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IRI Preliminary Statement on Afghanistan’s Presidential and Provincial Elections

August 21, 2009

Kabul, Afghanistan – Millions of heroic people went to the polls to cast their vote in Afghanistan’s August 20, 2009 presidential and provincial elections, despite violence and intimidation.  This clear expression of commitment to democracy should be encouraging to everyone who looks forward to a more stable Afghanistan in the region.  However, there is no question that the terrain of the elections was defined by insecurity caused by insurgents.

IRI was pleased to be among those playing a role in assisting Afghanistan’s elections.  IRI’s 29 international delegates on Election Day monitored more than 150 polling stations in Bamyan, Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.  In addition, 40 IRI-trained short-term domestic observers in Bamyan, Farah, Ghor, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Paktiya monitored upwards of another 100 polling stations during the course of Election Day; they were instrumental in monitoring at locations inaccessible to international observers. 

All elections are a process of pre-election environment, pre-election administration, Election Day voting, vote counting and post-election adjudication, resulting in acceptance of legitimate results.  In the first three elements that have occurred to date, there is much to praise. 

The pre-election campaign environment was dynamic and energetic.  Presidential and provincial candidates reached beyond their ethnic bases in vigorous but civil campaigns.  Candidates’ campaigns were increasingly issue- rather than personality-based.  Most strikingly, presidential candidates took part in the first debates ever held in Afghanistan, one of which included the head of state.  In addition, private media coverage of the campaign was generally balanced. 

In terms of pre-election administration, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) is to be commended for the training of election workers and ensuring procedures for an orderly election process were in place. 

On Election Day, this work paid off, with well-trained, highly motivated election officials at polling stations.  While there were concerns about certain logistical but important anti-fraud measures, such as marking voter cards, occasional apparent faulty indelible ink and scattered reports of election workers influencing voters IRI generally saw well organized, well run polling sites.  

There were, however, serious problems in the pre-election environment that need to be addressed if future elections are to gain greater legitimacy.  First and foremost, the security environment in the run-up to and on Election Day contributed to Afghans’ fear of going to the polls.  Though official numbers are not available, compared to the 2004 and 2005 elections, IRI’s teams observed lower voter turnout, including among Afghan women.  There is no denying the fact that a notable reason for low turnout was the lack of security, and obviously that must be addressed for democracy to flourish in Afghanistan.

Second, there were many credible reports that voter registration cards were sold.  Combined with the lack of a voter list, this raises concerns about multiple voting, which would subvert the process.  While it is difficult to determine how widespread this practice was, the magnitude of such reports of fraud warrant investigation.  The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and the IEC must address these issues before the next election.

Third, to a degree beyond that normally seen in transitional democracies, state resources were used during the campaign despite legal prohibitions; for example, the state run media did not provide balanced coverage of the presidential race, heavily favoring the incumbent.  There were also incidences of governors violating the law by endorsing candidates during the campaign period.

IRI views the 2009 Afghan elections not by the standards of the United States, but in the context of the 42 countries in Africa, Asia, Eurasia and Latin America in which IRI has observed more than 130 elections.  Afghanistan faces a particular combination of challenges such as the rugged topography, ethnic diversity and most of all decades of insecurity.  There have been many positive aspects of the 2009 elections so far, including a vigorous and relatively civil campaign, balanced private media coverage and, in the first Afghan run election, competent election administration.  Unfortunately, such issues as lower turnout, fraud and abuse of state resources brought these elections to a lower standard than the 2004 and 2005 Afghan elections observed by IRI.  Nevertheless, given Afghanistan’s circumstances, and based on what IRI observers witnessed in the first three of the five parts of the elections, the process so far has been credible.   

Afghanistan now begins its post-election vote counting and adjudication process.  The successful tally and announcement of results by the IEC’s central counting center is important for fulfilling voter expectations about current elections and will set the stage for voters’ continued faith in electoral processes.  Concerns that have been raised will be forwarded to the ECC, whose role is critical to the process.  To be viewed as credible by the Afghan people, the complaints process should be handled in a prompt, fair and transparent manner that is consistent with established rules.  The Afghan people will follow both these processes in judging the elections’ legitimacy, and IRI and others will continue to monitor them before arriving at a final assessment of the elections. 

In the event of a second round election, all stakeholders have a responsibility to improve the security environment.  In addition, anti-fraud measures must be strengthened and effective means should be found to address the abuse of state resources.

IRI’s 29-member delegation included representatives from Canada, Serbia, Ukraine and the United States and was led by Ambassador Richard S. Williamson, IRI board member and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Presidential Envoy to Sudan.  IRI’s delegation included: 

  • Gahl Hodges Burt, IRI board member and Vice-Chair, American Academy in Berlin;
  • Dayna Cade, Principal, DC Strategies, LLC;
  • Scott Carpenter, Keston Family Fellow and Director of Project Fikra, Washington Institute for Near East Policy;
  • Maria Cino, former Chief Executive Officer, 2008 Republican National Convention and former Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation;
  • David Denehy, Chief Executive Officer, Global Strategic Partners;
  • Evelyn Farkas, Senior Fellow, American Security Project;
  • Rich Galen, Columnist and former Press Secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich;
  • Ben Golnik, Principal, Golnik Strategies;
  • Vadym Halaychuk, Attorney and Adviser to Mykola Katerynchuk, Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and Chairman of the European Party of Ukraine;
  • Brian Keeter, Director of Public Affairs, Auburn University;
  • Anita McBride, former Assistant to President George W. Bush and Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, member of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council;
  • Constance Berry Newman, IRI board member, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and former U. S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator for Africa; and
  • Michael O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution.
IRI staff also served as observers and assisted in the mission.  IRI staff was led by Lorne W. Craner, President of IRI; Judy Van Rest, Executive Vice President; Thomas E. Garrett, Director for IRI’s Middle East and North Africa division; Scott Mastic, Deputy Director for IRI’s Middle East and North Africa division; and Shuvaloy Majumdar, IRI’s Resident Country Director in Afghanistan.

One-third of the 2009 delegation took part in IRI’s election observation missions for Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election and 2005 parliamentary elections.  Prior to Election Day, IRI’s short-term observers were briefed by representatives from the U.S. Embassy, election officials, international and Afghan nongovernmental organizations, representatives of presidential candidates and the media.  They were also briefed on the rights and responsibilities of international observers and Afghan election law.  Delegates were then deployed throughout the country where they monitored polling stations and identified and evaluated the strengths and weaknesses in Afghanistan’s election system.
In addition to the Election Day observers, IRI also deployed long-term election observers to monitor the political environment in Afghanistan in the weeks leading up to the elections. 

This group met with representatives of the candidates and domestic and international nongovernmental organizations, as well as with government officials, election administrators and Afghan citizens.    
IRI’s work in Afghanistan is focused on encouraging electoral participation through issue-based coalitions with memberships in every province including women and under-represented groups.  IRI has conducted surveys in Afghanistan since 2003.  In 2004, IRI was the only western nongovernmental organization to sponsor an observer mission during the presidential election; in 2005, IRI also monitored the parliamentary elections.
IRI has monitored more than 130 elections in 42 countries since 1983.