Afghanistan Considers Delaying Presidential Election
Posted November 25, 2018 1:51 p.m. EST
KABUL, Afghanistan — Election officials in Afghanistan are considering delaying next year’s presidential election by several months, amid disarray in counting votes from last month’s parliamentary balloting.
Holding presidential elections by April 20 was previously one of international donors’ red lines in Afghanistan, especially after an embarrassing, four-year delay in holding parliamentary elections.
Now, however, some politicians and observers are suggesting that the electoral fiasco might help encourage peace talks with the Taliban, who are unlikely to agree to a peace deal if a new president is about to be elected for a five-year term.
Three officials at the Independent Elections Commission confirmed Sunday that discussions were underway on a potential delay for the presidential vote, but they insisted no decision had been made.
An international official knowledgeable about the elections said the commission had already decided that the elections cannot be held on time.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official decision had not been announced, said that several dates were being discussed for that election, but that none included April 20.
The commission previously said that presidential elections would be held April 20, and President Ashraf Ghani was among the officials declaring that date should not be changed.
Election officials disputed Afghan news reports saying the commission had decided to delay the presidential elections until July 2019.
A spokeswoman for the Independent Elections Commission, Shaima Alamsorosh, said the news reports were based on a preliminary document that had not yet been approved.
“There is a draft, and that draft isn’t the final decision of the election commission,” she said.
“Nothing officially has been announced,” said another election spokeswoman, Kobra Rezaei. “A discussion is ongoing because we have to hold four elections next year, and we faced some problems in the parliamentary elections this year, so we are trying to figure out how we can hold fair elections. If a new decision is made about the election date, we will hold a news conference to announce it.”
The four elections scheduled for April 20 include the presidential vote, elections for provincial councils from the country’s 34 provinces, and inaugural elections for councils in the country’s 400 districts. In addition, the parliamentary elections that took place across the country on Oct. 20 were postponed in Ghazni province until April 20 because of poor security.
Since 2009, Afghanistan’s elections have been dogged by fraud and widespread dissension over the results. The 2014 presidential election nearly collapsed because of claims of large-scale vote theft, until the U.S. government negotiated a power-sharing agreement between the two leading candidates, providing for Ghani to be president and his leading opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, to serve in an invented position of chief executive.
Part of that deal called for negotiating laws to prevent fraud in future elections, but infighting led to the postponement of parliamentary election due in early 2015.
The parliamentary vote was rescheduled and delayed twice more, until it was finally held Oct. 20. Because of widespread ballot stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud in previous elections, political parties insisted on portable biometric devices being distributed to thousands of polling places to verify the identity of registered voters.
The last-minute program, however, was a spectacular failure. The biometric screening failed even for Ghani and Abdullah when they cast their ballots on Election Day. Thousands of the biometric devices — and their data — have yet to be returned to election headquarters in Kabul, officials said.
There has also been criticism of the devices’ potential to identify voters and how they voted.
Those and other technical problems have greatly delayed the counting of votes: Five weeks later, results have been announced for only five of 33 provinces where voting took place. Estimates are that final results may not be ready until well into January — leaving barely three months to prepare for the next elections.
“The election postponement is not finalized yet,” said one of the election commissioners, Maliha Hassan. “A discussion is ongoing.”
Election officials say discussions about election delays are focused on technical difficulties, not political decisions to accommodate a possible peace deal. But election monitors say the chaos has made it necessary to consider elections and peace talks together.
The head of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, Mohammad Naeem Ayubzada, said it would be impossible to hold presidential elections on April 20.
“Our findings indicate that the commission is not able to hold the election on time,” he said. “But now we also need to be clear about what will happen to the peace process with the Taliban if we hold elections.” The Taliban and U.S. negotiators have been meeting in Doha, Qatar, for preliminary talks about future negotiations, but the insurgents say that nothing has been agreed and they insist on their precondition that all foreign militaries, including the United States, must withdraw before talks can go ahead.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. government’s peace envoy, told a group of Afghan journalists recently that he was hopeful of a peace deal by next April, but he did not cite any concrete steps, and the insurgents responded by denying any progress had occurred or that the timing of presidential elections had been discussed.
Shaida Abdali, who has already declared as a presidential candidate and is believed to have support from former President Hamid Karzai, said he would gladly see the election delayed if it would help bring peace.
“If there are guarantees and they assure me that peace will come, I will support the decision of postponing the elections,” he said. “Peace is more important than anything.”
Mohammad Yousef Rashid, head of the Free and Fair Election Forum in Afghanistan, said that by the time complete parliamentary election results are in, hopefully by January, it would be too late to hold presidential elections on April 20. “And if peace negotiations go to the top of the agenda, it is possible that the election would be delayed much more,” he said.