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Same-Day Analysis

Election 2009: Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission Orders Recount of 10% of Votes

Published: 16 September 2009
Given the hundreds of serious complaints of irregularities that have been filed with the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), a recount of around 10% of votes was ordered that could force incumbent president Hamid Karzai into run-off elections with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

IHS Global Insight Perspective



Given serious allegations of fraud in the presidential elections last month, the ECC has ordered the recount of around 10% of votes.


This decision has been taken against the backdrop of mounting disagreements among the international community of how to deal with the issue of fraud. A recount of votes could force incumbent President Hamid Karzai, who according to unofficial tallies released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) currently leads with 54.3% of votes, into run-off elections with his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.


As the country's electoral law requires that all allegations of fraud be investigated and resolved before being announced officially, it is likely that the election process will drag on for many more weeks before official tallies are made public. Given the uncertainty of the situation previous IHS Global Insight scenarios remain valid, with the most likely being that a drawn-out electoral process results in demonstrations and political violence due to perceived illegitimacy of results.

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has ordered the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) to recount votes from about 10% of polling stations. This decision was taken after mounting allegations of fraud and irregularities in the country's second-ever presidential and provincial council elections that were held on 20 August, with the ECC last week ordering ballots from a number of polling stations with "clear and convincing" fraud to be audited. According to Grant Kippen, the chairman of the UN-backed ECC, this order affects up to 2,500 polling stations (out of 26,300) from all provinces, although most believe that polling stations in the south of the country will be most affected by the order. In particular, recounts were ordered for polling stations in which any candidate received more than 95% of the votes. Earlier, the ECC already threw out the ballots from 83 polling stations. According to the latest unofficial tallies that counted in about 95% of all votes cast, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads ahead of main challenger Abdullah Abdullah with 54.3% against 28.1% of votes respectively. Karzai needs a simple majority of votes in order to avoid run-off elections with Abdullah.

Probability for Run-Off Vote, Political Turmoil Increases

It is likely that the majority of votes to be recounted have been cast in the restive south of the country in which Karzai enjoys much of his support. This could mean that his current unofficial tally of 54.3% could be significantly reduced to below the 50% threshold, thus increasing the probability for run-off elections. Not surprisingly, it was former foreign minister Abdullah who has over the past month increasingly called for the recount of votes, as forcing Karzai into run-off elections would significantly increase his odds to win.

As per Afghanistan's electoral laws, the IEC cannot announce the final results until all allegations of fraud have been investigated and resolved. With hundreds of complaints still pending, it could take weeks until the final results are announced, although the official deadline for the IEC to announce the results was initially given as being the 17 September, almost a month after the elections were held. A delay in the announcement of the final tally of votes also increases the probability of political turmoil, mainly because a protracted election process is likely to further reduce the population's trust in the viability of the democratic processes. To be sure, the issue of legitimacy of the elections has become the number one concern in Afghanistan. Fears are that with a narrow victory and/or a protracted election process the losing candidate's supporters could take to the streets and unleash demonstrations that in the case of Afghanistan are likely to lead to substantial political violence (see scenarios below). Admiral Michael Mullen, a top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee said that he considers "the threat from lack of governance to be equal to the threat from the Taliban", reflecting the fears of many that a political impasse could add a significant further dimension to the already opaque political and security situation in Afghanistan. Indeed, fears are that without the elections being seen as legitimate and credible by the vast majority of the Afghan electorate, it will be extremely hard for the international community and Afghan institutions to sustain at least a minimal level of democratic processes in a country that has only just emerged from decades of conflict and is beset by serious ethnic, cultural, and religious differences.

The international community appears divided as to how to proceed in the case of Afghanistan, with most donor countries having put too much trust in the elections to produce a credible leader and strengthening democratic processes generally. This became particularly evident as Peter Galbraith, deputy representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) left the country over disagreements with UNAMA’s head, Kai Eide, over how to deal with the allegations of fraud and possible recounts. With the probability for a political limbo increasing, many have already indicated the need for an Afghanistan conference to be held to sketch out a way forward. Much is at stake, not only domestically in Afghanistan, but also for the international community, as it will be increasingly difficult to justify a continued, possibly staged-up, presence in Afghanistan in light of rising casualty figures, lack of progress on the political front, and generally rising levels of violence. Apart from succeeding in disrupting much of the electoral process last month, the Taliban have also managed to inflict the highest casualty numbers upon the international community in July, August and September this year since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. Nevertheless, with the Taliban insurgency responsible for seriously disrupting the voting process throughout the country, but particularly in its strongholds in the south of the country, the United States is currently considering sending more troops to the country.

Outlook and Implications

The two main scenarios that IHS Global Insight has sketched out for the election outcome in previous articles remain valid given the probability of a narrow victory for Karzai or a protracted election process in the case of run-off elections.

Scenario I: Small-Margin Victory or Run-Off Elections Spark Violence

In this scenario the successful candidate wins by only a small margin, either during the first round or through run-off elections. Karzai wins the elections if these are concluded in a first round; in the case of run-off elections Karzai remains the most likely victor but Abdullah could win if he formed an alliance with other main contenders. In this scenario the elections produce results that lack, or are perceived to lack, legitimacy among wide parts of the population. The losing party justifies widespread vote-rigging as being responsible for the elections producing results that are termed as illegitimate for staging demonstrations that lead to widespread violence. A significant loss of trust in the entire democratic process is evident. Political violence will add significantly to the general climate of instability in this scenario, and would also affect the country's cities. In such a situation the Taliban would be able to further gain strength, as efforts to counter their movement become increasingly diluted. This scenario could also see Karzai impose a state of emergency. The international community would face severe additional hardships in carrying out their mandate.

Scenario II: Small-Margin Victory or Run-Off Elections Force Winning Candidate to Co-Opt Challengers

This scenario sees the winning candidate co-opting one or more of his challengers, most likely by offering attractive positions in his government. Depending on the overall context in which such a move takes place, this could provide for more stability. Furthermore, the fact that Abdullah, Bashardost and/or Ghani have a say in government opens the door for more substantial reform moves in political, economic and social terms. The government's writ increases as its legitimacy is enhanced in the eyes of the public (although regional commanders are likely to retain control over much of their traditional territory). The international community is provided the opportunity to extend unprecedented moral and material support to a government that enjoys widespread legitimacy, which not least means enhanced public trust in government institutions that in turn are strengthened and slowly rid of rampant corruption. This would help counter-insurgency measures against the Taliban, thus enhancing security throughout the country. Furthermore, a reversal of the tide in the fight against the Taliban also enhances leverage power to initiate peace talks with "moderate" elements among insurgents, as proposed by Karzai for some time. Such a power-sharing agreement will have come about mainly due to major pressure from the international community.
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