June 20, 2019
Download the pdf version: Round Table Discussion Report – English
Afghanistan is preparing for the presidential election, scheduled for 28 September 2019. The planned general election is the fourth of its kind after the establishment of the new democratic system in 2001. The current election is being conducted in a context where the election schedule was changed twice before the current date was finalized. Delaying the election is legally contested by the different electoral tickets mainly due to different interpretations from the Afghan constitution. The 2014 election results, which were highly contested by the two leading candidates, led to the mediation of the US Secretary of States and the establishment of the National Unity Government (NUG). The leaders of the NUG had, in the beginning, promised to bring about certain reforms in the election bodies and the leadership of these bodies. The upcoming election is, however, being organized at a time that promised election reforms could not be implemented by the NUG. The government’s leadership brought changes by appointing new commissioners for both Independent Election Commission (IEC) and Independent Election Complaint Commission (IECC). However, that decision was widely criticized to a level where the president had to sack them after a brief period in their offices.
After five years in power, NUG has not been able to introduce election reforms that could ensure an enhanced level of transparency. A number of candidates have already started raising their concerns while the analysts believe that the country might get plunged into similar crisis it faced in 2014. The very concerns are the reason that a group of presidential hopefuls has asked for an interim government set up as they are skeptical of fair elections. The deteriorating security situation in the meantime will restrict countrywide independent monitoring of elections.
While there are concerns among candidates and analysts, absence of dialogue about the issue and engagement of the presidential candidates with each other leave the risks unequivocally recognized. Hence, there is no consensus-oriented planning for mitigating the risks and agreement on rules of the game among the presidential hopefuls. In order to list all risks glaring the upcoming elections, discuss risk mitigation plan and come up with a policy advisory note, there is a need for dialogue that would engage technical election experts, political personalities and members of election tickets. Therefore, the Afghanistan Affairs Unit (AAU) felt the need to conduct a round table dialogue session to address the underlying issue.
The roundtable discussion was conducted on 20th June 2019. Participants of this roundtable included Political and civil society activists, election experts and analysts, IEC representatives, parliamentarians, parliament candidates and individuals with vast knowledge of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) usage in the election system. The roundtable was facilitated by AAU. Though everyone was free to express his/her opinion, all agreed to the Chatham House rule of non-attribution. So, no opinion or statement will be attributed to individuals.
- Key Discussion points
It was mentioned that a lack of coordination and trust was very much visible within the IEC. The level of trust could be gauged from the fact that at times commissioners had been asked to leave their cell phones outside of the meeting room so that participants could discuss issues more confidently and leak/recording of information could be prevented. Similarly, the commissioners have been at the loggerheads over recruitments and other operational issues. The discussion quite significantly revealed the fact that there was lack of trust, coordination and team spirit among the members of IEC. Consequently, lack of coherence, coordination, and trust was identified as one of the most significant challenges ahead of the September 28 elections.
The second issue that was identified as a key challenge by the round table discussion participants was lack of public trust in the overall election process. The dispute between the two leading candidates in 2014 presidential elections which eventually required external facilitation before a political deal was reached has damaged the public trust in election process. More recently, the parliamentary elections added to public agony and eroded public trust further in the process following widespread fraud in the elections. Therefore, lack of public trust in the election process was identified as another major challenge. It was feared that as a result of the last two election hitches, there might not be enough turnout in the upcoming presidential election which will undermine the legitimacy of elections.
In the meantime, it was mentioned that the IEC commissioners have been creating false expectations by making promises that they might not be able to deliver upon. For example, as per the election schedule, presidential elections are chalked for 28 September with final result announcement planned for November 7, 2019, if there is no second round. However, the Chairman of the commission has recently issued a statement that they will announce preliminary results within four days of the election day, which is an ambitious claim. In case the promise is not met, this can be raised as an issue which may be used as a pretext for non-acceptance of the election result by other candidates and causing further disruption in the election process.
