Afghanistan went to the polls on September 28, 2019 to elect a new president. The voter turnout was less than half that in 2014 with the Independent Election Commission estimating that only 2.2 million of the 9 million registered voters had cast their ballot. Fears of violence-though according to the Defence Ministry the tally on Sept. 28 was five killed-- the threat from the Taliban; and ,in the case of rural women particularly, the biometric process including photographing voters, had all contributed to the low turnout.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), said turnout in some polling stations was zero or very low with the availability of more polling stations at one centre among the reasons. Six out of the final 13 presidential candidates had said they would not accept the presidential election result claiming that there had been widespread rigging by the ruling contenders. Allegations of widespread fraud and of a flawed and sloppy election process swirled over the voting-so much so that the U.S. had warned against fraud and refused to pay more than $160 million in aid projects directly to the government saying it was too corrupt.

The Independent Election Commission had first announced that preliminary results would be available around Oct. 17 and the final tally on Nov. 7. If there was no clear winner, a second round of voting would be held. 3,006 of 29,586 polling stations had remained closed on Election Day in 28 of 34 provinces and there had been no polling at 370 stations. The votes from 105 polling stations had been invalidated. The process of vote counting and declaring results had continued to face problems with the result that after Hawa Alam Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission, said preliminary results would only be announced on Nov. 14. Another postponement had occurred and till Nov. 18, 2019 the Commission had been unable to announce the final result.

Initially the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission had said it would recount ballots from more than 8,000 polling stations - almost a third of the total - due to what it called discrepancies in their system. Later it said it had been decided to conduct the audit and recount of over 2,100 polling stations. The initial process of recount and audit of the votes on November 5 had to be aborted and it recommenced only on November 12. Obstacles in the process of counting and validating the results had come primarily from contenders Abdullah Abdullah, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Rahmatullah Nabil and nine other candidates. Repeated attempts to carry out the recount were thwarted by Abdullah Abdullah who said the vote recounting process had been ongoing without the presence of the Stability and Partnership electoral team’s observers and the process lacked legitimacy.

Abdullah Abdullah had told the Washington Post that his supporters would not be willing to “sacrifice” victory this time and that a fraud-marred result “will be contested.” Abdullah’s main concern seemed to be Ashraf Ghani’s contention that 300,000 votes, which did not come through biometric devices used in polling, should be included in the counting. Abdullah’s representative said that the fate of 102,012 votes polled beyond the official time, 137,630 quarantined votes and 47,527 votes with repeated photographs should be decided first and then a recount done.

He said that non-biometric votes and ballots polled beyond official time were not acceptable to Abdullah’s Stability and Partnership electoral team. Abdullah’s supporters had physically stopped the recount in 12 provinces but he claimed that his team team was ready for discussions which could be in the presence of international and domestic observers and the Transparent and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TIFA) and the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) monitors.

The Election Commission had also been hamstrung by differences among the commissioners. Commissioner Maulana Abdullah had said that the recount of votes should be started after the fate of 102,012 votes, cast before and after the official time and 137, 630 quarantined votes was decided-something akin to what Abdullah’s team was demanding. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FFEFA) said that the IEC should organize an extraordinary meeting with authorized representatives of all candidates and election observers in line with current laws and rules and then share its procedures and its implementation method.

The latest comment about the problem of declaring results had come from IEC Chairperson Hawa Alam Nuristain. She said that only biometric and law-based votes would be considered valid as some candidates were concerned about validation of non-biometric votes. She said that on election day 26,580 of 29,586 total polling stations were open and 3,006 were closed. Of the 8,494 polling stations that were investigated 8,255 in 34 provinces had problems and the Election Commission had decided on an audit and recount. The number of polling stations to be recounted had decreased because some polling stations were repeatedly listed and accompanied other problems.

The specific issues that the audit and recount were seeking to rectify were:--

· Result forms from some polling stations that were open on Election Day but where no one had voted had not been received by the IEC.

