How Afghanistan Can Find a Solution to the Missed Opportunity of the Right Electoral Reforms: An Interview with Abdullah Ahmadzai

Abdullah Ahmadzai is the former head of The Independent Election Commission secretariat and is currently the Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Afghanistan. He oversaw the 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections at a time when resources were scarce. Mr Ahmadzai has also served in the UN in Joint Electoral Management Body Secretariat (JEMBS), as an Area Manager and subsequently as Chief of Operations. Having been involved in the Afghanistan Constitution Commission in 2001, Mr Ahmadzai deeply understands the legally-relevant technicalities of the electoral process.

As an election expert, he believes that the peace negotiation and the election processes should facilitate each other and that peace talks should at least be able to pave the way for a multi-day ceasefire in the days leading up to the presidential election. He also believes that the country can use some fundamental electoral reforms which are devoid of a political preference in nature.

Reporterly conducted an interview with Mr. Ahmadzai at his office in Kabul.

Reporterly: If  you agree to start with the parliamentary elections. You are witnessing the recent invalidation of Kabul constituency’s ballots by the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission. In your opinion, what does the invalidation of votes mean in such a large constituency like Kabul? Was the fraud so widespread or are there another issues behind that?

Ahmadzai: Regarding the parliamentary elections, I have to say that overall, despite the technical and managerial problems, elections provide a good opportunity for the political leadership of the electoral commissions, electoral partners, civil society, political parties and finally, for all these actors, a good opportunity to learn from what happens during the elections. Using the 2018 parliamentary election experience, electoral commissioners can better manage the next elections.

In response to the question as to why ballots in a constituency, such as Kabul, are declared invalidated- in my opinion, if we consider only the legal aspects of the election, the electoral law makes it clear that the IECC is a specific part of the electoral justice. They have the right to invalidate a constituency’s votes if they have sufficient evidence of widespread fraud. However, the electoral law says that after the invalidation of ballots, the IEC is required to hold the election again in the same constituency within seven days.

But the second point is that, along with the legal considerations, are the evidences collected by the IECC are sufficient to invalidate the ballots of such a large constituency? Are the evidences conforming to all 3,400 polling stations in Kabul? IECC has collected 1,100 complaints from Kabul, which is less than one-third of all ballots cast in Kabul. To invalidate the ballots of all polling stations, IECC should have had enough evidence of fraud from each polling station and shared their investigative report with people, and then should have made such a decision on a constituency.

Reporterly: You have seen that electoral commissions have had serious disagreements since the start of the election process, even during the registration process. In your opinion, is the reason for these disagreements “the commissioners”, or there are problems with responsibilities and authorities?

Ahmadzai: According to law, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission has no place in the constitution. But in the electoral law, the position of this commission is quite clear, its responsibilities and authorities have been defined -which is, dealing with the electoral complaints. The reason for the disagreement is the lack of coordination between the two institutions. And secondly, the IECC is faced with a dilemma whether they observe the electoral process or judge this process. These two should not be confused with one another because an institution cannot be a judge and an observer simultaneously.

Reporterly: How damaging can these disagreements between electoral commissions be for people’s confidence in a democratic process?

Ahmadzai: We expected the members of the electoral commissions that they would increase the legitimacy of this process by working closely with each other in a responsible and insightful manner. But unfortunately, the misunderstanding that emerged between these two electoral commissions diminished the credibility of the commissions and the legitimacy of the electoral process in public opinion. One of the questions that The Asia Foundation, in its annual research, asks people is about their confidence in government institutions which also encompasses the IEC. In the early days of the registration process, when the registration centers were opened in the villages, based on our surveys, the level of people’s confidence in the IEC was very high. But if another one to be conducted, the level of people’s confidence in IEC will be significantly low considering its performance. If these controversies persist, it can finally drag the level of people’s confidence in the election process to a level that no one will ever go to the polls, because they can no longer trust such a commission.

Reporterly: A number of electoral observer institutions have announced that election commissions should stop working. Meanwhile, the vote counting process of the Kabul is halted due to the recent decision to invalidate the Kabul’s ballot by IECC. What solution do you propose as an electoral expert considering the current situation?

Ahmadzai: The decision to invalidate votes has somehow hurt the legitimacy of the Afghan parliamentary election, but reconsidering this decision is another damage. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) had stopped counting the ballot yesterday due to the absence of IECC’s observers. According to the election commission, votes should be counted in the presence of the IECC observers. While I think such a belief is wrong. As I said before, IECC is responsible for judging the electoral process, not for monitoring.

Therefore, resuming the counting of votes will depend on the transparency of the process. My suggestion is to start counting the votes that were cast on election day. Of course, it should be counted with vigorous oversight by election observer institutions, and the results should be announced to the public.

Reporterly: Do you think the announcement of such a result would be acceptable for electoral partners?

