Suroush, Qayoom (Author), published by AAN – Afghanistan Analysts Network
For the first time since elections were held in post-Taleban Afghanistan, the country’s Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) has held a series of open sessions addressing electoral complaints. The concept was, in principle, welcomed by independent observers, candidates’ agents and civil society, but the process itself was often confused and rushed and sometimes overly bureaucratic. What was presented by the IECC staff and candidates representatives as evidence of fraud was often inconclusive and sometimes unrelated to the claim. More importantly, the commissioners did not publicly discuss or present their decisions – which somewhat defies the purpose of bringing more transparency into a process that can change results. AAN’s Qayoom Suroush, who attended five out of the six open sessions, assesses the performance of the IECC and looks at what needs to be improved for the next round of elections.
On 13 May 2014, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) finalised the complaints process and passed on its decisions to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The IEC confirmed it would not scrutinise the IECC’s decision further and instead announced the final results right away on Thursday, 15 May (see our 15 May dispatch on this issue here). This was surprisingly fast and, together with the sometimes hurried and confused sessions handling the complaints, increased concerns about the thoroughness of the process.
In a press conference summarising the proceedings on Tuesday, 13 May, at the IECC office, spokesman Nader Mohseni said the staff had completed investigations into around 900 complaints. He added later on his Facebook page, that “most of the decisions” taken by provincial IECCs to invalidate votes against which there had been appeals had been overturned. During the final result announcement, the head of IEC, Yusuf Nooristani, said the IECC invalidated 331 polling stations. Together with the 525 polling stations disqualified by the IEC, a total of 856 polling stations were disqualified.
According to the electoral timeline, the IECC was scheduled to send its final decision to IEC on 8 May 2014, but by that time, it was still wrapping up its last hearing. Four days later, on 12 May 2014, the spokesperson of the IEC complained that the IECC delays threatened to hold up the whole process (after having been two days late themselves when announcing the final preliminary results): “We are awaiting the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission’s report. If we don’t receive it today, we will be unable to announce the final results at the stipulated time.” It might have been this wish to, as much as possible, keep the timeline that persuaded the IEC to refrain from checking the IECC’s decisions and announce the final results straight away.
The decision of the IECC followed six days of open sessions in two Kabul hotels, during which the main presidential election complaints were presented and discussed. It was the first time since elections were held again in Afghanistan in 2004 that the IECC held open sessions, an initiative that was, in principle, appreciated by many observers and agents who were scrutinising the process.
During the first session, on 30 April 2014, the IECC addressed complaints against the disqualification of 525 polling stations by the IEC. After listening to the evidence and arguments presented by both sides, the IECC confirmed the IEC’s decision. IECC commissioner Reda Azimi told reporters in an official statement, “We confirmed the disqualification because the IEC had strong evidence and the candidate agents did not.”
The remaining five days of open sessions focused mostly on the category A complaints, defined as those which, if found correct, would alter the election result significantly and therefore are processed with the greatest urgency. Sometimes the sessions also touched on the B and C category complaints, categories which have never been defined. (1)
During the sessions, a commissioner first read out loud the list of complaints which had been registered from a certain province in the presence of representatives of the candidates, independent observers, political parties agents and the media and then showed whatever proof had been presented together with the complaint. The evidence usually consisted of photos or video clips of ballot papers or polling stations. Then, the representatives of the candidates who had been accused of fraud were given the chance to defend themselves, usually between five and eight minutes. The IECC commissioners took notes and said they would consider all the arguments when taking the final decision. The decision itself was taken behind closed doors.
In its first session, the IECC confirmed the IEC’s decision to disqualify 525 polling stations.
The second session addressed the 131 Category A complaints from nine provinces: Kabul, Ghazni, Bamyan, Kapisa, Daikundi, Panjshir, Parwan, Logar and Wardak (see here for details of the specific cases in Dari).
