There is a palpable sense of anticipation in Kabul days before parliamentary elections will be held. Blast walls, billboards and powerline poles are plastered with the campaign posters of the hopeful candidates. With 800 candidates competing for 33 seats in Kabul, winning a seat in the province will be challenge. The possibility of successful electoral process nationally is equally daunting, however, as poor security, delayed preparations and the last-minute introduction of electronic voter verification machines (in a country with spotty electricity) make pulling off a credible vote a real gamble.

A man working for the Afghan Independent Election Commission inventories ballot boxes at IEC headquarters in Kabul
A man working for the Afghan Independent Election Commission inventories ballot boxes at IEC headquarters in Kabul. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

The stakes for this election are high. Not because parliament matters so much in a country where much of the political power is held by the executive branch. But they are a test run for the more critical presidential elections scheduled to be held six months later. If the parliamentary elections are plagued by major controversy the presidential election date could slip, and with it the fragile political stability that is needed to pursue an acceptable political settlement with the Taliban that the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy envisions.

There are three things to watch for that will determine the degree of success in these elections: voter turnout, fraud and the Taliban’s actions.

Voter Turnout: Will Afghans Come to the Polls? 

A major source of instability in Afghanistan is the perception of key political constituencies that they are excluded from government power and economic opportunity. This includes, most importantly, the Taliban, who were not party to the Bonn Agreement that formed a new government after the organization was ousted in 2001 nor involved in drafting the 2004 constitution. While understandable given their role in protecting al-Qaida even after the 9/11 attack, not providing any avenues for reconciled Taliban to join the government helped to create the insurgency.

Beyond the Taliban, many political and ethnic groups that support the government also feel left out in what they see as a “winner take all” system—regardless of the fact that they now have a historic level of representation in provincial and national governments. Their alienation creates mistrust that erodes confidence in government, fuels corruption and allows the Taliban to play on local grievances to gain support and territory.

This parliamentary election is set to be one of the least inclusive since 2004 for several reasons. The Afghan Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC) new voter registration process has sought to clean up millions of fake and duplicate voting cards by requiring that all eligible voters register anew at the polling centers where they plan to vote. Under normal conditions this would significantly enhance election integrity.   

But poor security conditions have created extensive barriers to registration. Registration never took place in approximately 5,200 out of 7,300 planned polling locations. As a result, people who could not safely move to other registration locations will be unable to vote. Moreover, registration was low in many areas that did manage to open registration centers.   

All politics is local, as the old adage goes. And if some communities, districts, or provinces do not have equal opportunities to vote because of security issues, a victory by rivals who have greater access will create a grievance beyond the normal pain of losing a fair election.

Two things to watch for are 1) the overall voter turnout; and 2) how many districts within provinces were able to vote. Low numbers in either category will indicate potential political unrest around the presidential elections and beyond.

Two things to watch for are 1) the overall voter turnout; and 2) how many districts within provinces were able to vote. Low numbers in either category will indicate potential political unrest around the presidential elections and beyond.

Another important component of participation is the involvement of women.   

While historically Afghan women have voted in significantly smaller numbers than men, women’s participation expanded in the 2004, 2009, and 2010 elections to about 40 percent of the vote. The main factors suppressing women’s participation are security, conservative cultural norms, and lack of female electoral staff. This year, election security risks are greater than ever before, with the insurgent groups threatening to attack the election process and the Taliban holding more territory—and tighter control of it—than in past elections.   

In the latest voter registration drive, only 35 percent of registrants were women, strongly suggesting that voting rates will also be lower. 

As talks about peace with the Taliban gain momentum, one of the key concerns of the United States and of Afghan women is that the freedoms realized since 2001 will be rolled back in a deal with the Taliban.   

Having elected representatives accountable to women will help to protect against a rollback of their rights; low women’s turnout could signal the opposite.

Fraud Prevention: Can New Technology Enhance Election Integrity?

Massive fraud has undermined the legitimacy of the past several elections. In the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections, hundreds of thousands of stuffed ballots made the margin of fraud greater than the margin of victory. Expensive and time-consuming internationally supervised audits were required to sort out the results and rehabilitate the legitimacy of the election.   

In 2014, the National Unity Government that the United States brokered between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah called for systemic reforms to voter registration and election administration that would clean up the process. Few reforms were actually made, however, and relations between the government’s electoral authorities and a coalition of more than 20 large and small political parties are fractious.   

Going into the election there are widespread suspicions that fraudulent voter registration occurred in several provinces. For example, in Nangarhar, Nimroz and Paktia provinces, voter registration exceeds the government’s total number of estimated eligible voters with Paktia in the lead showing an apparent excess of 40 percent, based on statistics published by the IEC and population figures published by the Central Statistics Office (which are often subject to debates about accuracy). Several districts where security is particularly poor also report implausibly high registration rates. This raises significant concerns that fraudulent voter registration could be a precursor to another round of ballot stuffing. 

