LAST UPDATED [12/04/13] – The next election in Afghanistan is scheduled for April 5, 2014. Greatest risk areas: violence, and a national climate of corruption, from the President to the cop on the local street corner.
– Freedom: “Not free” rating 6 on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being least free.1
– Election Risk: Highest, rated 10 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most at risk for election fraud.2
– 2013 Corruption Perception Index: Transparency International has Afghanistan in a three-way tie for most corrupt country in the world, out of 177 countries analyzed in 2013.3
The most immediate risk to Afghan elections stems from violence and intimidation, affecting who can vote, through intimidation and sometimes killings, of voter registration workers, and resulting in registration centers being closed down in some areas due to inability to secure them. Lawlessness, coercion, and intimidation also affect whether registered voters do vote. Women are especially targeted, and also subjected to repression and theft of their votes, as men “cast women’s votes by proxy” in some of Afghanistan’s more conservative areas.
In 2013, at least two election workers were kidnapped, one senior election official assassinated, three election workers injured by a roadside bomb, and one candidate shot to death. These grim events have taken place despite the presence of foreign military security forces, which are scheduled to be pulled out of Afghanistan before the 2014 election leaving voter safety in question. The Taliban has taken credit for assassinating the high-level election official, and has vowed to disrupt the 2014 election, believing that their time to return to power is coming.
The largest election accounting problem is an out-of-control voter card system, which features lack of administrative control combined with some of the busiest voter card trafficking entrepreneurs on the planet.
Nearly 10 times as many voter cards have been issued as voters who registered to vote; the number of voter cards is double the number of possible voters. Yes, let’s do those numbers: Afghanistan has a low voter registration rate (2.7 voters out of 12 million eligible to register); no one knows exactly how many potential voters exist because they haven’t had a census in 30 years. Though an estimated 12 million people should be eligible to register, over 20 million voter cards have been issued, including a vast number of duplicates, added to an unknown number of completely made-up persons.
There is no database to track voter cards, which have no expiration date. There is no eligible voter list on election day to validate that voters who show up are registered.
Voter cards have been issued for five elections in a row, but without keeping track of who already has them. A leading Afghan election official estimates that only 80 percent of issued voter cards have been accounted for.
Only men’s voter cards require a photograph, making trafficking in cards issued to women’s names especially appealing.
THE GOOD NEWS
The Afghan people have been standing up for their right to vote, and vote transparently. Dozens of Afghan rights organizations have announced plans to monitor the election process, working to prevent fraud and abuse on Election Day. By invitation, the OSCE has agreed to send a team of international observers, one of the more effective measures to combat election fraud.
Election transparency starts with a set of publicly available rules, and for the first time in over a decade, Afghanistan has formal electoral laws passed by both houses of parliament and signed off on by the president.
A large number of candidates have thrown hats into the ring for the opportunity to replace President Karzai, who is termed out. The multitude of candidates is reflective of excitement about the election, despite all the problems, but may also be caused by the lack of a political party system, generating a lot of independent candidates.
Election officials hope to counteract the pool of questionable voter cards by requiring long-lasting ink on voter fingers, and by stepping up training to help election workers recognize counterfeit cards.
Afghan media has continued to grow and diversify, and a 2007 media law was hoped to limit government interference and provide explicit press freedoms. An even more powerful transparency development, a rapidly growing use of internet and cell phones, will speed distribution of information and help to capture evidence of election irregularities.
Though women’s rights have been a challenge in Afghanistan, and though voter registration is weak, nearly a million of the 2.7 million voters registered for the 2014 election are female.
Afghanistan uses real ballots, publicly visible ballot boxes, and counts votes in front of independent nonpartisan observers, assuming enough can be found and that any of them is willing to accept observation duties in the most high-risk locations.
Ballot chain of custody is at risk when ballots are moved for more centralized counting, but such risks are offset by the ability to secure vote-counting in safer locations, and can be mitigated by allowing members of international observer teams to ride along in the transport vehicle.
This good news is important, because it shows a toe-hold can be found for at least the potential for free elections — but it still measures barely a blip on Afghani election risk.
Afghanistan caps the amount of money candidates can spend at about $180,000 per candidate, an important measure in a country where drug money flows deep enough to swamp the gross national product. But candidates don’t have to reveal much about income, leaving the public no way to know if they are bankrolled by crime cartels or warlords. And, in fact, some candidates are warlords.
In 2009, now-president Karzai initially was declared the winner but large-scale fraud discovered later so significantly reduced his vote count that a runoff was scheduled; however, due to unmitigated potential for more fraud, his opponent refused to compete, claiming it a sham. During the presidential election, a group of men burst into a polling center during voting causing everyone to flee. The ballot boxes, empty when they arrived, were full afterwards.
Voter turnout in the 2010 parliamentary was low, depressed through intimidation and violence; over 30 people were killed on election day. The electoral commission found misplaced ballots from over 500 locations. The 2010 Parliamentary elections were so contentious that, although at first forced to acknowledge dozens of winners not quite to his liking, the president convened a special court, reinstating 64 candidates who had been defeated or declared ineligible to run for office at all.
“This is the reality of this country,” Noor Mohammed Noor, the head of the Independent Election Commission, is quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “We are conducting elections in a difficult situation, with poor security, but we must conduct elections. It is the only way for our country to succeed.”
And he’s right. When you step back to look at the macro, the biggest and seemingly most insurmountable obstacles are the Taliban’s avowed resistance to allowing any democratic election to succeed, and the kleptocrats — and the way to unseat corrupt public officials, absent a strong judicial system, is to vote ’em out.
* * * * *
Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/election-transparency/
- Freedom House: Freedom in the World 2013- Afghanistan Report. New York, US: Rowman & Littlefield (2013) ISBN 978-1-4422-0122-4 ↩
- Election Risk Rating: compiled by Black Box Voting by applying an election integrity taxonomy to public records, news reports, citizen reports and field observations. ↩
- The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (see: http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2013/results/ )ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. A country or territory’s score indicates the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 – 100, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 100 means it is perceived as very clean. A country’s rank indicates its position relative to the other countries and territories included in the index. This year’s index includes 177 countries and territories. ↩