The third session focused on 240 Category A complaints from nine western and south-western provinces (details here). Most complaints discussed on this third day came from Kandahar, mainly directed against Zalmai Rassul, and from Herat and Farah, mainly against Abdullah Abdullah. The Category A complaints from Nimruz, Uruzgan, Ghor, Badghis and Helmand were not discussed as they had already been decided on by the respective provincial IECC offices.
In the fourth open session, the IECC addressed 74 complaints from Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhar (details here).
On the fifth day, the IECC discussed 240 complaints from Nangrahar, Nuristan, Kunar, Laghman, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Samangan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul and Faryab (see details here).
The most common types of complaints were ballot stuffing, forcing people to vote for a certain candidate, not allowing observers to watch, shifting polling centres to locations different from those given in the official list, campaigning on election day, burning ballot papers and proxy voting with men voting for women. While the majority of the complaints were directed against particular candidates, there were also complaints against IEC staff and the police, accusing them of fraud, not allowing voters to vote or forcing them to vote for a certain candidate or not allowing observers to watch.
On the sixth day, the IECC looked at complaints against the preliminary first round results made by the candidates, mainly by Abdullah, Ghani and Sherzai. IECC spokesperson Nader Mohseni summarised the complaints as follows: the IECC had dealt with 891 Category A complaints (including 339 complaints already addressed by the provincial offices), 64 appeals and 121 complaints against the final preliminary results.
According to the Electoral Law, complaints should, in principle, be addressed at the provincial level within ten days after polling day; the central level is supposed to focus on appeals (although “in exceptional cases", it can be the primary source for addressing electoral complaints). In practice, more than half of the Category A complaints were not addressed by the provincial IECC offices (PIECCs), see here for details. The IECC commissioners said this was due to unspecified “certain conditions". AAN was later told by a high-ranking IECC staff member that there had been suspicions about some of the PIECCs’ capability and/or impartiality, for instance in Kandahar and Mazar, while in other cases, they had not had enough time to address all the complaints. Provincial commissioners have also told AAN that in some cases they forwarded complaints to Kabul because they feared the fall-out and controversy that their decisions could engender.
The Electoral Law further stipulates that the IECC should only decide on complaints based on proper proof. For the cases discussed during the open sessions in Kabul, the IECC often did not provide sufficiently detailed information on the claimed fraud (either because they did not have it or they only read aloud the ‘title’ of the complaint) to enable observers to understand what the cases were actually about. Details of who had lodged complaints and against whom they had been made were also often withheld, according to the IECC because of the uncertainty of the accusation. As a result, frequently all that was disclosed was that “a person” had complained about “a presidential candidate,” followed by a few sentences from the complaint form and the hurried presentation of ‘proof.’ Observers complained that it was like listening to a rushed recital of a list, instead of a thoughtful and in-depth review of the arguments and counter-arguments, let alone an investigation into the truthfulness of each claim.
In cases from Kandahar and Farah, for instance, the ‘proof’ presented for fraud were black-and-white photocopies of ballot papers with similar-looking tick marks. The photos were dark and, at least for the audience watching the sessions, inconclusive. In another case with more convincing tick marks, that indeed looked like they had been produced by the same person for one presidential candidate, it was not clear whether the pictures were related to the polling station in question, as no polling station number or name was visible on the photographs. In another instance, to ‘prove’ a complaint from Jaghori district of Ghazni regarding ballot stuffing, a video was shown on the projector where the name of a polling station in another district – Jeghatu – was clearly visible on the ballot papers. Other clips never specified where the ‘proof’ had come from or showed seemingly unrelated pictures, for example of crowds voting. It remains unclear how and what the PIECCs had actually been able to decide based on these videos when they used them to invalidate polling stations and centres.
The PIECCs also handled many complaints without any proof – they are allowed to do so, and indeed, to audit and recount wherever they want, as long as the decision in each case is based on proof. For example, during the recounting or auditing of polling stations, they might find similar-looking tick marks of ballot papers, pictures of which could then form evidence that ballot stuffing had taken place. The IECC’s head, Sattar Saadat, said the team had decided to act only on complaints that were made without evidence when the complaints seemed “serious". However, he did not want to go into details on how exactly the IECC defined “serious".