Ahmadzai: This will be reflected in the transparency of the process and the management of electoral commissions. It is clear that with a large number of candidates, 90 percent of whom includes those who cannot enter the parliament. Additionally, due to lack of political maturity in Afghanistan, we also do not expect all the losing candidates to accept the elections’ result. But the basic condition is that the IEC’s clear management and accountability should mark the results and there is no losing candidate to come up with an evidence to challenge the outcome of the election. This means that if the candidate’s numbers are different from the figures provided by the commission, then we will face a deadlock in legitimacy. We hope that this deadlock will be prevented and the commission will manage the process in a transparent manner.

Reporterly: If you allow, may we discuss another important era that is expected to start soon-the presidential elections. The IEC, according to a calendar scheduled for presidential elections, announced the date of the election for next spring, how practical do you think this calendar is?

Ahmadzai: It’s not practical at all. I was surprised as the same calendar is currently under discussion. Considering the management of the electoral process in a country like Afghanistan where the process of registration is also included, as well as the security challenges and the concerns over the voters’ turnout in the election, and all of these issues, we need more than eight months to plan for such an election. Unfortunately, we do not have enough time to hold the presidential election. In the four remaining months, we only expect the electoral commissions to resolve the challenges of the parliamentary elections and finalize it.

Reporterly: Along the technical and managerial challenges facing the presidential election, how many other issues, such as peace talks and the challenges of the parliamentary elections, affect the calendar of the election?

Ahmadzai: Parliamentary elections itself has a direct impact on the presidential elections’ calendar. But both technically and politically, once parliament is established and begins its work – which we hope to occur before the presidential election – parliamentarians may have some preconditions for managing the presidential election, given the experience of previous elections. But peace talks and presidential elections, in my opinion, should facilitate each other. The peace process should lead to elections and the elections should lead to peace.

But my expectation, as an Afghan, is that if we reach a two-sided ceasefire agreement in the peace talks, at least in the days of the presidential election, in this case, the presidential elections will be accompanied by clear management, better legitimacy and adequate supervision.

Reporterly: As you know, the heads of NUG have stated that there will be no disruption during the presidential election. What do you think is necessary to hold the elections during this little time we have?

Ahmadzai: I do not doubt the will of the timely elections among political leaders. But in practical terms, there is no technical and managerial preparation. Therefore, such an election calendar is not practical in terms of management.

As you are concerned, there is no guarantee to close the Afghan parliamentary election chapter. It is unclear when the parliament will begin to work so that the IEC can focus more on the presidential election from a managerial point of view. Another issue is the question of how much the peace talks could have a positive or negative effect on the electoral calendar. All these are the questions we are waiting as an Afghan citizen to be answered.

Reporterly: Mr. Ahmadzai as you know, parliamentary elections were not held in Ghazni province and now, as it seems, the conduction of parliamentary elections in Ghazni is not taken seriously by the election commission. In your opinion, what is the solution to election deadlock in this province?

Ahmadzai: It is the government’s mission to hold elections in Ghazni province, as it was held in the other 33 provinces of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the same electoral system intended for 33 provinces should be considered in Ghazni as well, unless a consensus or other major political decision is reached in the administrative units of the province. From the point of view of the law and legitimacy of the parliament, there is no reason to postpone the Ghazni elections.

Reporterly: What is the legal justification for differentiating between Ghazni province and other provinces in holding parliamentary elections?

Ahmadzai: Ghazni elections are part of the election just like the other provinces during the same election and the same period. So we cannot have a double standard to have a different electoral system in Ghazni. So if elections in other provinces of Afghanistan are based on the SNTV system (Single non-transferable vote), elections in Ghazni should be based on the same system.

As a person responsible for managing the election process in all provinces of Afghanistan including Ghazni in 2010, I emphasize that this does not have a technical and electoral solution. The solution that the politician is measuring should not be based on the technical and electoral aspects. A political dialogue should be launched between the politicians to discuss the administrative structure in Ghazni province in order to portray the political representation of the province to the Afghan parliament on the basis of its social realities.

Reporterly: Let’s discuss another chapter of elections in Afghanistan. As you know, the work of the electoral commissions was criticized from the very beginning. In your opinion, where have these commissions, especially IEC, failed?

Ahmadzai: Unfortunately, Afghanistan spent the opportunity they had, to work on electoral laws on political preferences rather than on electoral reform. We have waited for three years since the establishment of the National Unity Government to reach a conclusion on bringing changes to the election law and the electoral process, but when we weigh these reforms in a bigger picture, it has been mostly political preferences than fundamental reforms.

The first thing they did was to replace the Independent Election Commission members and made a mechanism for selecting the commissioners in which various institutions, including civil society organizations, would take part in the selection of commissioners, which itself was a conflict of interest. How can civil society, which is a monitoring institution also select the members of IEC? I think it’s too early in Afghanistan to focus on the mechanism of appointments. What’s more important is the political consensus on the commissioners. Reaching a political consensus in appointment of the commissioners will make the people trust this commission. So one of the major challenges faced with the government in terms of elections was the issue of appointments.