In a last-minute attempt to build confidence in the process, the IEC has introduced an untested technology into the election. The commission is now distributing 22,000 hand-held computer devices to each polling station to record biometric information—fingerprints, photos and voter ID—of each voter who casts a ballot. The commission says it will not count or accept ballots from anyone not registered on the biometric system. This creates an unfortunate catch 22: If the machines work then fraud will be reduced, but it may also reveal very low voter rates that were disguised by possible voter registration fraud.

Biometric voter verification systems hold the promise of eliminating many past election problems, if they work. But the history of using technology to fix flawed elections registers few successes. When more-developed Kenya introduced an electronic voting system in 2013, the servers failed and election officials in the end had to rely on manual results. In Afghanistan, the election commission faces an unenviable dilemma: strictly enforce the new requirements and risk disenfranchising voters or loosen the requirements where the equipment breaks down and reduce confidence in the posted results.

The Taliban Factor

The Afghan government has made clear that it seeks a peace agreement with the Taliban and has repeatedly invited the insurgents to participate in the political process. While the Taliban agreed to a limited cease-fire during the Eid holiday in June, they have stated unambiguous opposition to elections and attacked candidates and voter registration centers. The Taliban’s logic is simple: The group is relatively unpopular and would likely win few legislative seats in a fair vote, whereas the government will have a stronger hand in negotiations if it can claim a legitimate, popular mandate from voters. 

Given that the greatest threat to credible elections is poor security caused by the Taliban itself, the group has significant control over the success of the process. How they choose to use that leverage, and how voters and the government respond, will shape the dynamics of next year’s presidential elections.

In the past, the Taliban have foregone attacks for the sake of political gains. In the second round of the 2014 election, for example, the group reportedly refrained from disrupting the election in several provinces in eastern Afghanistan, enabling a surge in turnout for Ghani that helped him win the election.   

In the parliamentary election a similar deal may be made with local candidates where the Taliban agree to withhold violence in ways that enable voter access in areas where preferred candidates are running. The Taliban can also choose to restrict access in areas where rivals have bases of support. If voting occurs in relatively large numbers in areas where the Taliban has significant influence, it may indicate such a deal has occurred. 

Overall, however, the Taliban have more strategic incentives to oppose the elections and benefit from a chaotic process and uncertain results: The more time and political capital the Kabul government must spend resolving election disputes, the less focused it will be on fighting and the more divided it will be in any negotiations with the Taliban. 

The more time and political capital the Kabul government must spend resolving election disputes, the less focused it will be on fighting and the more divided it will be in any negotiations with the Taliban.

This week, the Taliban issued a statement in which it called on candidates and voters to boycott the polls. The group also issued a direct threat to disrupt the elections and directed its fighters to attack election facilities. If the Taliban deliver on this threat, it will demonstrate their continued strength and will severely undermine election credibility by further disenfranchising the Pashtun regions, where a greater percentage of the villages and districts are either completely or partially controlled by the Taliban. It will also likely reduce turnout for the presidential elections and make the future elected government less legitimate.

Shaping the Presidential Election

If mass fraud is discovered again after the October vote, it will have practical and political consequences. In parliamentary elections there are dozens of candidates running for each open seat, so the margins of victory are small—often a few hundred votes separate winners from losers. That means many more allegations of fraud and time-consuming investigations. Protests over results delayed the final tally in the last parliamentary election in 2010 by 10 months. If something similar happens this time, the presidential elections scheduled for six months later will need to be postponed.

More importantly, how the IEC handles fraud will affect public and political confidence in its ability to conduct free and fair presidential elections. If the IEC botches its attempt to use technology to reduce fraud, or if it fails to investigate in a transparent and politically impartial way, demands to replace the commissioners will be loud and insistent. Choosing new members in the current environment of ethnic tension would be a high-stakes gamble and lobbying for one commission composition versus another might spark a national political crisis in its own right. 

The unity government and the IEC are in a tough position. The people of Afghanistan want and need election results that can be generally viewed as fair, but the logistics of electoral reform have had a late start developing. Given what is at stake, the government must take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of the elections. 

Finally, the government and the IEC must work to resolve disputed election results as fast as possible while taking the lessons learned from this election process—particularly the consequences from inaction on election reform—to start now preparing for the presidential elections scheduled for six months from now. Every resource available should be poised to assist the IEC in resolving disputed results. 

It will take weeks for the results of these elections to be announced as tally sheets and biometric voter-verification machines are sent by donkey, truck, plane and chopper to the Quonset hut that serves as a data center at the IEC headquarters in Kabul. Meanwhile the candidate nominations for the presidential elections will occur. Like any good nail biter this means that opposing teams will be casting a critical eye on the results and the process with an eye to whether it benefits them in the presidential race. No decision will benefit everyone and in a polarized political environment small flaws will be magnified, placing pressures on the process that it will struggle to withstand.

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