Candidates’ agents complaints about procedures
Candidates’ representatives, meanwhile, complained about PIECCs’ and the IECC’s “double standards,” contending that they processed some complaints without what they deemed proper proof, while rejecting others for ‘not having enough proof’. Zalgai Sajad, a representative of Abdullah Abdullah, asked how it was possible that complaints with no proof had led to recounts, while the complaints presented by his team, “with at least weak proof,” had not resulted in recounts and audits. Sajad, along with Zalmai Rassul’s representative, Abdul Rauf Zahed, complained that the IECC, in some cases, had considered only a few similar-looking tick marks on ballots as proof of fraud, even though, they contended, among 600 votes, there could easily be tick marks looking alike without that signifying fraud. They particularly referred to one complaint about armed men filling ballot boxes for Abdullah Abdullah in the Akhtiyarudin mosque (polling station 3201021) in Herat. The evidence presented was “similar-looking tick marks on ballot papers,” but an Abdullah observer from Herat who had come to the open sessions claimed the IECC staff auditing the polling stations had deliberately searched for such tick marks in the hundreds of ballots, crying fraud as soon as they found a few that looked alike.
On the third day of the open sessions, on 5 May, Ashraf Ghani’s team objected to the IECC’s decision not to consider a number of their complaints on grounds of “lack of evidence” for the “massive fraud” they claimed to have discovered in Takhar. His campaign manager for the north, Engineer Tashi, said the Ghani team knew of 80 complaints, 22 of which had been lodged by his own team, whereas IECC staff said there had been only 15 Category A complaints in Takhar. He also argued with IECC Commissioner Aryafar’s claim that, in Takhar, only 36 polling stations had been quarantined and 41 were recounted, mentioning that, according to reports of the independent observer organisation Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), 115 polling stations were recounted in Takhar. He further claimed that, in 60 polling stations out of the 16 polling centres in Chah-Ab district, Ghani observers had not been allowed to observe the vote.
It appears that often the central level of the IECC did not have a full overview of all the complaints that had been registered with its own provincial bodies. During the open sessions, AAN witnessed at least four instances where candidates’ agents presented the IECC with receipts for complaints the commissioners obviously had no knowledge of. For instance, on the fifth day of the open sessions, Abdullah representatives showed dozens of receipts of complaints from Nangrahar, Paktia and Kunar – provinces the IECC had not thought necessary to address in the session. The papers were handed from commissioner to commissioner during the session and the AAN observer heard them ask each other, “Did we register this one, and this one?” their faces clearly puzzled. They said they would go back to the respective provinces and re-investigate the number of complaints handed in.
As in previous elections, candidates and their representatives used the IEC and IECC procedures to claim that the fraud had robbed them of a better position in the race.
Along with the complaints that had not been dealt with by the PIECCs, the IECC also discussed more than 60 appeals against the decisions made by the PIECCs (see here for details). 23 appeals, all from the Abdullah camp, were against decisions made in Herat province where the PIECC had invalidated 100,000 votes from around 150 polling stations (see here). The Kabul commissioners read aloud each of the original complaints, while presenting the ‘proof’ – videos and photos – via a projector to the audience. Most showed ballot papers with similar-looking tick marks. The Herat PIECC’s decisions to invalidate these votes had, in most cases, been made based on these videos. Except for one or two, most clips were not clear in terms of which polling station they showed, whether they actually showed fraud being committed, by whom, or in favour of whom. Some of the videos were blurred.
In two cases, Herat’s PIECC commissioners claimed that they had witnessed fraud in favour of Abdullah Abdullah and had taken video clips with their mobile phones, but that the police had taken their phones and erased the clips. Nevertheless, the commissioners said, they still decided to invalidate all votes cast in Herat’s Gozargah mosque (PS 3201024). Here, the Herat PIECC said the IEC had been ballot stuffing for Abdullah, while in the Puran secondary school polling centre, the principal of the school had not allowed observers in.
