KABUL (Reuters) - Infighting, a lack of expertise and unfilled vacancies within Afghanistan’s election body raise doubts about whether polls planned this year can be held on time, according to Afghan and international agency officials, with one likening planning meetings to “a fish market”.
October’s vote, already much-delayed, is seen as a crucial test for democracy in a country at war for four decades, and comes amid increasing attacks by Taliban and Islamic State insurgents who have threatened to target the electoral process.
But in the last six months, the chairman and CEO of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), have been sacked, and an acting CEO quit. The head of human resources was also sacked this month, having failed to hire hundreds of provincial electoral officers.
“Four months before the polls, they are still at the planning stage,” a high-ranking international aid worker told Reuters. “You cannot play a football match with half of your team missing. There are times when we have witnessed shouting matches in the IEC office. It’s like a fish market.”
Seven of the 10 top positions at the secretariat in Kabul, which oversees commission offices across 34 provinces, have yet to be filled.
The parliamentary and district council elections have already been put back from 2014 due to a lack of political consensus on electoral reforms and a shortage of funds.
The polls are seen as a dry run for next year’s presidential election and a key test of the credibility of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which has been under pressure from its international backers to ensure the vote takes place since the last, fraud-tainted presidential election in 2014.
The United Nations, overseeing the election process, and the United States, leading international military efforts to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, are hoping for elections that at least appear to be mostly free and fair.
“Elections in Afghanistan are never going to be perfect, but there has to be a semblance of credibility,” a senior official working with a leading donor said. He added that he thought the country would “muddle through” and hold the polls as scheduled.
Many other observers said a delay was possible.
Former and serving IEC officials said Ghani’s over-involvement and micro-management have created multiple power centres within the supposedly apolitical IEC.
Last year, Ghani appointed seven commissioners to represent different ethnic groups to draft policy, help officials at the IEC’s secretariat and register millions of voters across the country.
“Instead of drafting a policy framework, the commissioners have been busy deciding appointments of drivers, cleaners and bringing in their friends to do some of the technical jobs,” a senior member at the IEC’s secretariat told Reuters.
Shahla Haq was appointed acting IEC secretariat CEO after her predecessor was sacked amid differences over biometric voting cards. She quit after four months.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she told Reuters. “The commissioners have little understanding of electoral reforms and they were seeking guidance from politicians.”
Two officials in Ghani’s office said they were not allowed to comment on the workings of the IEC as it was an independent institution.
International donors, who want to see a “palatable process”, according to one senior diplomat, are also questioning the IEC’s numbers on voter registration.
Diplomats tracking voter registration data from 34 provinces since April said they had noted inconsistencies and expected the IEC to share its information to ensure transparency and accuracy.
“It is important for us to seek granular details as we are pouring millions of dollars into the elections,” said a senior European Union diplomat.
Last month, the EU pledged 15.5 million euros towards paying for election-related materials and salaries of temporary electoral staff.
Najibullah Ahmadzai, the former chairman of the IEC commission who was sacked earlier this year, said he was the only officer in the commission who had worked extensively on electoral reform. The others were academics, he said.
“You cannot expect teachers and professors to plan elections,” he said. “It requires expertise, but nobody accepted my views.”
Current commission chairman Abdul Badi Sayad, who is also a professor of Islamic law, has to ensure 14 million Afghans are able to cast their vote. He still has to find a CEO, a deputy CEO, five directors and hundreds of electoral officers.
“I am determined to conduct elections this year,” Sayad told Reuters in his heavily guarded office. “But I need the manpower to do it.”
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson