Sep 24, 2010
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Afghanistan Election Watch pt. II: Actual Results May Vary

It was easy to be impressed with some of the things we witnessed in Panjshir Province on Election Day last week. After waking up at 4am, driving to a region beyond the reach of the only paved road around, and then hiking 30 minutes into the mountains, we arrived at our first polling center (comprised of one station each for men and women). My male colleague and out male interpreter were not permitted to enter the women’s station, so I walked alone into the small earthen mosque to observe how well this remote polling station would follow official opening procedures.

I was ready to see anything, since much of the fraud perpetrated in Afghanistan’s 2005 parliamentary and 2009 presidential/provincial elections had taken place at women’s polling stations, for several reasons. Because the gender divide is rigidly enforced here, police generally can’t search women or enter their stations. And many female stations, for reasons of modesty, access, or lack of other options, have in the past been located in private homes – where anything can happen. On top of all this, women are not required, like men, to have their picture on their voter ID card, leaving open the possibility they can vote with someone else’s card – even multiple times.

So I was a little surpised to walk in and basically witness a textbook-perfect operation. The four female staff members were young, maybe high school age, but clearly had experience or training or both. They set up the tables and voting booth in a simple and standard way that ensured voter secrecy and ease of movement. They accounted for sensative materials and recorded the number of blue tie on the ballot box that had broken and had to be replaced. When they were done with setup and everything had been verified by the polling station manager, the staff took turns getting up to vote before opening the station to the general public – which trickled in in a slow but steady stream of women voters. And throughout the process, female accredited candidate agents watched for any irregularities.

Not all of the polling stations we visited in Panjshir on election day were this well-run. Some had missing materials, or were set up poorly, or had unauthorized people inside the station. At most stations the hole-punch to mark people’s voting cards had failed to work, and so staff had proceeded to cut the cards with scissors in almost any manner they chose. At the end of the day, though, we gave passing marks to every single station we visited (about 15 of them) – though the female ones, on the whole, scored better then the males’.

How interesting it was to come back to Kabul and hear that many observation team had had quite different – even opposite – experiences from ours. Some teams felt that in their area, women had been largely and/or systematically disenfranchised. Women’s polling stations were empty. In other areas, observers had seen women bussed in to vote en masse, overwhelming the polling station staff. Some groups of women were apparently using this technique to avoid having their fingers dipped in indelible ink – which would allow them to vote again somewhere else. These stations were apparently quite chaotic. And not every observer team felt that elections in their assigned province deseverved passing marks. One team even suspected that they had witnessed signs of systematic fraud.

Almost a week after the elections, Democracy International hasn’t come out with even a preliminary official statement (at least two other groups have). I don’t think it’s hard to see why; as easy as it was to be impessed with some of the things we saw in Panjshir on election day, so too must it be easy to be disouraged by some of the things observers saw in other provinces. Gaining a clear and comprehensive idea of how things went nationwide for Afghanistan on election day is going to take time, and even with time it is unclear, of course, that our understanding will be complete or even sufficient. Challenges of access, sample size, quality of data, and others must be taken into account. DI is continuing to follow up in Kabul and in other provinces, and when they do issue a report I am sure it will be honest about both their findings and their limitations.

In the meantime, I’ve come home to family and friends who have been concerned due to reports in the media over Afghanistan’s electoral violence. It seems that this issue has drawn most of the attention back home, and indeed, ISAF recently announced that electoral violence this year did, in fact, surpass last year’s levels. But even though violence did spike with the election – as predicted – and that spike was greater than last year’s, numbers don’t necessarily say it all. Were all those security incidents targeted at elections officials, candidates and voters, or do they include the general violence inherent in a larger counter-insurgency effort? And even if this was a more violent election on the whole, how do we rate the election if, hypothetically, it went relatively well and fraud-free in nonviolent areas like Panjshir?

It’s wrong to extrapolate my experiences there to apply to the whole country, but it’s also wrong to overlook them. So for now, I’m telling anyone who asks to take them, like some of the headlines they’ve been reading, for what they are, and with several grains of salt.


1 Comment

  • The diversity of experiences is what I expected. My main question (to which I suspect we will never get the answer) is whether there was more or less fraud than in last year’s election. We do know that 25% less votes were cast this year than last year, but without a sense of whether there was more or less fraud, its hard to approximate the decrease in voter turnout.

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