The second problem is that the politicians, instead of reaching an understanding and consensus on the electoral system, passed it to IEC, which, in my opinion, was a mistake. Similarly, the materials added to the crime section of the electoral law were something that would not heal the pain of this nation. The discussion should have been focused on how we can strengthen the political management of the elections, what are the obligations for political leadership of this country and for politicians as electoral partners not only to play their part in the legitimacy of the elections, but also those politicians who are treating the electoral process irresponsibly hold themselves accountable. In the last six elections, the only institution and officials who have been constantly questioned is the electoral commissions and their members, but there has never been a prosecution for the politician’s irresponsible acts toward electoral process.

Reporterly: What technical challenges does the commission face apart from the political challenges you have mentioned?

Ahmadzai: Overall, there has been no focus on strengthening the Independent Election Commission (IEC). Technically speaking, the balance of power or authority between the election commission secretariat and the policymakers themselves who are the commissioners, has not been taken into consideration. Those who are policymakers, have been given executive powers and, on the other hand, those (the secretariat), who should hold executive power, have been treated more as a secretary. Or in another example, the spokesman for the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) is one of the commissioners, which still brings a conflict of interest; because when a person who is a spokesperson for an institution and at the same time has the right to vote, even if they have voted against something and that issue has been approved by a majority vote, how would you expect such a spokesperson to speak on behalf of the Commission and favour that decision? So there is a conflict of interest in most cases, and there was no focus on it when electoral laws were modified. Unfortunately, the changes made to the electoral law do not reflect an electoral mindfulness but mostly the political preferences.

Reportedly: Given the challenges facing the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the electoral process, what is your vision of the next year’s presidential election?

Ahmadzai: Presidential elections have usually been the most controversial election in Afghanistan, but if some measures are put in place and we focus on opportunities and use the past election experience, then I think we can have a better election.

First of all, I have to say that previously (at least since 2009), the result of our presidential election has been largely managed by the political influence and political mediation of the international community and domestic politics. Accepting the election results requires a political maturity, which unfortunately our politicians have not shown in the past. So the chance is that, even for the first time, we would manage the election internally as a nation.

Secondly, the creation of electoral tickets that can represent the structural realities of the country. The healthy structure of these tickets can relatively avert the tensions.

On one hand, since 2009, the experiences have shown that it hardly happens for a candidate to win a decisive majority vote in the first round. So the second round of elections is always a possibility; a great possibility. If we are faced with a situation where our electoral tickets for the presidential election are based on inclusion, then in the second round of elections, we are concerned about the ethnic nature of the electoral process, because over the past 16 years, we have made the political-ethnic considerations less significant. But if we do not pay more attention to creating electoral tickets and have an ethnic perception towards it, this is a matter of concern. Because even if it is not ethnic in the first round, ethnic considerations will be more serious in the second round, but national tickets can prevent such a scenario.

Other challenges facing the presidential election are peace talks and the challenge of insecurity in Afghanistan. Again, I emphasize that the only reasonable solution in this regard is that the armed insurgents and the Afghan government would reach a few days of ceasefire in the days leading up to the presidential election.

Cautious performance in large electoral decisions that can influence people’s confidence in the electoral process. Also, planned election campaigns are among other things to be considered by stakeholders. The political consciousness in this country has risen sharply and people are thirsty for the plans that are being offered by the political leaders.

Reporterly: So what do you think should be done so that at least the people of Afghanistan do not witness the repetition of the 2014 election crisis?

Ahmadzai: Sharing information with people with the necessary transparency. One thing we faced in this year’s parliamentary election was the vagueness of the election management. People cannot be convinced of just a news conference after mistakes made by the electoral authorities.
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These institutions should have a more responsible engagement with such cases. Responsible engagement will increase the confidence of the people in organizing elections.

Right now, the people, and in particular the parliamentary candidates, do not know how the electoral results have reached the IEC headquarters in Kabul, how are they being managed, where are these documents and how much progress is made every day?! It has been more than a month and a half since the parliamentary elections took place now, but so far no sufficient information has been shared at least with the electoral partners. So my suggestion is that the Independent Election Commission should share the information honestly with people in order to make people believe that the commission is truthful in its work.

Another issue is that the election organizers should avoid “the last-minute decisions”. For me, the most surprising decision in the days before the parliamentary elections was that they included biometric devices in the electoral process. We should not look for technical solutions to problems that are rooted in our society.

The key issue is not how to prevent fraud and add more locks; the discussion must be focused more on why our people do not have enough confidence over democratic processes and why they are not coming to the polls as expected considering the large number of voters in Afghanistan?! We need to focus on how to invest in this social dimension, rather than just adding technical tools, and discouraging those who have already participated, rather than encouraging others to participate in the election as well.

Reporterly: What is the role of the international community, the Afghan government, political parties and leaders in holding transparent elections in sync with the election commissions?

Ahmadzai: All responsibility should not be left to the electoral commissioners, in a way that others just wait for the commission to offer these services! The approach taken by the electoral partners so far has been the same with high expectations of the commission. But unfortunately, there is little clarity and accountability about the share that electoral partners should play in the electoral process.

Hamed Ahmadi and Sarah Mishra contributed.

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AliSher Shahir is a reporter for Reporterly and is based in Kabul.

Alisher Shahir

AliSher Shahir is a reporter for Reporterly and is based in Kabul.

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