Afghanistan's electoral machinery seems to be not successful in its first significant test in the current round of the presidential and provincial elections. The Election Commission missed the original deadline it had announced for releasing the results of its screening of nomination papers. And then when the IEC published the provisional list of presidential candidates it failed to present a transparent case explaining how it accepted ten sets of nomination papers and rejected eighteen other. The lack of transparency has provoked accusations that the Executive interfered in the process and dictated some of the names to be rejected, thus rendering the screening process discriminatory and arbitrary. Afghans are left with only the IEC's word for it that the ten remaining candidates fulfilled those criteria which it asserts the eliminated candidates failed on. The only saving grace about the candidate list controversy is that there is still some time for the IEC and others involved to learn from the experience and act now to ensure that the election itself produces a convincing and legitimate result.
The best way to understand the process of preparing the provisional candidate list is that it was an exercise in managed democracy. Many Afghans and internationals were rather pleased that the IEC succeeded in slimming the list of candidates. Several prospective candidates have no real political base in the country and had little hope of gaining even 1% of the final vote. Having them all on the ballot paper would distract the political debate away from serious contenders for power and potentially confuse voters on polling day. The electoral law attempted to address this problem by requiring presidential candidates to demonstrate the backing of at least 100,000 voters from 20 provinces. If all candidates who submitted their papers had really fulfilled this requirement it would have meant that 2.7 million Afghan voters would have signed nomination documents and handed over copies of their electoral registration cards over the past month or so. This would have been a mass mobilization exercise almost on a par with polling day itself. If it had really happened, public commentators and social media would have noticed the mass signing of nomination papers. In reality a rather different process underpinned the efforts of candidates to complete their nomination papers. A whole class of political brokers has emerged in recent years who are in physical possession of large numbers of voter registration cards.
The most practical way for candidates to prepare their nomination papers was to negotiate with these brokers to obtain photocopies of their cards. Of course everyone can quote stories of the prices that particular candidates are supposed to have paid for their share of the photocopies. Irrespective of the truth of those stories about money, the important point is that, contrary to what was anticipated by the electoral law, individual voters have not made a show of support for the candidates. This has been made possible by the accumulation over the years of bogus voter registration cards. The unbelievably large numbers of registered woman voters in some of the most conservative provinces of South gives an indication of the order of magnitude of bogus cards in circulation. Many cards have never been in the hands of real individual voters but have been produced en mass for the brokers. For most presidential candidates the 100,000 supporter criterion has boiled down to a test of their financial or organizational ability in dealing with enough brokers to amass a horde of cards.
Although disqualified candidates have protested that the IEC has been too harsh in rejecting nominations, I find it far more plausible that the commission was too lenient and discriminatory i.e. accepted some nominations which contained fewer valid cards and signatures than the rejected candidates. The IEC's reluctance to publicize the basis of its decisions leaves it open to this suspicion of arbitrariness. Unsurprisingly, the version popular in Kabul has it that a last minute intervention by the executive persuaded the commission to reject several candidates whose papers were in order. After all, in accepting ten nominations the IEC has accepted the authenticity of one million signatures which still stretches the imagination.
If an arbitrary process is used to screen candidates, it becomes a managed election akin to practice in Iran, where prospective candidates are ruled out if unacceptable to the Supreme Leader. The trouble with this is that Afghans are rather more prepared to challenge their institutions than their counterparts in Iran. An attempt to manage the Afghan election in accordance with the wishes of the presidential palace and against the popular will generate far more controversy and alienation than for example the rejection of the Rafsanjani candidacy in Iran.
Candidates' apparent willingness to indulge in mass procurement of dodgy voter registration cards and the IEC's failure to find an even-handed and transparent antidote for this practice do not bode well for polling day. There is a risk that the ghost Afghans who nominated candidates will "turn up at the ballot box" in the sense that brokers and candidates expect to be able to fill ballot boxes on the basis of the cards they possess. In principle electoral rules do not allow someone to cast multiple votes just because he is carrying a pile of voter identity cards. However in practice mass proxy voting has become a feature of Afghan elections. I have heard electoral officials advocate tolerating the process as a way of saving voters, especially women, the bother of coming to the polling station. However where accumulated voter identity cards are used to complete the paper work for ballot stuffing these cards are usually fake. The voter listed either does not exist or is not aware how the card is being used.
The stark reality is that the basic principle of one Afghan one vote has only been partially applied in recent elections. The messy nomination process this time suggests that IEC and candidates alike have not taken on board that someone really has to turn up to the polling station to be allowed to cast his or her vote. Unless there are strict measures to prevent them, mass proxy voting and ballot stuffing could derail the whole election process. Unlike previous elections, the contest to choose a successor to Karzai is a real contest, with outcome unknown. Defeated candidates can easily discredit the election results if someone tries to win with fake votes or if the IEC or palace tries to manage the election and impose their chosen winner. Any attempt to turn the elections into a sort of contest in ballot stuffing will end in stalemate and Afghans will have lost the chance to elect a legitimate successor to President Karzai.
The best hope of the elections producing a credible result is if the IEC takes seriously the task of enforcing one Afghan one vote and if candidates and their polling agents monitor the process thoroughly. Only opening polling stations in areas where polling staff and candidate agents really are able to travel to would be a good start to the enforcement of one Afghan one vote.
The messy nomination process should serve as a timely reminder of the importance of transparency in the IEC's work and as a warning that attempted election fixing will backfire.