Defence and decisions (or lack thereof)
The candidates’ agents were given five minutes to defend their teams against each complaints. Prior to this, every candidate had been given 24 hours to prepare his evidence for the defence. Considering the large number of complaints, this made for some very hectic presentations. At one point, a representative of one presidential candidate asked, outraged: “How do you expect me to defend 17 cases against us within five minutes?” The IECC commissioners then increased the time for the defence to eight minutes. They noted the arguments of the defenders and said they would consider them in their final decision.
That the IECC did not take any decisions in public and that decisions in the end were taken behind closed doors made the sessions sometimes look more like press conferences. This meant that the IECC’s open sessions were transparent in name only. They provided no real insight into what was in essence a suspiciously watched process that could deduct votes from or add votes to frontrunners’ results.
Complaints against the preliminary final election results
On the last day of these open sessions, on 8 May 2014, the IECC discussed complaints, mainly registered by the top candidates, against the final preliminary results. According to the IECC, it had received 121 complaints, but discussed only about 50 during the session. The rest of the complaints which had proper proof, they said, would be addressed in a closed session in the presence of candidates’ representatives. It is not clear if and when this happened. Out of these 121 complaints, four had been lodged by the Ashraf Ghani team, one came from Daud Sultanzoi, one from Gul Agha Sherzai and 115 complaints had been registered by Abdullah Abdullah’s team. The latter’s high number of complaints against the preliminary result is mostly due to his supporters’ belief that they would have won the first round outright, gaining more than 50 per cent, if their votes had not been unduly disqualified (Abdullah’s second running mate, Mohammad Mohaqeq, for instance, claimed victory early on, saying they had 56 per cent of the total vote). They also made the effort of registering an individual complaint for every single case.
The Ghani team, on the other hand, lodged four complaints, one of them simply saying that “the Ghani team is not satisfied with the preliminary result of Kabul.” They were all turned down by the IECC with the argument that Ghani’s team, against the rules, had registered all of them on one form, which seems overly bureaucratic. They also claimed there had not been enough proof presented along with the complaints.
The complaints against the final preliminary results that were discussed in the last open session mostly concerned differences between what candidates’ observers had noted in their results forms in polling centres immediately after the vote and what the IEC had uploaded onto its website. Confusion occurred, for example, regarding polling station result forms that had been invalidated either by the IEC or IECC or both. The invalidated result forms should not have been uploaded onto the IEC website as ‘valid’ votes forms, but in dozens of cases they still appeared there. As a result, observers and candidates’ agents were confused as to whether these votes had been counted or not in the preliminary results. (Some of these forms have, in the meantime, been removed, as AAN found when it checked the IEC website). There were also complaints about missing result forms. For instance, Abdullah representatives complained that 13 forms from polling stations in Kunduz had not been uploaded onto the website. The IEC sent a letter responding that those stations had been closed on the election day.
In addition, there were complaints regarding the number of votes counted for candidates in certain polling stations. For instance, in the Khoshbabi primary school polling centre (2904071) in Almar district, Faryab, a candidate was said to have won 1583 votes in a single polling station. Considering that one polling station can only receive 600 votes, there had obviously been fraud or a very elaborate counting mistake, but either way, it should have never been included in the count. The IEC answered that there had been a miscalculation and that the head of the respective polling station had corrected the form later. It explained its ruling saying, “It is acceptable for the IEC if the head of a polling station corrects the number of votes with a red pen. Those forms are valid.” The Abdullah agent retorted that they had colour copies of the result form from the polling stations that did not show red pen marks, nor did the copy uploaded onto the IEC website show red pen marks. When AAN checked the IEC website, it indeed found a form showing 1583 votes counted, with no red pen corrections, implying that, although the form showed an illegal number of votes, the votes had seemingly still been counted as valid. The form has since then been removed from the website. In other cases, the IEC admitted there had been miscalculations of the number of votes, decreasing or increasing votes of candidates in some polling stations.
