New Delhi: Afghanistan’s deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barakzai has overseen polls in 2005, 2009 and 2010. He and some of his colleagues were on a visit to New Delhi between 16 and 23 April. In an interview, Barakzai spoke about democracy in Afghanistan and the presidential elections in 2014. Edited excerpts:
Afghanistan has had several elections since 2001 when the international community intervened and overthrew the Taliban. Has democracy taken root in Afghanistan?
Democracy is not a new thing because in our traditions from the 17th and 16th centuries and many years before that, we have the tradition of jirgas (decision-making assembly) and these are a combination of provincial people and tribal religious leaders. The second thing is that Islam provides for consultations— the shura (consultative council). The holy Quran says you must consult each other. So democracy has deep roots in Afghan and Islamic traditions. We had a decade of democracy in 1960s during the reign of King Zahir Shah but the process was disrupted by coups, soviet invasion, civil war.
Poll duty: Zekria Barakzai.( Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
The Afghan democracy is fragile. We do not yet have strong all-Afghan political parties but we have elections, freedom of speech, civil society and freedom of association. We can fight terrorism and extremism not only by military force but by good governance and elections are the backbone of a democratic process.
Zekria Barakzai talks about the challenges of holding elections in Afghanistan after the US withdraws and what India is doing to help the country’s democratic process
For future elections, security will be a challenge and we have very crucial vote in spring 2014 for presidential elections and in spring 2015 for Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of Afghan parliament). Also the IEC (independent election commission) will need logistic support for delivery of election materials during elections. I am sure with this arrangements we can deliver an acceptable, transparent and fair elections.
What about the threat from the Taliban?
It is very serious because they are threatening voters, they are threatening candidates, they are threatening election officials, the whole election process is not acceptable, it is not in their ideology, their ideology is not a democratic one, they don’t believe in elections and for this purpose, it’s a huge threat.
There were some reports that President Hamid Karzai was seeking to advance the presidential elections that are due in 2014 to 2013, given the plans by international troops to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan security forces. Is this happening?
To answer your question, I will mention the legal, political, security and technical aspects of conducting elections. From the legal side, the constitution of Afghanistan provides that the term of office of the president expires on 21 May, 2014. According to Article 61 of the constitution, 30 to 60 days prior to the end of the term of president, there should be elections. This means we should have elections in March 2014.
Article 67 of the constitution provides for the situations when early elections can be conducted. First if the president resigns, if the president is seriously ill and he cannot perform his duties, if he is unfortunately dead, or if he is impeached by the Loya Jirga (grand assembly). So these are the four conditions of pre-poll.
I do agree that we have heavy agenda for 2014 when there is talk of transition of security reponsibilities to Afghan forces and then we have elections. I totally agree there should be some solution to this. But I think that there can be a political solution to this not a legal solution. And the political solution should be based on consensus among all stakeholders.
From a technical point of view, the election commission of Afghanistan needs at least 12 months for preparations. From a security point of view, in 2009 and 2010, most of the security responsibilities were carried out by the Afghan security forces. But our whole environment was secured by international forces because there were three layers of security around polling centres, the first was the Afghan police, the second the Afghan army and the third the international forces.
So from this point of view, what I think is that in May there will be a conference in Chicago and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) there is some talk of reducing the Afghan army size. I am totally against this because we have important political transition, we have presidential elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015 and the international community should listen to us on this issue. Without security, you cannot have good elections.
The 2009 presidential elections were marred by allegations of ballot stuffing. What are the lessons learnt from that to ensure the next polls will be free of such taint?
The 2009 elections were noisy in the international media because of the dispute between Kai Eide (former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan) and Peter Galbraith (UN deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan). They had different views and because of that Peter Galbraith resigned and made some public statements against the elections. As a result, the perception was that the 2009 elections were fraudulent. But the issue is that the election system in Afghanistan works really well. In 2009, more than one million votes were disqualified because they were cast fraudulently. And there was a call from the international community that then election commission officials should stand down and new people appointed to correct the process. It happened. But again in 2010, we had to disqualify a million votes because it was cast fraudulently. So the issue is, fraud is happening everywhere. Of course, the scale is large in Afghanistan because we have insecurity but we have a good system to identify and track the fraud and distinguish between valid votes and invalid votes. In 2009, the international community was unhappy with the election commission, in 2010 the Afghan government was unhappy with the election results. So, I hope we will have good elections in 2014, that all these lessons will be kept in mind.
Will President Karzai stand for elections again?
Karzai has made it clear he will respect the constitution of President Afghanistan and he will not run again for the presidency. He has said this publicly many times. I believe that he is honest and he will respect the constitution of Afghanistan that does not permit anyone from running for president more than twice.
What was the aim of your visit to New Delhi? Has India promised any help for the 2014 elections?
There are three things—the first thing is the cost of elections. It was very interesting how the Election Commission of India is managing elections with low costs and the reason for that is that they are using civil servants for the conduct of elections. They have a disciplined, impartial, civil service in place. The second lesson is the Kashmir experience when before 2002 there was fraudulent elections in Kashmir and as a result there was unrest. The elections in Kashmir in 2002 were seen to be largely free and fair and this contributed to peace and stability in the Kashmir valley. The third one is the promise by the Indian election commission to provide us with advisers prior and during elections and also some kind of training. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Election Commission of India and according to that we have close cooperation with India. The main issue for us is how to prevent fraud in elections. You are the largest democracy in the world And the kind of technology you are using is amazing, the electronic voting machine now totally accepted by all the people of India, which is simple, it doesn’t need electricity and it’s very user friendly. This is the kind of thing that you have and we want to learn.
You were talking about the costs involved in the elections in Afghanistan and India. What is the per person difference in expenditure?
The cost of elections in Afghanistan is paid by the international community and international community is not giving money directly to the Afghan election commission, they are channelling it through the UN. The UN has certain standard procurement procedures. For example, in some elections we had some fancy ballot papers printed in England and transparent ballot boxes procured from Canada. There were a huge number of international advisers who received huge amount of salaries. Now this number is reduced from 540 in 2005 to around 10-15 advisers right now in the election commission. We will push for Afghanization of the procurement process. So Afghan companies and vendors will be part of the process and as a result we will reduce costs. For example, in the last elections we have found good vendors in Afghanistan for ballot screens and it was 10 times less than what was being offered by international companies. In India, they are spending $1 per voter, in Afghanistan we are spending $13 per voter.