Bomb-proofing Afghan elections

In the absence of any credible roadmap towards peace, Afghanistan seems set to hold its 2014 presidential election in the middle of a war. Whether by design or default, the electoral process will be shaped by that conflict. However Afghanistan and many other countries already have ample experience of what happens when voters go to the polls in conditions of ongoing conflict. There is still time to put in place measures which can to some extent “bomb-proof” the election – i.e. ensure that the process is not derailed and produces a result acceptable to the Afghan people despite insecurity and insurgent efforts to derail it.However achieving this result requires that stakeholders in the election recognize reality rather than sleep-walking into a disaster.

For a reality check I interviewed an experienced Election Commission official. We talked uluswali by uluswali through one of the provinces where security is now precarious. For the moment Election Commission personnel are restricted to indoors activities in the provincial centre and Kabul. They are in sort of state of hibernation, just guarding the body’s equipment and premises and attending training courses. Most of the real work of the Election Commission should involve travelling in the districts – for civic education, voter registration, preparation of polling sites and the actual conduct of polling. My friend reckoned that in current conditions free movement of personnel for such activities would only be possible in one of the province’s districts. Three of the districts face a latent Taliban threat. Militants regularly stage raids and the police hold on the district centres is precarious. The rest of the districts are dominated by “strong-men”. A dominant commander has emerged in each tribe and they operate armed groups which, in their own areas, are more powerful than government. DIAG is a distant dream and government authority has receded. Government officials, in both the Taliban-affected and commander-dominated zones are essentially under siege in district head-quarters. They dare not travel district to district by land unless they are unimportant enough simply to go by bus in plain clothes. When I asked my friend what an election would look like if conducted in such circumstances, he laughed. Apart from the problems of the electoral staff, it would be impossible for campaigners, candidate agents and independent monitors to travel to the districts to connect with the electorate and observe polling. You cannot hold a normal free and fair election where campaigning is deadly, voting is dangerous and observing impossible. Something like a normal election would only be possible in the one secure district and the security bubble around the provincial headquarters. Any attempt to hold polling in the insecure districts would, according to the official, degenerate into a process of handing over ballot boxes to the local strongmen and waiting for them to return them, stuffed. This is how the 2010 parliamentary elections worked in the province. It would be impossible to deploy staff and expect them to apply the procedures inherent in lawful polling – checking of identity, enforcing of one-man-one vote, maintaining records and tallying votes. Of course something called an election would be possible. But if the Election Commission applied its own rules it would be obliged to invalidate all the votes coming in from the districts – because there would be no documentation to prove that real voters had cast them. This could be expected to provoke another round of protests, orchestrated by whoever had ordered the stuffing of the boxes in the insecure districts.

No well-wisher of Afghanistan could wish for a disastrous repetition of this destabilizing exercise. My reading of the political and military situation is that it is all too likely that security and access for official personnel to remote uluswalis will be no better in 2014 than it is today. Therefore the election official’s reality check suggests that if elections are to go ahead in 2014 the whole process will indeed have to be “bomb-proofed”.

In addressing the challenge of “bomb-proofing”, Pakistan provides a next door example of how a flexible response can help ensure that extreme violence does not upset the electoral process. The 2008 general election was held at a time when the country faced both an insurgency in the north and terrorism in all its main cities. The first big shock came with the terrorist assassination of main opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on 27th December 2007, only two weeks before voting was due. The Election Commission responded by postponing polls by forty days. This allowed enough time for the opposition to reorganize, without it appearing that the government was procrastinating. As this was the period in which the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan had started to agitate, some of the “tribal areas” were too dangerous for electioneering. In Kurram Agency polling was initially postponed because of an upsurge of pre-election violence. But its seat was filled in a subsequent by-election. However the seat for NA-42, covering the Mahsud area of South Waziristan remained vacant throughout the 2008-2013 parliament because of the army operation there and mass displacement. Lately, Imran Khan has petitioned for future polling to be allowed outside the NA-42 constituency, as so much of the population has been displaced. This has forced the Election Commission to address the issue of disenfranchisement of a part of the electorate and consider whether there is a flexible solution for this worst-affected constituency. The point of the Pakistan experience is that the authorities and political parties were able to respond flexibly to serious challenges of insecurity and terrorism and still produce one of Pakistan’s most successful democratic exercise – an election that peacefully defeated an incumbent party and produced the country’s first parliament and government to last the full term.

Internationally, electoral support organisations have tried to distill experience of conducting elections against a context of violence, from countries like Lebanon, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Iraq or Bangladesh, all of which have grappled with variants of the challenge. IFES (the International Foundation for Electoral Systems) recently published a report on “An integrated approach to elections and conflict”. They advocate breaking down the traditional barriers between those who manage the elections (the Election Commission) and those who deal with conflict (security forces or mediators and humanitarian agencies). The report advocates that electoral authorities should explicitly address conflict issues in their planning of every stage of the electoral cycle, by conducting election-relevant conflict analysis, conflict prevention, conflict mitigation and conflict resolution. It should be obvious in Afghanistan that early in the electoral cycle someone must do conflict analysis to identify the areas where problems can be expected. This will entail systematic versions of my reality check, so that the alarm can be sounded as soon as possible in affected constituencies. Another important point made by IFES is that it is important that the Election Commission be credible if it is to maintain public confidence in taking the difficult decisions that inevitably arise in managing an election during conflict. Clumsy government attempts to change commissioners and plant loyalists can backfire because this so weakens the electoral management body it has no authority to deal with crises. One of the eminent electoral experts who has served in Afghanistan, Ray Kennedy, suggests that flexibility (as in the Pakistan example) is the key to a successful election in a situation of conflict. Dates should not be fixed in stone and electoral law should leave reasonable latitude to the Election Commission to update regulations and procedures, so as to cope with evolving conflict conditions.

Bomb-proofing an Afghan election can benefit from these international insights. But measures will have to be tailored for Afghan conditions and address the three peculiar sets of conflict related threats.  The first set of threats comes from insurgents who, on current form, can be expected to be targeting the election and anybody associated with government or the international community. The second set of threats comes from unscrupulous officials who seek to exploit the conditions of insecurity as a cover for electoral fraud – industrial scale ballot-stuffing in provinces with unmonitored polling stations. Although protests at election results have been generally peaceful in recent Afghan elections, the third threat is that of post-poll violence in the case of a disputed result. Measures are available which could address each of these threats. The most radical change in the way Afghan elections are conducted would occur if the Electoral Commission implemented a clear decision only to open polling stations in locations which are accessible to voters, candidate agents and observers alike. This would involve abolishing the hundreds of polling stations where officials rather than real voters have previously stuffed ballot boxes. Such an attempt to apply the rules, where people have become accustomed to mass cheating, would require lots of advance-planning, transparency and involvement of all stake-holders (as described in the IFES report). A similar approach can be adapted for the other threats. For example once officials accept the basic reality that there is a war on they are obliged to look differently at basic tasks such as voter registration or facilitation of observers and candidate agents. Because a normal election is impossible it is time to rethink all the old procedures which were based on the illusion of freedom of movement and access throughout the country.

The run up to the 2014 presidential election and the way that the government, election commission, politicians and other stake-holders deal with the challenge of bomb-proofing it will be the ultimate test of the post-Bonn political order.  Ensuring that there is a legitimately elected president demands that the incumbent government resist the temptation to exploit insecurity in pursuit of electoral advantage. The election commission and the political class will have to cooperate from now on to update election plans and procedures to take account of the likelihood of much of the rural hinterland being inaccessible. Of course, the whole endeavour would be made much easier if someone could arrange a ceasefire and freedom of movement in time for the elections. For the moment this remains a distant dream. However they say that the same political will is necessary for the resolution of violent conflict as is required to hold elections in a conflict. So whether there is a ceasefire or active conflict by 2014, much hard work lies ahead.

By Michael Semple, Fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School