The participants of the meeting also mentioned that negative tactics used by the election candidates have also had a negative impact on the public trust while jeopardizing successful conduct of elections. Some of the leading candidates had already been raising their voices about perceived fraud by the incumbent president. The move raised concerns and was interpreted as an effort to make ground for rejecting the election results. Hence, the acceptance of final result has already been seen as a challenge. The negative tactics of the candidates have left people skeptical about the upcoming elections further eroding their confidence and trust in the election process.
In the meantime, late adjustments to the election process and procedures was another peril discussed during the round table discussion. The frequent changes in the election commission were mentioned to have left the current IEC technically underprepared to take on such a significant and politically delicate responsibility. The commissioners who replaced the election commission responsible for parliamentary elections have had very little time to be on board and take on the job responsibilities. the participants believed that the office IEC might not be ready technically as well as operationally to lead such a critical process.
The time limitation for the commissioners was highlighted as another challenge by almost all participants. The belief was that expecting the newly joining election commissioners as well as leadership of the secretariat to perform their job as per the expectations seem unrealistic. Particularly, the election commissioners have nearly no background of working in the area of elections in any capacity. With such a fragile human capacity, it was said, they are left very much vulnerable to failure.
The round table discussion participants were of the view that most of the commissioners were associated with political groups, personalities and even to the election tickets. As a result, the participants questioned the impartiality of the commissions’ members. It was also believed that one of the reasons behind the lack of coordination and team approach among the commissioners was mainly because of the doubts about their loyalties. Hence, possible partiality of the commissioners was outlined as one of the serious challenges to the successful conduct of the upcoming elections.
The process of election of the new commission was also questioned. The participants raised a concern about the selection/appointment of the current IEC members against the Afghan constitution where the president conceded his constitutional right to the candidates. The participants of the round table believed that this approach also led to the selection of the individuals who had affiliation with the election candidates. This means that the conflict of interest could lead to further disunity and mismanagement.
On the other hand, the election commission is looking to procure the biometric system for the upcoming election. The discussions revealed that it will be near to impossible to have the system implemented. Hence, wrong expectations are being created whereas the procurement of system at such short notice may result in waste of financial resources. Limited time for distribution of the systems, lack of training of staff on the use of the system and inability of the IEC to have people registered in the system will cripple the usefulness of the proposed biometric system. In the meantime, limited utility of the system may become a problem rather than a solution as was experienced in the last parliamentary elections. The participants believed that lack of strategic approach towards the use of technology will cause more problems than helping transparency.
The participants also believed that the international community has been quite passive vis a vis presidential election. The round table discussion revealed that the international community has been rather laid back in terms of decision-making on the election and as such, there is not enough oversight from the international partners of Afghanistan. It was emphasized that as strategic partners of the state and key stakeholders as donors, the international community must play a more proactive role in the preparations for the upcoming elections.
The representatives of election monitoring bodies raised serious concern about being ignored by the Government as well as IEC on issues they have been raising. As a result, they were not confident that they will be able to play their role in an effective manner. With a passive approach of the international community, the national oversight and monitoring bodies were of the view that they did not have enough back-up and support in order to get heard.
Another concern of the participants was the fact that some of the candidates already know that they would be losing the elections. Therefore, they would like to carry out a smearing and defaming campaign against the election commissions, with the support of some of the IEC and IECC members. As such, they would be able to provide the ground for delegitimizing the elections and then use it as an excuse for not accepting the results. This may be done for getting certain privileges, such as government positions from the candidate who receive the highest votes.
Lack of a proper voters’ list was also discussed by the participants and it was pointed out that current voters’ list was in no way representing the reality of the country in terms of population and statistics of voters. Though there was a counter-argument that the voters’ list will be revised and was already sent to the Afghanistan National Statistics and Information Authority (ANSIA) for review, correction, validation, and updates, the participants indicated that the time frame for such a revision was not enough. On the other hand, the potential for fraud was so pervasive and deeply rooted that it would be hard for ANSIA to differentiate between actual and fraudulent voters. In addition, the participants pointed out that due to the lack of proper public awareness, encouragement campaign and strategy, the top-up voters’ registration will also not suffice in addressing this challenge.
