Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and lacks an accurate database, and therefore important political and economic decisions have been based on inaccurate statistics and sometimes pure guesswork. For instance, we still don’t know the exact population numbers or economic output, and the country continues to struggle with “ghost” teachers and soldiers on the government payroll.

The fact is that it has been a political decision to ignore scientific data collection because it has helped the ruling elite manipulate local politics and escape indictment in serious cases of embezzlement. However, distortion of facts and alteration of voter data have had serious repercussions in previous elections, and it has already taken a dangerous bend ahead of the next parliamentary and presidential elections respectively scheduled for 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, after tremendous resources spent on three presidential and two parliamentary elections, we haven’t created a basic election database. The 2014 presidential election brought the country to the brink of civil war, and therefore a deep reform of the system was highly recommended as a key component of the National Unity Government’s agreement between the two rival political camps.

However, the inaction of the NUG in reforming the electoral system in the past four years has certainly contributed to the growing suspicion about the true intention of the ruling elite. Many Afghans strongly believe that President Ashraf Ghani has deliberately delayed this crucial reform because he has feared that transparency in the system could undermine his personal ambition to remain in power beyond 2019.

For instance, his unreasonable decision to meddle and postpone distribution of electronic national identity cards, despite a presidential decree that dates back to January 2013, and make it a controversial political issue in order to galvanize its ethnic base in this crucial election year, may be the worst political damage ever done to the unity of this battered nation.

Despite repeated warnings by us Afghans and our international partners, President Ghani and his close entourage are adamant to continue with their agenda to manipulate the electoral process for the upcoming elections and engineer a favorable outcome by altering voter-registration and balloting data as they did in 2014.

Because of growing distrust in the electoral process and disappointments with the outcomes of the past elections, Afghans have shown little enthusiasm for the ongoing voter registration

Because of growing distrust in the electoral process and disappointments with the outcomes of the past elections, Afghans have shown little enthusiasm for the ongoing voter registration. Estimates are roughly 13 million to 14 million people are eligible to vote, but according to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), only around 1.5 million have registered since April 14.

The low number of voter registrations pushed the IEC to extend the registration process from May 13 to June 12. However, an additional month of extension will not dramatically increase voter registration, and even if it reaches 3 million, it will still be less than 25% of total eligible voters.

In addition, it will be difficult to estimate the percentage of people who will be able to come out on the day of the election without being intimidated by serious security treats and cast their votes. Therefore, a very low voter registration and perhaps an even lower turnout will constitute serious challenges undermining the legitimacy of the next elections.

The Afghan ruling elite is being paid back for altering the data in the previous elections. In fact, in order to justify the large number of fraudulent voter ID cards in circulation, they inflated the number of eligible voters, and now they need at least 6 million registered voters to guarantee minimum credibility for the next elections.

In addition, President Ghani has already undermined the credibility of the electoral process by his extra-constitutional meddling, such as an unlawful amendment of the electoral law, ignoring serious objections from the Afghan parliament, and also by subjective nomination of commissioners to the IEC and the Electoral Complaints Commission without a fair and transparent process.

Now in order to increase voter registration, the Afghan president has raised pressure on the IEC to make the registration process less stringent and let people register and vote with photocopies of their national ID papers, which will allow far wider and massive fraud, because in the absence of a voter database one person could vote multiple times. This illicit and unnecessary pressure, without consultation with all major stakeholders, has created serious dissent within the IEC and provoked popular resentment.

The election itself is not the end goal but it is a constitutional and peaceful means to transition to a more legitimate and effective government. Alas, we fear that the credibility of the entire electoral process has been seriously tainted, and therefore its outcome will be an illegitimate and weak government in Kabul, which will further strengthen the insurgents’ narrative and position.

We are desperately demanding our international partners and supporters in Afghanistan to use their unique financial leverage and stop another deep political crisis in the making, because they have been funding Afghan elections. The contested outcomes of the previous presidential elections not only have worsened the overall stability in the country but increased the cost of war.

Meanwhile the stakes in next year’s presidential election are much higher, and a repeat of past mistakes could have dire consequences for all of us.

Ultimately, if we cannot guarantee an acceptable election and avoid another contested outcome, then it is better to look for an alternative mechanism that will enable a peaceful transition of political power suitable to us Afghans and to our international partners.

Haroun Mir

Haroun Mir has been engaged in the political evolution of Afghanistan for more than two decades as an adviser to foreign donors and governments, as an analyst and researcher and as a manager in different donor funded programs. Currently he serves as a political analyst and independent consultant. Mir holds a Master of Arts in economics from George Mason University in the US and a License and Bachelor of Science in physics from the Université Denis Diderot in France and George Mason University respectively.