Thursday, July 15, 2010

Election law, alphabet soup, and illegal armed groups

I began writing about Afghan election management in order to provide some context for when actual campaign stories began to appear. However, the principal actors remain unintroduced even as their decisions have begun to stir controversy.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) serves as the technocratic body responsible for administering elections. Founded in 2004 as a domestic successor to the Joint Elections Management Body (JEMB), an internationally-run institution, the IEC registers candidates, voters, polling places and election monitors.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) remains a mixed secretariat, with three Afghan and two international commissioners. It is established under Afghan electoral law as an enforcement body responsible for monitoring and investigating possible violations.

Though chaired by the IEC, the vetting group responsible for reviewing candidate ties to illegal armed groups is a separate (third!) election body. Lists it produces are given to the ECC, which then records the complaints against these candidates and passes them to the IEC for a final decision on inclusion or removal on the voter rolls. Different readings of Article 12 of the Afghan Election Law empower both the ECC and IEC to review or amend these lists, though in practice only the IEC does so.

The work of the two commissions is tightly intertwined, and as we can already see, often confusingly interdependent. Try and follow this one:

On June 22, the IEC released a press statement titled "Publication of final list of candidates for Wolesi Jirga Elections 2010 and commencement of electoral campaign" [PDF] explaining the process by which the preliminary candidate list had been thoroughly reviewed and culled. With regards to possible ties to illegal armed groups, the IEC explained, "It is mentionable that after ECC investigation for the submitted complains for 8 candidates who have been challenged, here IEC provide them the opportunity of 5 working days till 24 June to submit their advocacy documents. As result the final list of (Kabul, Jowzjan, Ghor, Badakhshan, Ghazni and Takhar) provinces will announce until mentioned date. It is worth to mention that if the candidates provide sufficient reasons, they can be included in the final list of WJ elections." [multiply sic]

The candidate lottery completed, symbols assigned and ballot order determined, campaign season officially opened and posters began to crop up overnight.

On June 30, staff at the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) received complaints from a number of candidates who had received notification from the IEC that they were under suspicion of holding ties to illegal armed groups. Each was given 48 hours to travel to Kabul and present documentation signed by three relevant government ministers in order to remain on the candidate list. Given long travel times over Afghan roads and the fact that much of this 48-hour period fell on Friday, this effectively gave the 32 affected candidates no opportunity to respond.

On July 1, FEFA called a stakeholders' meeting to determine why candidates were being threatened with exclusion after the official list had been closed. Because I'm not certain whether the meeting was on or off the record, you'll have to make do with my summary of its findings rather than a complete transcript of the proceedings.

The critical detail revealed in the meeting is that the ECC has to sign off on the IEC's final candidate list before it is legally closed to further amendment. Though this should happen before the ballot-symbol-and-order lotteries, the ECC had not, in fact, given its official approval to the IEC's list as released the week prior. The IEC, in keeping with its official published election schedule, had released the list without this ECC sign-off. The crisis moment then came when, after the IEC's announcement of what we will now call the "final list", the vetting group had handed over to the ECC its fourth list of candidates with ties to illegal armed groups.

(Some back story: the first list consisted of 85 names. With no written procedure in place, the ECC requested that the IEC give each five-day period in which to clear their names via signed letters from the Ministry of the Interior. At the end of the five days, all 85 were able to produce such declarations of innocence, so a second list re-affirmed some of their cases in order to force at least a few from the ballot. This cycle between the vetting commission and the elections commissions continued, such that the fourth list consisted of 16 candidates who had already been accused on lists 1-3 and 16 new names.)

Given that its ballot list was already released, the IEC shortened the response time available for their defense in order to speed the process. In the end, 31 names were removed [PDF] from the ballot on July 7 and a "final, final" list [PDF] came out, with no changes to the lotteries already conducted.

Predictably, this looked like the Commissions joining together to re-open a legally-closed list to evict 16 opposition candidates under the guise of late-breaking discoveries. Yes, there's electoral infrastructure in place, governed by written law. It's just that not even watchdogs like FEFA know each intricacy, and the commissions themselves don't necessarily help clarify. Transparency, comprehensibility, and perceived fairness all have some way to go.

No comments: