The process to check thousands of ballot boxes in the Afghan presidential election run-off is now underway after several delays, the United Nations mission in the country confirmed, calling for local commitment to complete the audit without any more postponements.
In a written statement, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) “urged the full commitment of the parties for the unprecedented and vital endeavour that should be completed without any further delays and interruptions.”
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), under whose authority the audit is being carried out, with international supervision, resumed the process on 3 August, following the Eid holiday, but without the participation of representatives of one of the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah.
“After today’s consultations, we expected that the process of the audit will continue smoothly and without any interruptions,” Ján Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and UNAMA head said on Saturday, in a press conference alongside IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani.
In a statement today, Mr. Kubiš added that he fully understands that Dr. Abdullah, and his opponent, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, would need reassurances concerning the audit process.
“It could not be otherwise given the high stakes and widespread mobilization of supporters they were both able to achieve over two rounds of voting,” he said.
Meanwhile, more than 200 full-time international observers – hailing from the European Union and including its Election Assessment Team and the American non-governmental organizations National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and Creative, as well as Asian Network for Free Elections, are now in auditing warehouses in the capital.
According to a UN proposal, which has been agreed to by both candidates, they joined IEC audit teams to scrutinize some 23,000 boxes of ballots from the 14 June run-off using a 16-point checklist to look for things such as inconsistencies in marking the boxes or obvious patterns.
That information will then be reviewed by the IEC Board of Commissioners in open meetings –in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and UN advisors – where they will decide to accept, recount or invalidate the results.
UNAMA has said that these “extraordinary international mobilization and transport efforts” are meant to provide Afghans with “unprecedented reassurance that the popular will which they bravely expressed on 5 April and 14 June will be known and respected.”
The proposal for the audit varies from past polls, where election officials relied on sampling and trends to extrapolate the extent of possible fraud.
Auditing every single audit box is a “unique opportunity,” said senior UN international elections expert, Jeff Fischer, who directly advises the IEC Board on international best practices.
“It meets international best practice, is consistent with the Afghan constitution and laws, and will produce a robust, credible and thorough audit that detects and eliminates fraudulent ballots while protecting valid votes,” he said.
The audit is led from the UN side by the UN Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (UNDP ELECT II) project, which has spent the last four years promoting the capacity of Afghan electoral institutions.
I do not know enough about the two candidates–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai–to try to determine whose positions and policies are in the best interests of the Afghan people. This is exactly why we have elections, to let people who will be directly affected decide for themselves. Whoever wins (whether Ahmadzai’s victory is upheld or overturned by the audit process) certainly has their work cut out for them. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, corrupt, insecure and culturally fragmented countries in the world.
Despite all these challenges–despite threats from the Taliban and lacking a history of effective democratic governance–about 40% of eligible voters turned out for the second round “run-off” elections held on June 14th. It is the job of an independent and international auditing body to determine who will ultimately win the election. An unprecedented full audit of all votes is currently underway–the success or failure of this experiment could resonate in many forthcoming elections in the developing world.
The question remains, however, if either side is willing to accept defeat. Recently, candidate Abdullah’s camp has voiced discontent with the purportedly independent audit process:
The United Nations, which is assisting with the audit, and the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced a decision on the criteria for invalidating votes and tried to resume the audit on Sunday, but Mr. Abdullah’s team refused to participate, citing further objections to the criteria. Mr. Kerry made phone calls to both candidates on Friday, with little apparent progress.
Also on Sunday, Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager released an audiotape on which he said Vice President Karim Khalili could be heard directing his followers to support Mr. Ghani in the runoff. An aide to Mr. Khalili has denounced the tape as fake, according to the independent television news channel Tolo TV.
In the tape the speaker, who sounded like Mr. Khalili but had not been independently verified as such, said that the international community, the election commission and the president all supported Mr. Ghani for president. He even suggested that Afghanistan’s allies would tolerate the use of any means to achieve such a result.
“Our international friends have promised us that by using any means and using any opportunity, the election outcome must turn in favor of this team, even if these opportunities, even if these means are against electoral mechanisms,” the voice said.
Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, said the tape proved that the election fraud had been planned to return a victory for Mr. Ghani.
“This evidence was released today to inform our countrymen that our president, other government elders and the so-called election commission are instruments,” Mr. Arsalai said. The election was a public process, he said, calling it the right of the Afghan people, not the president or the commission chief. “We have a responsibility to let people know that their rights are being violated,” he said.
After lengthy last-minute negotiations, and clarifications issued by the United Nations on the criteria for disqualifying fraudulent ballots, Mr. Abdullah’s team announced it had provisionally agreed to attend the audit on Monday.
It seems to me (and this is just speculation) that the Abdullah camp, by calling into question not only the technical aspects of the audit process but the legitimacy of the whole operation, is setting itself up for an “out” should the audit results be against his favor. This is to say nothing of Dr. Ahmahdzai, who would surely cry foul play should his “victory” be found to be illegitimate.
Aside from a fully independent and internationally monitored audit of all votes, there is little more that can be done in the name of legitimacy. I fear for the sake of the Afghan people, however, that “legitimacy” in the eyes of the two candidates is tied to their own victory–two positions which are clearly mutually exclusive.
The people of Afghanistan showed great bravery by turning out to vote on two separate occasions, risking their lives in order to enable a system they are unfamiliar with. I hope I am wrong, and that both candidates will respect the results of the audit. If not, it is the duty of the international community to ensure that the legitimate winner takes power in a peaceful manner. The U.S. has a big role to play in this peaceful transfer, as the resources it provides Afghanistan (security, economic development, humanitarian, etc.) should provide considerable leverage.
As I said before, whoever ends up as the President will surely have their hands full; Afghanistan has a long march towards modernization. Transferring power peacefully through legitimate democratic elections is only the beginning of what is sure to be a difficult and nonlinear modernization process.
Update: It appears both candidates have agreed to a “power share” deal, where the losing party in the audit will get substantial positions within the government. It sounds good in theory, I hope they both stick to this plan when the results come in.