Kabul, Jun 20: Even as Afghanistan prepares to witness the first ever democratic transfer of power following the second round of the presidential elections held on June 14 last, the story that is being scripted by one of the contenders has already cast doubts on the future of this much touted transition. Not withstanding the growing controversy on alleged fraud and rigging of the elections, the fact that Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has refused to accept the results certainly does not augur well for the democracy building process which started in 2001 following the ouster of the Taliban led regime.
There are hectic parleys to convince Abdullah to withdraw his boycott calls with President Hamid Karzai even endorsing the former’s call for the United Nations (UN) to intervene. The United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) too has called for “respect of the country’s constitution and laws.” But the situation is quickly evolving into a political crisis and spiraling out of control with Abdullah and his supporters unwilling to budge from their demands to stop the counting of results. Not only that they are also demanding the suspension of the secretarial head of the election commission accusing him of “foul play” in favour of the rival candidate.
Though it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of what Abdullah is saying, but it definitely merits a thorough investigation. What has perhaps raised a few eyebrows is the projected lead that Dr. Ashraf Ghani, one of the two presidential candidates has over Abdullah crossing almost over a million votes. In the first round election held on April 5, Abdullah had led with 45 percent whereas Ghani had only 31.6 percent votes. Perhaps it is worth asking what caused Ghani to make a strong comeback in the run-off, which according to the election commission witnessed a similar turnout as round one—almost close to a seven million.
This is a very crucial juncture for Afghanistan and any mistake by both the powers that be and the international community would only plunge the country to a deeper political crisis and push the democratic process backwards. The post Taliban transition towards a democratic order in Afghanistan has been painstaking and a lot of sacrifices have been made along the way, and if all the gains that have been made from those sacrifices and hard work go to waste, the people of this country would have only themselves to blame.
Different groups are viewing the current impasse differently. While some groups, believe that given the complexities of the electoral process, “determining the level of voter turnout and distinguishing the valid vote for the fraudulent ones is very difficult for various reasons,” others dismiss this as “rubbish” and say that one “only needs to rewind the process and find out how many ballots and extra ballots had gone to which polling center and which polling centers were closed during the voting and yet voting took places in those centers.”
There are still other groups that view the current crisis as unfortunate and have appealed to all parties to adhere to the laws, the country’s constitution and respect for the “independent” election institutions. The problem is not so much with the appeal but its timing, as given the present situation where undeniably there were frauds committed, as has been reported by observer groups both local and international, in principle to raise questions and demand for investigations against alleged fraud is well within the legitimate right of a complainant (read candidate). Especially, so when the issue is about establishing a democratic order.
The electoral legal framework—article 8 of chapter 1—does mention that candidates would have to comply and abide by the decisions of the election commission and the complaints commission “in accordance with provisions of the law.” It also says that the “counting and tallying of results shall not be disrupted by any illicit act.” However, it allows a “protesting candidate” to resort to “legal procedures or lawful means” to interrupt the tallying by filing formal complaints, supported by “credible evidence,” to the complaints commission.
A section in Article 59 on ‘Certification and Announcement of Results,’ says “In case the vote counting process is challenged, the Commission and the Complaint Commission may order the re-count of all the ballots or part of it in an electoral constituency prior to the certification of the final results.” These provisions in the laws is a clear indication of the space that is provided to a candidate to lodge complaints which is perhaps why Abdullah has come out to openly question the process. He maintains that his protests and boycotting of the tallying process is “in line with the country’s laws.”
Abdullah’s claim that his protests are legitimate is perhaps borne out of his belief that the elections are not transparent and clean and so it is in contradiction to the pledge he had undertaken, as specified by the law that he would “cooperate with the ‘Independent’ Election Commission, related commissions and the ‘Independent’ Electoral Complaint Commission inholding transparent, free and fair elections.” There surely could be more interpretations in favour or against Abdullah but what is important is to win the people’s confidence.
And the election commission should not merely focus on the tallying process in trying to show its credibility but handle criticisms with greater maturity, especially when it comes to investigating alleged frauds and attempts to commit frauds. One only needs to revisit the 2009 election outcome, which was rigged with controversies (mostly ballot stuffing) despite initial announcements by the commission and the international community that the process was sound and voters voted without fear. Abdullah has during a recent press conference said that the international community should not “illustrate insouciance to the massive frauds because Afghan people took a risk in casting their ballots which may also implicitly sound like a warning to the international community not to repeat the “mistakes” of 2009.
Not just Abdullah, but the people of Afghanistan want to know the truth and to do that no amount of pacifying from the election commission will help. There are several questions from the conduct of the elections, distribution of ballots, lack of security escorting ballots, which was documented even by an international observer group, let alone domestic observers and supporters of the two candidates, that are awaiting answers. Questions like whether the turnout was as high as the election commission is projecting it to be even though most polling stations recorded a low turnout, or whether the pattern of voting so different that it escaped everyone’s notice are increasingly doing the rounds and await answers.
The election commission should not be flummoxed by these questions, which are only but natural, especially in a country where electoral frauds are not unusual. Domestic observer groups like the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) have also cited reasons for “a transparent and serious investigation,” which they feel would be a prerequisite for initiating “confidence building measures.” These two election watch groups who had the biggest fleet of observers on the ground have raised other serious concerns about how their observers were prevented from entering polling stations in a number of provinces, which surely needs answers from the authorities. Observers are handicapped in that they are not allowed to file complaints, but given the importance of their role in the process, their findings must not be dismissed without investigation.
Thus, without further ado and delay, what needs to be done is institute an independent investigation into not just what Abdullah is saying or demanding, but also into allegations of fraud and alleged cheating that is said to have taken place in polling centers which were out of bounds or where women could not go to vote and there are a number of constituencies in Afghanistan where this is a possible. Unless a comprehensive investigation process is set in motion involving carefully third parties from the international community or from institutions that are regarded as “independent” in Afghanistan it would be indeed very difficult to stem the tide of controversies that surround the run-off elections.
Lastly, there is a need to rise above ethnic considerations and find a solution to the present crisis, which will help to strength the democratic process, not just for now but for the future as well. For it helps little if the diversity of a nation does not allow it to progress towards the betterment of its democratic institutions by making them more independent and dependable. (EOM)
(The author is a political analyst and an expert of governance and elections. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)