On the Other Side of the World, An Even More Dysfunctional Election

This article first appeared in the New York Daily News on November 9, 2018.

America has a huge stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Late last month, Afghanistan finally held its long-overdue parliamentary elections, sort of. Defying Taliban threats and assaults, approximately 4 million brave Afghans cast their ballots in the hope of institutionalizing democracy in Afghanistan.

Mehdi-Jalalddin Hakimi
Mehdi Hakimi, Executive Director for the Rule of Law Program & Lecturer in Law

Crucially, the parliamentary election was a test run for a more consequential spectacle: the upcoming presidential race in April. However, as the parliamentary polls dust — or sandstorm — begins to settle, the prospects for a fair and transparent presidential election look bleak.

Despite the courage mustered by millions of Afghans, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) charged with overseeing the vote failed to properly manage a momentous national process.

The election was plagued by a litany of blunders including the closure of many polling centers, poorly trained employees, missing voter lists and ballots, defective biometric devices, misdelivery of sensitive materials, hogtying observers from monitoring the process and downright fraud.

The scale of the logistical mess and embarrassment did not even spare Vice President Sarwar Danish and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Security, too, was a challenge: the UN reported 435 civilian casualties — the deadliest election in Afghanistan’s history.

As a microcosm of wider oversight woes, the commission’s eleventh-hour reversal of its stance on the biometric voter-verification system has proved to be a major miscalculation. As feared, many IEC staffers were unfamiliar with the new system, the devices did not work in numerous areas, and many polling centers never even received the equipment. Realizing the magnitude of the predicament, the commission assured the confused masses that ballots without biometric verification would still be credible.

However, the electoral complaints commission has now contradicted that promise by declaring that non-biometric votes will be purged. While this is unlikely to be the last twist in this baffling saga, one thing is clear: the belated rush to introduce the biometric system has been a mere lip service to transparency — one that has done more harm than good.

The election commission has failed to admit or learn from its shambolic performance. Indeed, at times, it has blamed the voters for their widespread participation while deeming its own performance “very satisfactory” . This refusal to accept responsibility is, in itself, a major flaw — one that fails to restore dwindling faith in the electoral process.

Besides deficiencies in management and accountability, the government’s interference in the (independent) commission’s work is particularly alarming. President Ashraf Ghani has not shied away from bullying the electoral authorities should they deviate from his whims. While warningothers against meddling in the polls, back in May, Ghani brazenly threatened the commissioners with dismissal if they opposed the scheme of using copies of voter-ID cards.

Perhaps even more disconcertingly, Ghani’s threats were issued in the presence of high-level UN and American officials. Despite clear disagreement by some commissioners, the IEC head duly toed the line and even published the hare-brained scheme on the commission’s website. The president’s interference has been criticized particularly in light of Ghani’s plan to run in the presidential election. (Using copies of voter ID cards would’ve substantially increased fraud. Due to mounting pressure, the government and IEC eventually backtracked.)

Other controversies further underscore the electoral authorities’ susceptibility to undue influence. Besides internal rifts and dysfunction within the electoral bodies, the head of the IECas well as the head of the election complaints commission have been allegedly implicated in other questionable schemes.

The parliamentary polls were a dry run for the all-important presidential election in April. Unfortunately, the chaotic election, electoral authorities’ questionable behavior and government interference have stoked fears about a repeat of the fraud-riddled fiasco that marred the 2014 presidential race.

It would be a tragic irony if the ostensible guardians of Afghanistan’s electoral system end up strangling the fledgling democracy from within — a job the Taliban has failed to do. The international community, including the United States, have a crucial role in averting yet another major crisis, while it might still be possible.

Mehdi Hakimi is the executive director of the Rule of Law Program and a lecturer at Stanford Law School. Hakimi was the former chair of the Law Department at the American University of Afghanistan.