Afghanistan: Ailing trust amidst elections

Accusations against IEC staff must be probed or else the legitimacy of the next Afghan president will be questioned.

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani has welcomed UN mediation, writes Torfeh [EPA]

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) has postponed the counting of votes in the second round of elections while a solution is being sought for a stalemate over allegations of extensive fraud in the elections.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision to intervene in the deadlock by opting for mediation by the United Nations is a positive step that may help calm nerves and ease the mounting tension. Karzai is, in effect, backing a request by the front-runner Abdullah Abdullah who earlier called for a commission to be set up by the two candidates led by the UN to oversee the counting process and the adjudication of complaints. Recalling all his observers from IEC, Abdullah had called for a halt to ballot counting, saying he did not trust the system.

The dilemma illustrates the importance of continued support by the international community, especially the UN, in Afghanistan’s fledgling political development.

The UN special representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, met with the IEC chairman, Yousof Nuristani, and Abdullah to see if a solution could be found for a way forward. He said earlier in a statement that electoral bodies must “proactively respond to valid candidate concerns”. The mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) does leave the door open for cooperation and support over the elections “at the request of the Afghan authorities”.

UNAMA has called for calm and statesmanship asking the two candidates to engage with each other and re-engage fully in the electoral process. Kubis, who met Karzai on June 20, had earlier rejected Abdullah’s request referring both candidates to follow the Constitution and laws. His acceptance to help in resolving the political impasse would add the badly needed element of trust in the process.

The dilemma illustrates the importance of continued support by the international community, especially the UN, in Afghanistan’s fledgling political development.

Choosing a solution 

Karzai’s decision marks a drastic shift in his position. Over the past two years, he always insisted that elections must be Afghan-led and Afghan-managed, clearly speaking out against interference by “foreigners”. He even ordered the removal of a clause in the Election Law, which stipulated the presence of two international observers in the Electoral Complaints Commission. To try and take a middle line, Karzai has also suggested an Afghan solution whereby in lieu of the UN, the process could be observed by his two vice presidents. Putting the ball in their court, he said the two candidates could “choose whichever solution they prefer”.  

His suggestion comes on the back of deep concern in Afghanistan about where the tension may lead. The head of the Secretariat of the High Peace Council (HPC), Masoom Stanekzai, escaped a suicide attack on June 21 but several civilians were injured and one was killed. Demonstrations were reported around Kabul by anti-fraud protestors heading towards the Presidential Palace and the IEC offices near Kabul airport.

“Some people have already called for civil disobedience and some incidents have already taken place,” said a statement by UNAMA expressing concern on June 18.

The stalemate in the election process occurred when Abdullah, who won 45 percent of the votes in the first round, complained about “engineered elections” and demanded the head of IEC Secretariat, Zia-ul Haq Amarkhil, be suspended while investigations took place. However, IEC rejected the accusations saying all complaints would be investigated in due course adding that the counting would continue without Abdullah’s observers.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who had 32 percent of the votes in the first round, dismissed all allegations as an all-out effort to discredit the electoral bodies. He has welcomed UN mediation.

Reports of fraud

Three independent election watchdogs all reported extensive fraud in the elections. The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) said in a press conference in Kabul that only six million voters had taken part in the second round when IEC had announced the turnout to be seven million. TEFA said that there were stuffed ballot boxes in 218 centres in 16 provinces and double voting had occurred in 337 centres in 13 provinces.

Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) listed police intervention and meddling of IEC staff in favour of specific candidates as the most serious violations.

Fraud was conducted in “an aggressive manner”, according to Election Watchdog Organization of Afghanistan (EWA).

“This indicated the interference of government organs in the process, interference by the candidates supporters and partially by some of IEC staff,” the head of EWA, Jandad Spinghar, told Tolo TV.

Even the head of Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) in the northeastern Takhar province, Barna Salehi, resigned on June 20, citing government and IEC interference.

“We didn’t think the interference would have such a major impact but it did,” he was quoted as saying by Tolo news.

Whichever way the two candidates choose, it is essential that accusations against the IEC staff be probed effectively and to the satisfaction of both. Otherwise there is little doubt that the legitimacy of the future president would, once again, be in doubt and Afghan electoral institutions would lose their credibility. Moreover, civil tension with a strong ethnic tone is likely to ensue.  

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.