How Do You Hold Free and Fair Elections in a War-Torn State?

Successful elections in Afghanistan will depend on management, participation and perception.
By: /
March 28, 2014
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On April 5, 2014, the Afghan people will vote in the country's third presidential election in its history. In addition to the undeniably 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 war-torn and weak 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 became immediately clear, namely that in this (post-)conflict state, that 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. The authorities decided to apply ad hoc solutions such as voter registration cards and indelible ink to mark fingertips of voters in order to prevent multiple voting.

The experience with the application of these methods in Afghanistan so far has not been without controversy. The presidential elections of 2009, in particular, were marred by accusations of fraud linked to the use of ink and voter registration cards. Subsequently, the election process received a blow to its legitimacy with the news and evidence that the supposedly indelible ink could be removed relatively easily and that many voter registration cards ended up on the black market. Unfortunately, the lack of civil registry and ID/passports continues to be a problem in Afghanistan today. Despite all of the reconstructions efforts and development money spent since 2001, Afghanistan remains one of the least developed countries in the world. No accurate census has been taken and millions of Afghans still do not have identification documents. As a result, indelible ink and voter cards are to be used once again in these presidential elections. It remains to be seen whether this time around these sorts of ad hoc solutions will create less trouble. Worryingly, allegations that millions of registration cards had been circulating in black markets have surfaced even before campaigning began.

A second issue that these elections have to grapple with is the challenge of ensuring a country-wide participation. In Afghanistan this problem is not merely in the fact that people in different regions of the country have to be encouraged and motivated to participate. There is also an unyielding security dimension.  When the allegations about large-scale corruption hit the news in 2009, they had more to do with so-called wholesale corruption (e.g. ballot-stuffing) rather than retail corruption (voting twice). The problem of ballot-stuffing was particularly acute in areas that were marked as too dangerous for observers to visit. According to one source, more than 1,200 of 8,000 polling stations were unobserved due to security concerns. Those areas were also particularly unsafe for voters due to greater vulnerability to intimidation and abuse by the Taliban, who refused to participate in elections and threatened voters taking part.

Having learned from their prior experiences, electoral officials decided not to open around 900 polling stations during the parliamentary elections of 2010. Those were in what was considered 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 polling stations will remain closed. The decision to close hundreds of polling stations can be defended from a security standpoint, but the decision has its ramifications in terms of the representation of voters and country-wide 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 voters, but it also sends a clear signal to the local people that Kabul is not in control of the security situation in their constituencies.

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 as one of the two remaining candidates withdrew from the second-round. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah accused the government of systematic fraud that allegedly favoured his opponent Hamid Karzai. While 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 UN (due to its access and mandate), decided not to. 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, a major election challenge could be deciding about 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 is to be done if systematic fraud is detected. With the fragile peace, tackling these issues directly and forcefully could be more difficult and result in delegitimization of an already weak government. But while ensuring a peaceful transition of power is surely the main priority in these elections, election officials run the risk of being 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 perceptions.