The participants also raised their concerns about the timing of the elections that coincided with the expedited efforts for the peace process. They indicated that recent momentum in the peace process where the US and Taliban are engaged in a series of rounds of talks could overshadow the election process. It might be due to the fact that a potential peace agreement may propose new governance arrangements and may lead to postponement of the presidential elections.
Another key issue that was highlighted by the participants was the culture of impunity for the corrupt IEC former commissioners and employees. It was highlighted that there had been people recognized as corrupt but not a single person had been found to be tried in the court or to have been sentenced by the judicial bodies of the country. As a result, those engaged in election processes feel little responsible. This eventually leaves the election process open to corruption and fraud.
The upcoming presidential election will be conducted in the wake of promise made for serious election reforms following 2014 presidential election. However, looking at the state of affairs, little has been done to be considered reforms. The election commission has since been twice replaced with the latest one merely six months before the presidential elections. Allegations of corruption and fraud in 2018 parliamentary elections have stamped concerns that the upcoming elections might be full of challenges and may leave the country in a very fragile and difficult situation.
The general perception and analysis is that the upcoming elections will be faced with serious challenges. The challenges identified are so grave that without tackling those, it may leave the country at an arduous crossroad. A mismanaged election may result in political instability in the country which has already been faced with challenges because of insecurity. Hence, there is a need for all stakeholders to join forces and work towards an election which is at minimum acceptable to all parties.
- All election candidates must come together and agree on rules of the game in the light of ground realities, limitations of the election commission and challenges glaring stability of the country.
- Criminal codes, procedures, and laws must be enacted to incriminate election fraud. Any breach of which should be considered a criminal act and those found guilty must be tried. Every single employee of the election process must be made aware of the laws and subsequent consequences of any breach of laws.
- The civil society, the international community, IEC, political parties and election tickets must come together to work out a mechanism that will ensure successful conduct of the elections. Also, all stakeholders should work towards public trust building so that there is a substantial turnout for the presidential election.
- The IEC should come together and make their limitations, challenges and obstacles known, manage expectations and seek support wherever needed. This will not only add to the credibility of the intuitions but also ensure that resources rally around the institution supporting the successful conduct of elections.
- Civil society organizations, media, and watchdogs should expand their presence and enhance their oversight over the election process. The issues, challenges, and limitations should be made public so that timely pressure is exerted prompting remedial actions. Also, the election watchdogs must educate all stakeholders in a timely manner in order to mobilize stakeholders for timely action vis a vis issues and challenges.
Annex: List of Participants
|1. Dr. Khushal Rohi||Leader of the political party (Millie Mehwar)|
|2. Mr. Yousof Rashid||Executive Director of Free and Fair Election Forum (FIFA)|
|3. Mr. Danish Karokhil||Director of Pajhowk Afghan News Agency|
|4. Ms. Malalai Shinwari||Advisor to the president|
|5. Mr. Ikram Afzali||Director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA)|
|6. Emal Marjan||ICT specialist and former deputy minister of ICT|
|7. Mr. Aqa Mohammad Quraishi||Parliament candidate|
|8. Mr. Musafar Qoqandi||Commissioner of the IEC|
|9. Ms. Shinkai Karokhil||Member of the Afghan Parliament|
|10. Mr. Zeerak Yousofi||Afghanistan Affairs Unit|
|11. Mr. Nazeem Samoon||Lawyer and political analyst|
|12. Mr. Noorullah Aziz||Afghanistan Affairs Unit|
|13. Mr. Khalid Sadat||Lawyer and member of the Lawyers’ Network|