?

Members of the Interior Ministry didn’t attend the press conference, so different branches of the Special Forces were left to attempt to quell concerns from the population.

In response to a question on election security, Mohammed Zaher Azimi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Al Jazeera that the threat to Afghanistan comes from “known circles outside the country”.

As long as that threat exists, “the innocent people of Afghanistan…will continue to have such worries, as will we,” said Azimi, who dismissed the attacks, such as the one on the Serena Hotel on March 20, as an “embarrassing” act by the Taliban, “not one of bravery and strength”.

“If only they’d fight us face to face,” he said.

Observing the observers

The Taliban, however, prefers to fight in the shadows and few involved with the vote feel safe. 

Two election commission offices have been attacked, as has a hotel where international election observers were staying, prompting the majority of them to leave.

Afghan observers, however, are not going anywhere.

If bullets fall from the sky like rain, I will still go to the polling station.

- Abdul Munir Azizi, Afghan election observer

“If bullets fall from the sky like rain, I will still go to the polling station,” said Abdul Munir Azizi, 32, who will be working as an election observer with the Afghan Women’s Rights Network. “Afghans have seen the worst of it…we have even experienced civil war. Now people would sacrifice their lives, but they will definitely go to vote.”

Still, the departure of the observers is a worrying development. 

Hassan Wafaey, a political analyst and researcher, said the role of international observers is crucial as it can make or break the legitimacy of the next government in the eyes of Afghan people.

This is, after all, a population that almost expects corruption and fraud as a matter of course.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, a civil society organisation promoting democracy, found that 25 percent of those surveyed think these elections will be fair. And that poll was done before the current eruption of anti-election violence.

“The role of international observers will be very important in the upcoming elections because of the experience with corruption in previous elections,” said Wafaey, who also works with several civil society groups.

Attacks such as the one on the Serena Hotel, where one international observer was killed, prompted key observers such as the National Democratic Institute to pull out. The Taliban has promised more attacks.

“The number of the national observers is higher than in previous elections, but they are not seen as important,” he said.

“International observers are seen by Afghans as being better educated and having more experience and expertise,” said Wafaey, adding that local observers might not feel as free criticise the process or point out corruption. “It’s obviously going to affect the legitimacy of the election.”

A ‘genuine Afghan process’­­

Shams Rasekh, chief of the observation mission at Transparent Election for Afghanistan, an independent civil society group, said that “credibility is definitely linked to security…we’ve asked the government to provide more security.”

His group has trained roughly 7,000 election observers around the country, but Rasekh told Al Jazeera that he is concerned that most of the roughly 290,000 domestic observers might not be properly trained or might not be impartial, as candidates themselves have veritable armies of observers they’ll be sending to the polls on Saturday.

The numbers have not yet been finalised, but just under 10,000 international election observers might still be in Afghanistan by Saturday, including the European Union’s monitoring mission. This is less than previous elections, Rasekh said, noting that the Asia Foundation and National Democratic Institute have pulled-out of the country. 

That leaves a vacuum that will need to be filled with local observers. While some gained experience in previous elections, other could inadvertently violate election laws because they are not familiar with methodology and procedures.

Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai alone has submitted around 40,000 names to the Independent Election Commission to be approved as poll observers.

One of three frontrunners in the race, he has nothing but praise for how the security situation has been handled in the lead up to the vote.

“Our security forces need to be praised, both for their sacrifice and for their accomplishments,” Ghani Ahmadzai told Al Jazeera.

“Compared to the threats, they’ve done very well,” he said, adding that election day “is a genuine security issue.”

For a candidate running in the race, he said the lack of foreign observers is not going to put a dent in the legitimacy of the results.

“This process has been a genuine Afghan process,” said Ghani Ahmadzai.

“In 2004 and 2009, the international community was at the forefront of managing, funding, et cetera,” he said. “So far, this has been a totally Afghan process…monitoring will be done by a conscious public.”

There are, however, concerns over how the electoral commission’s reports concerning the security situation will affect do poll workers, observers and voters. Fears of violence could impact voter turnout on Saturday.

“We won’t ask that the media not report on security issues,” said Heshmatallah Radfar, a member of the IEC media commission, at a briefing on Thursday. “But we ask that they keep the mental health of election workers and voters in mind and that they not exaggerate the security threats.”

Indeed, the hope remains that even if the Taliban’s threats materialise in some areas, people will still generally turn out to vote, and trust that those votes will count.

Azimi, the Defence Ministry spokesman, remains optimistic about the process and how voting will impact the long-term security outlook. “The people of Afghanistan should know that the submission of every vote constitutes a tooth-breaking blow to our domestic and international enemies,” he said.   

Follow @dparvaz on Twitter

Source: Al Jazeera

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