Afghanistan's audit of millions of ballots from the presidential runoff vote is being slowed down by disputes. But Thijs Berman, the EU's chief election observer, tells DW what matters is that the audit is done properly.
It's only been a few days since Afghanistan began an audit of more than eight million votes cast in the June 14 runoff presidential election but the process has already been marred by walkouts by both sides. Although the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that the process would take around three weeks, with teams working in two shifts to audit around 1,000 ballot boxes a day, the exercise may take longer than expected as the two sides still appear at odds over the ground rules for the audit.
The audit had been agreed upon by rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani following Abdullah's claims of massive fraud, which had threatened to plunge the conflict-ridden country into a political crisis. The agreement, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, comes at a crucial time as the United States, Afghanistan's biggest foreign donor, prepares to withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of this year.
Thijs Berman, the chief election observer of the EU Election Assessment Team (EAT) in Afghanistan, says in a DW interview, that it is not uncommon for audits to lead to discussions, especially over 'suspect votes', and adds that the important thing is that the audit is conducted properly.
DW: What was the main reason for the latest suspension of the electoral audit?
Thijs Berman: It is quite understandable that the audit leads to discussions, when votes are judged suspicious. In recent days, there have been such discussions on several hundreds of votes in the Kabul area, all ticked the same way, with the same pen.
Berman: "The audit may take longer than expected, if one considers that probing the first few hundred ballot boxes already took a few days"
Everyone concluded these votes were obviously fraudulent, and they were put in 'quarantine' subsequently. This is perhaps difficult to accept for the candidate concerned, but I sincerely hope that both will show restraint and full acceptance of the rules of the audit.
What constitutes a 'suspect' vote?
For instance, suspicion is raised when whole packs of votes are ticked the same way, as described above; or when the result form of a ballot box does not have the same figures as a recount of the votes in the box. Also, a very high number of voters in one area may lead to questions, if in neighboring areas the turnout is much lower.
How come the negotiations on the precise audit procedure haven't been concluded despite the fact the audit has begun?
It is obviously not easy to find an agreement on the criteria to be used. That was the case in earlier, partial audits, and the same problem arises again. Meanwhile, what Afghan voters are entitled to expect is that both candidates accept the full audit and its transparent scrutiny. The tension is normal, as the country is in an electoral period.
Daud Sultanzoy from Ghani's side has expressed concern about "discriminating practices." On Mr Abdullah's side, insiders are pushing for entire ballot boxes containing more than one-third of votes considered to be fraudulent to be disqualified altogether. What is your view on this?
The European Union Election Assessment Team (EU EAT) in Afghanistan can give technical advice, if desired, but we do not express ourselves on the outcome of negotiations on criteria, as long as both candidates and all stakeholders agree to them and accept the criteria throughout the audit. We strongly encourage the candidates to be realistic in their demands, to respect the voters, and to accept the rules.
Why is it important to conduct the audit in an accurate but also timely manner? Why is it important to avoid any unnecessary delays?
Indeed, a slight delay is better than a large crisis. We are speaking about a major operation, a full audit on more than 8 million votes. It may take longer than expected, if one considers that probing the first few hundred ballot boxes already took a few days.
However, if the audit should take more time to be conducted properly, this should not be a major concern, especially if it leads to a peaceful, credible transition of power from one president to his successor.
Are you concerned that the precarious security situation in the country may somehow affect the tallying process?
No, as the final tallying and also the full audit is set to take place in Kabul. The audit remains a huge challenge, but it is possible. That is why so many EU Member States accepted to contribute to this process with such a high number of observers.
In the coming weeks, up to 242 observers will be involved in the EU EAT assessment of the Afghan Presidential runoff vote, liaising with all Afghan and international observer bodies present.
"What Afghan voters are entitled to expect is that both candidates accept the full audit and its transparent scrutiny," says Berman
Commentators have expressed concerns about the absence of an opposition within a unity government. Isn't an opposition an essential part of a democratic system?
Afghanistan is a very young democracy. Even though a strong opposition is part of any democracy, the country is still in a very difficult security situation. Many countries would resort to a government of national unity in this case. In time, the formation of strong political parties will probably be part of Afghan political life, as elsewhere.
Thijs Berman is a Dutch member of the European Parliament and chief observer of the European Union Election Assessment Team in Afghanistan. He has also been chief observer of the EU Election Observation Missions in Afghanistan (2009), Ethiopia (2010) and Senegal (2012).