Afghanistan’s 2019 Elections (26): A Q&A about the ongoing election stalemate
Author: Ali Yawar Adili
The aftermath of Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election has now dragged on for 72 days. The ****Independent Election Commission**** (IEC) has missed two dates for the announcement of preliminary results and is 50 days behind its original election timetable. The commission has not decided yet when it will announce the results. Meanwhile, the IEC’s audit and recount of votes in polling stations in seven provinces has been blocked by supporters of Chief Executive and candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who have also launched street protests. The eight-strong Council of Opposition Presidential Candidates has also called for a coalition government, and the president’s supporters in parliament are calling for the announcement of partial preliminary votes. Amid all the uncertainty and confusion, AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili here tries to provide some clarity with a Q&A.
Why have the election results been delayed?
In its May 2019 electoral calendar (see it annexed to AAN’s earlier report here), the IEC had scheduled the announcement of preliminary results for 22 days after the 28 September election, on 19 October, and final results for 19 days after that, on 7 November. It had scheduled the possible runoff for 23 November, ie less than two months after polling day. In late October, however, the IEC postponed the announcement of preliminary results to 14 November. This second deadline was also not kept, and more than two months since the 28 September election, it has still to set a new date for preliminary results.
When announcing the first delay on 19 October, the IEC cited “technical reasons” and “[even] more so” its intent “to secure transparency” for the procedure (see AAN’s previous reporting here). Two days after the second deadline was missed, on 16 November, the IEC cited the following reasons :
- The objection of some election campaigns to the packing of audit and recount material (ie preparing them to be dispatched to provinces) so that they were unsent for three days. The IEC wanted to carry out an audit and recount of 8,255 polling stations located across all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces which either had no biometric data or showed other discrepancies (more on this below). However, most of the candidates wanted the audit and recount delayed until the IEC had agreed to discount some 300,000 votes which they said were invalid. These 300,000 votes include: 102,012 votes cast outside polling hours; 137,630 initially-quarantined votes and; between 50 and 70,000 votes with invalid photos details (see previous AAN reporting here).
- The objection also of some election campaigns to the audit and recount, which led to the closure of warehouses in 14 provinces. This was a reference to actions by Abdullah’s supporters which forced the IEC to suspend the audit and recount for five days from 13 to 17 November (more on this below)
- Dermalog, the German company that had provided the Biometrical Voter Verification (BVV) devices, taking more than one week to send data which, the IEC said, it had supposed to be sent in two or three days.
The IEC has indicated it might announce “partial results,” according to Commissioner Awrangzeb speaking to the media on 30 November . However, this would be controversial. (1)
Where does the audit and recount stand?
The IEC ordered the audit and recount of votes from the 8,255 polling stations in early November (more detail here). It started the procedure on 9 November, despite the objections of most of the candidates, including Abdullah. These critics demanded two things: first, before any audit and recount, there should be the invalidation of the 300,000 votes out of the 1,843,107 votes which the IEC had announced as the turnout figure following ‘de-duplication’ (ie after duplicate votes, for example, two ballots with fingerprints or tazkeras were dealt with). Second, they demanded that the votes of 2,423 out of the 8,255 polling stations due for audit and recount should be immediately invalidated because there was no biometric data with them. (The IEC had decided earlier that only votes from biometrically-verified voters (BVVed) were valid.) Abdullah’s supporters managed to block the audit and recount in 14 provinces and the IEC was forced to suspend it on 13 November to “in order to address the objections and concerns” of the critical candidates.
Having failed to reach an agreement with these candidates, however, the IEC resumed the audit and recount on 17 November and the boycott by most of the presidential candidates continued. Abdullah’s supporters blocked the process again, but this time, only in seven provinces. This has affected a total of 1,374 polling stations in: Badakhshan (286), Baghlan (712), Faryab (234), Jawzjan (13), Panjshir (9), Sar-e Pul (43) and Takhar (77).
On 28 November, IEC chair Hawa Alam Nuristani provided the press with details about how the audit and recount had gone, thus far:
- Completed in 26 provinces
- Continuing normally in one more province
- Checklists of 25 provinces had been processed in the National Tally Centre
- Blocked in seven provinces
The IEC has made two decisions so far as to the results of the audit and recount.
First, on 24 November, it declared as invalid the votes from 1,179 out of the 2,423 polling stations which the critical candidates had said should be immediately thrown out. Nuristani said, in her 28 November press conference, that the commission needed further information from the IEC Secretariat about 11 other polling stations which had also been audited. She said the IEC would take decisions about the remaining 1,233 disputed polling stations once audit and recount results and reports were received. (2) One IEC commissioner who did not want to be named told AAN on 28 November that the IEC would likely invalidate the votes from all of the 2,423 stations. In such a case, one of the two demands of the candidates listed above would be met. However, their dispute with the IEC about the 300,000 votes would still be open.
The IEC’s second decision about the audit and recount, announced on 21 November, was that the votes from 23 polling stations which had been separately referred to the commissioners by the management team of the National Tally Centre also had to be audited and recounted. The commission decided that the votes of ten of these stations should be processed (ie, treated as valid), ten should be recounted and three audited and recounted. (3)
On 5 December, IEC chair Nuristani said at a public women’s rights-related event (see the video here) that the audit and recount had been completed in 27 provinces, but without the audit and recount of the seven provinces affected by the boycott, the IEC would not be able to announce preliminary results.
What is the nature of the protests?
Abdullah and his allies have not only been blocking the audit and recount. They have also been staging public protests in various provinces, always demanding the invalidation of the 300,000 votes and exclusion of the 2,423 polling stations from the audit and recount.
On 26 November, for example, Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami led by First Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum organised a gathering in Kabul in support of ‘anti-fraud protestors’, ie those who were blocking the audit and recount. Abdullah’s first running-mate and Jombesh member Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, voiced his support for the closure of the audit venues in the seven provinces and called the IEC decision to go ahead with the audit and recount without the consent of the protesting candidates an “illegal act.” He gave a four-day ultimatum (until 30 November) to the IEC to “invalidate the fraudulent votes.” Otherwise, he said, their election ticket would start “a new season of deterrent moves.” He also called on “all people of Afghanistan who accepted all the risks and threats to go to the poll” to join the protestors from the seven provinces. Organisers showed a video of security forces firing tear gas and water cannons at the protestors in front of the IEC provincial office in Baghlan, while protestors reacted chanted Allah-u Akbar (God is Great).
Various sources told AAN that security forces had been assigned to reopen the offices and they tried with Baghlan on 24 November but did not manage to do so. This came after IEC chair Nuristani, speaking in a conference organised by women in security forces on 24 November, asked security forces whom she called as an election stakeholder to support and assist the commission so the election results are announced soon. Acting defence minister Assadullah Khaled said at the same conference, “I say clearly that, as we proved our impartiality, we will not allow any violence of any form to disrupt people’s life. We have this capability.” It is however unclear why the security forces held back.
However, Abdullah’s campaign did not wait to the end of this ultimatum and organised their first street protest in Kabul on 29 November. Two days previously, Abdullah had written a series of posts on his Facebook account saying that his supporters would not allow him or other senior leaders of his team to “traverse the 2014 course again.” This was a reference to the disputed 2014 presidential election that resulted in the establishment of the National Unity Government composed of the two runoff contenders, now President Ashraf Ghani and himself. He also accused the IEC of operating at the behest of Ghani’s election team, although without mentioning the president’s name. (4)
Since then, between 1 and 7 December, Abdullah’s supporters have organised protests in 13 more provincial centres (mostly the provincial capitals): on 1 December in Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan); on 2 December in Taloqan (Takhar) and Maimana (Faryab); on 3 December in Sar-e Pul and Jabal Seraj of Parwan province and on 4 December in Sheberghan (Jawzjan), again in Parwan, in Firuzkoh (Ghor) and Bazarak (Panjshir); on 6 December in Bamyan, Jalalabad (Nangrahar) and Mahmud Raqi (Kapisa); and on 7 December in Nili (Daikundi) and Faizabad (Badakhshan).
Meanwhile, the supporters of another candidate, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also staged their first protest, in Kabul on 6 December. Hekmayar vowed to spread the protests across the country if the IEC failed to address their demands. Abdullah’s and Hekmatyar’s campaigns Abdullah campaign member Nur Rahman Akhlaqi expanded the protests to Herat on 8 December.
It is hard to estimate the exact number of participants in the various protests (the BBC reported “thousands of Abdullah’s supporters” demonstrating in Kabul on 29 November). They have so far been relatively peaceful, although in the capital, the Kabul Garrison had determined Chaman-e Hozuri – an open space in southeastern Kabul – as the final destination for the protesters, but they marched to Pashtunistan Square, near the presidential palace, as initially planned.
At least one counter-protest has been waged, in Baghlan province. This was reportedly organised by supporters of former Balkh governor Atta Muhammad Nur in favour of the audit and recount. Nur, despite being member of Abdullah’s Jamiat-e Islami party is currently supporting the president (media report here).
What other political ideas are being fielded?
The on-going impasse over the audit and recount and delay in the announcement of preliminary results has sparked proposals from some of the presidential candidates. The Council of Presidential Candidates, which now comprises eight presidential candidates (but not Abdullah), has called for the formation of a hokumat-e mosharekat-e melli-ye entekhabat mehwar (an ‘election-based national participation government’). At a press conference on 2 December, they said their aim was to “curb the electoral crisis, deter the spread of the crisis at the national level and address the priorities of the country” and to stop the “zawal [decay]” of election-based democracy by forging an “understanding among Afghan elites.” They also said that the logic driving such a proposal was “the need for consensus democracy instead of the failed majoritarian democracy of the last two decades in Afghanistan.”
This could be done, they said, by an agreement between the presidential candidates. The candidates, they claimed, “enjoyed legal status” in their capacity as candidates, and therefore are legitimised to enter into such an agreement. In detailed proposals, the council suggests a new season of intra-Afghan, national-wide, civil dialogue to achieve a national consensus on how a “countrywide, sustainable and just peace” should look; working “towards a grand agreement” and “achieving peace with the Taleban forces” and then bring “fundamental changes” to the electoral system, hold “general, transparent, fair and democratic” district, village, municipal and presidential elections and transfer power to a new government. The Council shared this proposal (see it here in Dari). (5) The council appears to have concluded – without spelling it out – that the election has gone wrong and cannot produce a clear winner, so all candidates should form the proposed government which would organise a fresh election. However, it does not specify when this would happen and how exactly. Or, they could just be trying to take advantage of the delay and confusion by making claims for posts for themselves of supporters in any new administration.
President Ghani has strongly rejected this proposal. His spokesman Sediq Sediqi tweeted that it was “in clear contravention of the constitution.” He said that the people had already “demonstrated their will within the framework of the constitution to continue the republican system by going to the polls, and they do not go back. The people of Afghanistan do not deserve whimsical and empty proposals.”
On 4 December, three electoral tickets – those of Abdullah, Hekmatyar and Rahmatullah Nabil – issued a joint statement (see both Dari and English versions here), agreeing to “stand firmly and in a coordinated manner against widespread electoral fraud.” They said they would foil all attempts at producing “a government on the basis of fraud.” This appeared to indicate that they fear the IEC might declare President Ghani the winner if the 300,000 disputed votes are not invalidated and that they would not allow such a thing to happen.
On 5 December, Nabil called for the formation of a hokumat-e mosaleha-ye melli (national reconciliation government). He said the election results should be annulled, the Taleban should declare a ceasefire and intra-Afghan talks begin. A day later, on 6 December, Hekmatyar called for an “interim or caretaker government” if the election goes to a second round or if it is annulled completely. Both Nabil and Hekmatyar gave no details as to who they thought should lead or be members of such a government.
On 24 November, more than 160 MPs supporting Ghani issued a statement saying that if the IEC was not able to recount and audit the votes in the seven remaining provinces, it should announce the preliminary results, including validated from the polling stations where an audit and recount had been completed, with the qualification that these results would still be “subject to change.”
The lingering election stalemate and multiplying proposals for new forms of administration – national participation, national reconciliation and interim government – and for a declaration of results without all the results have been met by concern from international stakeholders that the constitutional order may be weakened. However, AAN has also witnessed these stakeholders pushing for transparent election results, and heard some arguing that, even
if there is a first-round winner, he should form an inclusive government because of the low turnout.
What happens next?
- Announcement of partial preliminary results:
In her latest, 5 December statement, IEC chair Nuristani said (see the video here) that the commission would not announce preliminary results before the completion of the audit and recount in all of Afghanistan’s provinces. However, this option remains open for the IEC.
- Pressure on Abdullah’s campaign to allow the audit and recount
One IEC commissioner told AAN on 28 November that they were working “through the international community” to put pressure on Abdullah’s campaign to allow the audit and recount in the seven remaining provinces. AAN has heard from international figures speaking privately that they support the processes conducted by the IEC. Some have said that patience is running out with the Abdullah campaign’s blocking of the audit and recount. On 2 December, US Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo called Abdullah to underscore underscored “U.S. support for Afghanistan’s democracy and the importance of a transparent electoral process leading to a credible outcome.” On 2 December, General Scott Miller, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, together with acting defence minister Khaled, travelled to Sheberghan to meet Vice-President Dostum. In General Miller’s words, the purpose of the visit was “talking about operations in the north and just making sure we are coordinated across all the security pillars.” However, the visit was widely regarded as aiming to put pressure on Dostum to help diffuse the protests in the north and allow the audit and recount.
- A new round of dialogue with the candidates
The IEC has announced a briefing session with the authorised representatives of the electoral campaigns, leaders of political parties, representatives of civil society, United Nations officials and the ambassadors of friendly countries to be held today, Sunday 8 December. Sources from the IEC said the aim was to explain the IEC’s validation of the 300,000 disputed votes and the audit and recount of the 2,423 polling stations. AAN has heard that this meeting was proposed by the UN. However, Afghan election observers had also proposed such an initiative. For instance, on 4 December, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) recommended, “There has to be a legal and technical summit between the United Nations and Afghan election stakeholders including EMBs [election management bodies, ie the IEC and Election Complaints Commission (ECC)], presidential tickets, observer bodies, and political parties telecasted live by mass media for devising ways by which the current electoral crisis could be solved.” A member of Abdullah’s campaign, Nur Rahman Akhlaqi, had also already tweeted on 5 December that they had “asked the IEC to defend themselves in an open discussion attended by media, civil society and lawyers.” A member of Hekmatyar’s campaign, Humayun Jarir, told media on 7 December that their campaign would not participate in the meeting because this would be “very symbolic” only.
It is however not clear if the meeting will convince the candidates disputing the 300,000 votes of the rightness of the IEC’s decision to declare them valid – if the IEC continues to stick to this decision. AAN has heard that Abdullah’s campaign might propose a compromise to break the stalemate: to invalidate the 102,012 votes cast outside the polling hours and refer the 137,630 initially-quarantined votes to the ECC for adjudication. This would, however, be tantamount to the IEC overturning its decisions 108 and 109 which validated these votes and thus would unlikely to be acceptable to the IEC (find detail here).
[Update 8 December 2019, 5pm Kabul time: The dialogue meeting at the IEC ended with a walkout of Abdullah’s team, saying it had not sufficiently been heard. It had demanded that the meeting should reach an understanding about how to proceed further, while the IEC said it was just a briefing session. This leaves the IEC to make its next decisions.]
However, the opposition candidates’ blocking of the audit and recount is not the only problem which has plunged the election into crisis. Another fundamental problem has been the frequently opaque procedures of the IEC and its reluctance to provide data to the public. This has driven suspicion and provided critical candidates with ammunition to challenge the IEC’s decisions with the accusation that it is acting in favour of incumbent Ashraf Ghani.
Although the dispute is about a relatively low number of votes and often seems extremely technical, those votes may be crucial for the election result. Given the low turnout, the margins that will decide who the winner is and who the loser, and whether there will be a runoff (which can only now be held in spring 2020) are likely to be tiny. This explains why all sides involved insist either on a detailed scrutiny of these votes – or that a detailed scrutiny should not happen. It appears that only such a scrutiny, with the results accepted by all major candidates, can produce the sort of clean election result which would provide the basis for a legitimate next government. Having a legitimate government in Kabul is particularly important at the present juncture because of the resumed talks between the US and the Taleban and the possible start of the ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’.
International stakeholders have also increasingly been pointing out that, given that victory will most probably have come with fewer than a million votes, this cannot deliver a strong mandate and so, whoever the next president is, he will need to form an ‘inclusive government’. This corresponds with the ideas of the Afghan candidates mentioned above who have put forward proposals for ‘inclusive’ and ‘reconciliation’ governments. It is also something that Dr Abdullah has not ruled out. Any such compromise administration would be in danger of producing the same deadlock over the distribution of posts as the country saw after the formation of the current National Unity Government in 2014. Moreover, it could also further weaken the idea of elections being the constitutionally-mandated means for Afghans to choose their country’s leader.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark
(1) The electoral law envisages four types of results: initial, partial, preliminary and final. For instance, article 85 (2) says that the IEC should “announce the initial, partial and preliminary election results of the vote count with breakdown of votes based on the polling station, center and constituency.” Article 4 of the law defines these results: initial results are the figures that are announced after the counting at the counting centre; partial results are the figures announced by the IEC during the tallying of the results; preliminary results are the figures announced and published by the IEC after completion of the tallying and prior to adjudication of any complaints; and final results are the figures announced, published and implemented by the IEC, after the completion of adjudications by the ECC. However, given the IEC has already missed two dates for the announcement of preliminary results, it does not make sense to announce the partial preliminary results.
