The Afghan vote on Saturday has spawned hundreds of complaints of voting fraud and other irregularities. But many supposed infractions will never be formally addressed because of fear or ignorance of the process.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which rules on allegations of election fraud, says by Sunday evening it had received 713 written complaints.
But it appears complaints received aren’t necessarily the best barometer for on the ground reality: In the face of serious security concerns reporting requirements dissuade many Afghans from coming forward, not least because they can't be made anonymously. That's a powerful disincentive in a country still ruled by guns, not laws.
Complaints must be written, must include the name of the accuser, and must be processed through provincial ECC boards – stipulations that protect against rumor mongering but also expose whistleblowers to retribution from local power brokers.
“Trying to pursue literally thousands of ‘reports’ is irresponsible. We know that elections breed rumor, they always do,” says Johann Kriegler, one of the ECC commissioners. “Give us hard data, we will pursue.”
The work of the ECC is important to restore the confidence of Afghans in the fairness of elections and to rule on disputes that take on extra importance when the margins of victory are expected to be razor thin. In the parliamentary election in 2005, the margin of votes between one of the winners and one of the losers in Kabul was just 36 votes, according to Marvin Weinbaum, a veteran observer with Democracy International.
Where are the formal complaints?
The ECC says no formal complaints have emerged in the provinces of Farah and Jawzjan and just one complaint in Nimroz. Yet, monitors with the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) allege “serious cases” of repeat voting and intimidation in Farah, a lack of critical election materials in Jawzjan, and faulty indelible ink and repeat voting in Nimroz.
“We did not file a complaint in every single case we mentioned,” says Nader Nadery, FEFA chairman. Sometimes it was “difficult for observers to submit for security reasons and they didn’t want to be identified.”
In other cases, FEFA collected complaints and sent them to ECC headquarters in Kabul, bypassing provincial ECC boards “to avoid any reaction or retaliation to our observers from places that are not safe.”
However, the ECC in Kabul has already referred 11 complaints that it directly received to the relevant provincial boards, suggesting FEFA’s efforts to keep complainants' identities hidden may not be working.
Instead, the ECC has opted to cloak the deliberations of the provincial boards in secrecy as a protective measure for whistleblowers and to expedite the process.
“How many complainers would be happy to speak when their identity is not a matter of complete confidence? I don’t know. But I do know that people have been killed,” says Mr. Kriegler.
Four FEFA observers were attacked by the supporters of candidates on election day, while the Taliban kidnapped two others. Observers from individual campaigns have also been abducted.
How do you file a complaint?
Apart from security, there appears to be some ignorance over how to lodge a complaint.
After witnessing a man try to vote multiple times at Mahmood Hotaki high school in Kabul, dozens of campaign observers mobbed the man and brought him to security forces.
However, no one lodged a formal complaint with the ECC.
One observer, Mahmood Hotaki, said he could not file a complaint with the ECC because there were no ECC workers there. However, the process involves asking for a complaint form from election staff which can then be handed in at the polling station or to ECC offices.
A FEFA observer there declined to complain because he didn’t see the multiple voting attempt, while a third observer said he asked for a complaint form but others convinced him it was “not a big deal.”
“All we would have done with that one, if there were prima facie support for it, we would pass it on to the prosecutorial authorities because it had no electoral effect at all,” says Kriegler. Having the complaint so it could be added to the overall tally of electoral malfeasance, he says, “would have been statistically better.”