Afghanistan's Upcoming Presidential Elections

An Afghan elder shows his inked finger to indicate that he voted in the Afghan elections on Aug. 20, 2009 in Barg e Matal. (Photo: Chris Allison)

On April 5, the Afghan people will vote in the country's third presidential elections in history. In addition to the important questions of who is likely to win the race and what various outcomes will mean for the future of the county, these elections represent something else—another attempt at organizing free and fair elections in a weak, war-torn state. Difficulties abound, but based on the experience with the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan, the challenges that the country has to face for these elections to succeed lie in three intimately intertwined and basic issues: voting management, country-wide participation and the perception of elections.

When the international community and the post-Taliban interim Afghan government first took up the task of holding general elections in Afghanistan in 2004-2005, one major problem was apparent, namely that in this (post-)conflict state, which has no effective civil registry, the task of organizing and monitoring voting would be extremely difficult. Somehow the challenge of not knowing how many eligible voters there were per district or town, let alone being able to verify the identity of voters (due to a poor ID card/passport system), had to be circumvented. It was chosen to apply ad hoc solutions such as voter registration cards and indelible ink (the latter to mark fingertips of voters in order to prevent multiple voting).

The application of these methods in Afghanistan so far is not without controversy. The presidential elections of 2009 were marred by much disarray about fraud, part of which was linked to the use of ink and voter registration cards. The election process received a legitimacy blow with the news and evidence that the supposedly indelible ink could be removed relatively easily and that many voter registration cards ended up at black markets. The lack of civil registry and ID/passports continues to be a problem in Afghanistan. Despite all of the reconstructions efforts and development money spent since 2001, Afghanistan remains among the less developed countries that lack proper statistics. No accurate population count has taken place, and millions of Afghans still do not have identification documents. So indelible ink and voter cards will be used again in these presidential elections. There are allegations that millions of registration cards were circulating at black markets even before this year's campaigning began.

A second issue that these elections have to grapple with is the challenge of ensuring countrywide participation. Aside from the fact that people in different regions of the country have to be motivated to participate, there is also an unyielding security dimension. In 2009, corruption allegations had more to do with so-called wholesale corruption (e.g. ballot stuffing) rather than retail corruption (voting multiple times). The problem of ballot stuffing was particularly acute in areas that were marked as too dangerous for observers to visit. According to one source, of the 8,000 polling stations, more than 1,200 went unmonitored because of security concerns. Those areas were also particularly unsafe for voters due to intimidation and abuse by the Taliban, who fully reject elections and threaten anyone taking part.

Having learned from that experience, during the parliamentary elections of 2010, electoral officials in Afghanistan decided not to open about 900 polling stations in the most dangerous parts of the country. For the upcoming presidential elections, election officials are expected to open approximately 7,000 polling stations, while 414 will remain closed. The decision to close hundreds of polling stations can be defended from a security standpoint, but that decision has its ramifications in terms of the representation of voters and countrywide legitimacy. Approximately half of all closed stations are in three provinces in the south and west of the country: Helmand, Farah and Ghor. These places are likely to spiral further into Taliban control as the government is pushed further away from the local population there. The closing of stations not only disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of people, but also sends a clear signal to the local people that Kabul is rather powerless in these parts of the country. One has to hope that the government will be able to provide security and protection to election participants in the areas where polling stations will be open.

Finally, an issue that is at least equally important and might demand some excruciating trade-offs by national and international election observers is the perception of the process. Whether elections are perceived to be relatively free and fair is a crucial question in assessing the success or failure of these elections. In particular, it is important for the Afghan population, more than the international community, to have a sense that the process was (relatively) proper. Previous presidential elections ended prematurely when one of the two remaining candidates withdrew from the second round. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah accused the government of systematic fraud that favored his opponent Hamid Karzai. Whilse it is no secret that those elections were marred by corruption, the actual scale and nature of fraud never became known. The organization that was in the best position to carry out a full investigation into those allegations, the United Nations (due to its access and mandate), decided not to do it. Even though there was much internal disagreement within the U.N. mission in Kabul about this priority, no U.N. report examining election fraud allegations in the 2009 presidential elections was produced. It is believed that the rationale behind this decision was the reluctance to cause further political and public unrest around the elections.

With that experience in mind, one major election challenge could come in deciding the most appropriate course of action if allegations and/or evidence of mass election fraud surface again in the upcoming presidential elections. While it is highly undesirable that some candidates unfairly manipulate the outcome of the elections, it is unclear what exactly has to be done if systematic fraud is detected. With the kind of fragile peace that exists in Afghanistan, tackling these issues directly and forcefully could be difficult and could further delegitimize an already weak government. Ensuring a peaceful transition of power is really the main priority in these elections. At the same time, one does not want to become complicit in fraud by covering up election misconduct or manipulation. Election observers and political actors on the scene have to be careful about consequences of poorly managed elections but also of poorly managed election perceptions.