The last open session left some complaints unaddressed: two – one from the Ghani camp and one from Dr Abdullah – had been made about 36 polling stations that had been invalidated by the IEC after the announcement of the final preliminary results (out of 444 polling stations for which investigations had been pending), as well as 12 remaining complaints from the Abdullah camp that the IEC could not respond to. IECC staff said they would address the remaining complaints that had proper proof in private sessions with candidates’ agents. The rest of the complaints – those not ‘attached’ to any polling station and without evidence – would not be addressed.
Preparing the grounds to be able to cry fraud?
The Abdullah team held a press conference on 11 May 2014 after the finalisation of the open hearings to present evidence of what they described as the “electoral system deficiencies” (adam-e mu’aseriat-e sistem-e entekhabat), arguing that the IEC had not done its job properly. Satar Murad, the head of the monitoring department of Abdullah’s campaign team, discussed in detail what the team had presented in the IECC open sessions, but then demanded that the IECC considered their remaining complaints which they claimed would “affect about one million votes.” It was the first time that this number occurred – a figure presumably large enough to rally supporters behind cries of fraud in case the Abdullah team loses the second round. Although rudimentary calculations were given, the figure remained rather vague and largely unsubstantiated.
The Abdullah team claimed that votes from around 2826 polling stations had been left out of the count and had not been announced in the preliminary final result – something his team had not brought up during the open sessions. He claimed that this added up to a total of one million missing votes (“2826 polling station times at least 350 votes in each = 989,100 votes”). Additionally, Abdullah’s team mentioned that 30,491 votes had been added to the final preliminary result, but provided no details or elaboration of why this would be a problem (the IEC did indeed add votes, after re-including 291 pending polling stations – see also here). Also, according to Abdullah’s camp, around 563,000 votes (presumably of their main rival) should have been invalidated because their result forms did not have an IEC stamp, the proper serial numbers or the required observers signatures; or because they had been filled in with the same handwriting or showed other signs of having been ‘manipulated'. Murad in quick succession and difficult to follow, showed lists of polling stations the Abdullah team would like to see disqualified. More exact data, such as the numbers of the polling stations the team found suspicious or the scan copies of the result forms in question, was not given.
Overall, the open sessions were helpful in understanding the enormity of the task the IECC was faced with, as well as the nature of the evidence they appeared to have based decisions on, but there was a total lack of transparency when it came to the decision-making. Since no decision was made in the open sessions, the IECC commissioners, in effect, opened the door to suspicions that they could just have ignored all they heard during the sessions and may have even made their decisions before hand, behind closed doors. There were other flaws in the system. For example, due to the absence of an IEC representative in the sessions, IECC commissioners were forced to defend the IEC’s stands, which is awkward, given that the IECC should also deal with complaints against the IEC. Consequently, candidates’ representatives had to deal with the IECC as if it was the body responsible for the alleged fraud by IEC officials. Later, they had to deal with the IECC as the body judging whether IEC fraud had taken place.
In the planned second round, the IECC needs to have a far clearer and more transparent mechanism to address complaints which also enables people to understand its decision-making. There should be more time to discuss complaints in detail, with special attention given to the need to provide eligible, watertight evidence. In addition, there should be an IEC representative in every session who can directly answer the concerns of candidates’ representatives and release the IECC from a situation where it is forced to defend the IEC’s decisions. It is clear that, especially if second round voting is close, the IECC will need procedures which work, which are trustworthy and which, as far as possible, are transparent enough that candidates do not suspect – or cannot claim – behind-the-scenes manipulation of the vote.
(1) According to the Law on Duties and Responsibilities of the IEC and IECC, all complaints, minor or major, ultimately need to be dealt with. IECC office, spokesman, Nader Mohseni told reporters that the Category B and C complaints would be addressed later and that, even after the final results were announced, investigations into complaints could still be launched, for example, in cases concerning the misconduct of policemen or IEC staff.