(2) The IEC’s 24 November statement is based on its decision number 113 made on 23 November. It says, “The Independent Election Commission decided that the votes of 1,179 polling stations lacking biometric data be invalidated. It said that a list breaking down these stations by province, district/nahiya, polling centre was attached to the decision. However, like other instances, the list was not made public. The decision divided these 1,179 stations into the following six categories:
No Reasons for invalidation Polling stations
1 Open on election day, but had no voters 812
2 Reported closed 1
3 Ballot papers have biometric confirmation but the biometric data are not available 94
4 Ballot papers inside the ballot boxes are with or without biometric confirmation but the biometric data is not available 50
5 Ballot papers are without biometric confirmation sticker 187
6 No information is available 26
Table by AAN; Data from IEC’s decision number 113
One commissioner, Awrangzeb, signed himself as being “against the decision.”
(3) These 23 polling stations are as follows:
- Polling stations to be processed:
Parwan province: station 01 of centre 0301018
Daikundi: station 03 of centre 2406166
Helmand: station 02 of centre 3001027
Khost: station 01 of centre 1402058
Kabul: stations 02 and 04 of centre 0101216; station 01 of centre 0101040; station 01 of centre 0101217 and station 06 of centre 0115553.
The IEC decision said that one station (station 05 of centre 0501012 in Logar province) would be processed normally if the recount was carried out in the provincial office in coordination with the headquarters. Otherwise, according to provision number 5 of article nine of the Audit, Recount and Invalidation of Presidential Election Votes regulation, the votes of this station would be declared invalid.
- Stations to be recounted:
Khost: station 05 of centre 1401041
Kandahar: station 01 of centre 2704086; station 04 of centre 2704079; station 03 of centre 2704085; station 02 of centre 2704078; stations 01, 03, 05, 06 of centre 2704076
station 02 of centre 0101200
- Stations to be audited and recounted:
Nangrahar: stations 01 and 02 of centre 0605134
Kandahar: station 05 of centre 2704078
(4) Abdullah’s post in full said:
In 2014, they came to rule over people’s life with fraud and under any circumstances; they [should] not think that 2014 will repeat itself. It is been proven to the fraudulent team that they do not have any base among the people. They spent huge amounts of money, lured, threatened and exploited any means, but the election result was clear. They [should] not dream 2014! The people of Afghanistan have allowed neither me nor the leadership of the Stability and Integration team to traverse the 2014 course again.
The Election Commission operates at the behest of on electoral team, their independence is questioned and the result of their work is not legitimate. If the Election Commission does not return to the legal course, the responsibility for the consequences of [their] work will fall on the shoulder of the IEC and those who want encourage the commission to the illegal path! We will use any legal, legitimate and peaceful means to prevent the coming to power of a fraudulent government and believe that with the help of God nothing can deter the legitimate demand of the people. We do not ask the commission for any illegal demand against the electoral law, procedures and regulations, but want [it] to respond positively to the legal demands of the people.
(5) Below is a list of objectives defined by the Council of Presidential Candidates’ for an “election-based national participation government” (AAN working translation):
- Curb the electoral crisis, stabilise [the situation] and restore national trust and unity against the threats that have pushed the country to the precipice.
- Realise national participation in the government in view of the criteria enshrined in article 72 of the constitution
[Art. 72 reads as follows: The person who is appointed as minister, should have the following qualifications: Must only have the citizenship of Afghanistan. Should a nominee for a ministerial post also hold the citizenship of another country, the Wolesi Jirga shall have the right to confirm or reject his or her nomination; Should have higher education, work experience and a good reputation; His age should not be less than thirty-five; Should not have been convicted of crimes against humanity, criminal acts, or been deprived of his/her civil rights by a court.]
- Manage the peace process through a new season of intra-Afghan/national-civil dialogue to achieve a national consensus and achieve countrywide, sustainable and just peace
- Build national consensus towards a grand agreement and achieving peace with Taleban forces
- Bring fundamental changes to the electoral system
- Create safe conditions for holding district, village, municipal and presidential elections
- Pave reliable grounds for the transfer of power to a government based on a general, transparent, fair and democratic election