November issue 2018
Polls in the Time of Violence
The Afghan electorate is anxiously waiting to hear the results of the parliamentary elections held on October 20, after a three-and-a half year delay.
The wait is long one. It will take the Independent Election Commission (IEC) 20 days to compile the results. If the IEC, widely criticised for its incompetence, is able to announce the results as scheduled on November 10, the new 250-member Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament as it is known in the local Pashto and Dari languages, would belatedly come into being.
Still, there is concern about the acceptability of the election outcome, owing to past experiences, when allegations were made that the three presidential and two parliamentary elections had been rigged. Disputes are bound to arise as many among the 2,500-plus candidates, including 417 women, are unlikely to accept the results. There could be protests and litigation and further criticism of the beleaguered IEC.
It is remarkable that parliamentary polls were held at all in a war-ravaged country. There was uncertainty even until a week before the polling date, about whether the elections would be held on time. The rise in violence, in particular the incident at the Governor’s House in Kandahar, where top Afghan and US security officials were fired at and harmed in an ‘insider’ attack two days before the October 20 polling, contributed to the uncertainty and spread fear among candidates and voters.
The violence had been on the rise since April 22, 2018, when the National Unity Government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Officer, Dr Abdullah, the de facto prime minister, had announced the holding of the much-delayed parliamentary elections on October 20. On the same day, the Taliban announced the launching of their annual spring offensive, named ‘Khandaq’ after the Battle of Khandaq in Madina, fought during the early days of Muslim rule. It was obvious from the Taliban move that they had no intention of becoming part of the election process at this stage and were determined to foil the Afghan government’s efforts to hold the polls and consolidate its power.
The delay in holding the parliamentary polls (initially due in June 2015), was caused by a host of factors. These included insecurity, the lack of electoral reforms and disagreements between President Ghani, who enjoys most of the constitutional powers, and the CEO, Dr Abdullah, who lacks constitutional authority but has been given control of half the cabinet, under a 2014 power-sharing agreement brokered by the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry.
The government finally fixed the date for the Wolesi Jirga polls and stuck by the timetable despite the rise in violence and the problems faced by the IEC. One reason for this was believedto be an international conference in Geneva this November, where Kabul would be asked uncomfortable questions about the ‘democratic processes’ that it was supposed to accomplish. The countries and international donors supporting the Afghan government for all these years are growing increasingly sceptical in light of the rampant corruption, the delay in electoral reforms and poor governance. However, the western powers, led by the US, have been largely supportive of the Afghan government, often ignoring its shortcomings.
The elections suffered from many deficiencies and certain Afghan politicians termed them a joke. Former president, Hamid Karzai remarked that it would have been better not to hold the polls at all, while the former mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Hezb-i-Islami leader who has given up fighting and made a peace deal with the Afghan government, expressed serious reservations about the fairness of the polls.
One-third of the polling stations remained closed on polling day. Voters waited for hours and in an unprecedented move, polling was extended by two days. Some biometric devices, put into use at the last minute, malfunctioned. There were reports that some of the polling staff could not use the machines, which the IEC had claimed were as simple as using mobile phones. The 20-day gap in announcing the results fuelled further doubt about possible rigging. The use of money and strong-arm tactics to influence voters was also reported. The kith and kin of warlords and other influential politicians and former mujahideen commanders, contested the elections in a bid to perpetuate family politics and continue controlling the levers of power.
One of the biggest concerns was insecurity. The Taliban had threatened to disrupt the polls and directed their fighters to target the security forces personnel protecting the polling stations. The armed group claimed carrying out more than 300 attacks during the two days of polling. The Islamic State also posed a threat, though it lacked the capacity to undertake attacks all over Afghanistan and in the end wasn’t able to carry out a major assault. The violence, on the whole, was not of the scale that would disrupt elections. In the past too, the presidential and parliamentary polls went ahead despite Taliban threats. The turnout of the voters was affected by concerns regarding the outbreak of violence, but the elections were nevertheless held and the transition of power was completed.
The biggest Taliban attack took place at the Governor’s House in Kandahar. A suicide bombing in the same place in 2017 had claimed the lives of five United Arab Emirates diplomats, the deputy governor of Kandahar and some security officials and lawmakers. It was hit again, revealing the lax security measures and an inefficient recruitment process. A rogue security guard of Zalmay Weesa, the Governor of Kandahar, was blamed for opening fire on those present after a high-level meeting of Afghan and American security officials. The gunman was shot dead, but not before he had gunned down Brigadier General Abdul Raziq, the powerful police chief of Kandahar who had kept the Taliban in check through efficient, albeit brutal, means. Other victims included General Abdul Momin, heading the provincial unit of the intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, General Nabi Ilham and a journalist. Among the wounded were the governor himself, and three Americans, including General Jeffrey Smiley.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack and said Raziq and the US and Nato military commander, General Austin Scott Miller, were their targets. However, Miller, who escaped unhurt, insisted that he was not the target as he was exposed to danger during the scenario and could have easily been taken down.
It was a big challenge for the Afghan government and the IEC to hold the parliamentary elections. Polling was not held in Ghazni province due to insecurity and postponed for a week after the Governor’s House attack in Kandahar, but the exercise was conducted in the secure parts of the country. More than 5,000 polling stations and 21,000 polling booths were set up for the 8.8 million registered voters. The IEC had estimated that 12 to 15 million citizens would register as voters, but the actual turnout was 9.5 million owing to security concerns and the electorate’s dwindling trust in the election process and elected representatives. After the disqualification of underage voters, duplication of names and a lack of proper paperwork, the voters’ strength was cut down to 8.8 million. The IEC claimed that nearly four million voters had voted. This does not include the Kandahar vote which was held recently, while no date has yet been fixed as yet for Ghazni, which the Taliban had captured in August for five days before retreating. If the turnout figure is correct, it is impressive considering the security situation and the IEC’s usual inability to organise credible elections.
The parliamentary polls were seen as a rehearsal for the more important presidential election, which is to be held on April 20, 2019. The candidates would start registering in November, setting the stage for the crucial vote for the country’s president. President Ghani is likely to contest again, though his previous rival, Dr Abdullah, is facing a challenge from his former ally and party colleague, Atta Mohammad Noor. Other candidates are also flexing their muscles, but the IEC will have to perform better to be able to hold a free and fair presidential poll.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.