· The company handling the biometrics mechanism, Dermalog, had said there was a problem of more than 86,000 voters who were determined as voting more than once due to duplicate photographs, fingerprints, and/or voter registration numbers as recognized by the biometric devices. These ballots had been invalidated and were to be removed from the ballot boxes by the IEC based on the code number placed at the back of each ballot. The second issue related to about 102,000 votes that were apparently not cast during the polling time between 7am and 5pm on election day because of a time and date error in the biometric devices, as on some devices the date was 2018 while some others showed 2020. Irregular dates in biometric devices created doubts and a reason for recounting and auditing these votes. The company also said there was a discrepancy between biometric devices that encountered problems on the Election Day and precautionary devices that were used as alternative. The data of one the devices used in a polling station had been transmitted directly to the system, while data of the second device had been entered into the computer and showed a total of 137,460 difference in votes. Then Dermalog told the IEC that the 137,460 number was the difference between two types of the same entry of data. The first was the total number of biometric datasets registered and uploaded automatically by the devices (1,929,333), while the second was the total number of processed voters entered manually by the operators of the devices (1,791,703). Both numbers represented the same figure of biometric votes and the manually entered number was inaccurate. The second manual number was already part of the first automatic number and thus was accounted for in the accurate figure.

As per the latest reports emanating from the Independent Election Commission the vote recount process was going on in Bamyan, Kandahar, Khost, Paktia, Farah, Badghis, Nimroz, Balkh, Nangarhar, Kapisa, Maidan Wardak, Zabul, Kunduz, Paktika, Laghman, Nuristan, Uruzgan, Herat, Logar, Kunar and Kabul and had been completed in Badghis and Kapisa

While all this was going on on the electoral front, there was no movement on any restart of the talks with the Taliban who continued with their attacks. Some of the main incidents were:-

· Multiple explosions at a mosque in Nangarhar that killed 62 and wounded more than 100,

· A multi-pronged attack on checkpoint in Ali Abad district of northern Kunduz province

· A Taliban assault in Takhar Province that brought the Taliban within six miles of the provincial capital Taloqan.

· An explosion in a van near a foreign security company that killed seven people including four foreign nationals, in Kabul.

The attack coincided with the Afghan government agreeing on a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. The militants who were set for release were Mali Khan, Hafiz Rashid and Anas Haqqani, a younger brother of the Taliban’s deputy leader and son of the Haqqani network’s founder They were to be exchanged for two professors, Kevin King, a U.S. citizen, and Timothy Weeks, an Australian, who had been held by the Taliban since August 2016.

The exchange faced an initial hitch which the Taliban blamed on the United States. Zabiullah Mujahid said the agreement fell apart when the Taliban-linked militants were not transferred to a second location before they were to be flown out of Afghanistan to Qatar, where the Taliban had an office. But the latest news was that Taliban officials were reported to have confirmed that the three militants had arrived in Qatar and the two professors would be released on November 19,2019. US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who had been shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan for weeks to restart the peace talks with the Taliban, was said to have been instrumental in working out the swap agreement as a confidence building move to initiate a restart of the peace negotiations. There was however no indication that talks with the Taliban would resume soon despite reports of some secret contacts between the government and the militia which were denied by the Taliban. It was unlikely that the Taliban would accept the Afghan government demand for a cease-fire for at least a month before the government considered any move to take part in negotiations with Taliban. The Taliban position that it would not talk to the Ghani government remained unchanged.

China continued to be a forum for an intra Afghan dialogue, hosting the latest event in end October. While the media reported that a Taliban delegation would attend, the Taliban denied that any delegation had gone to China. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said participants in the China talks would attend in their personal capacity. A delegation of prominent Afghans including former President Ahmad Karzai had also gone to China. Ghani remained opposed to participation but interestingly a statement from the State Ministry for Peace had said the government would participate in the intra-Afghan meeting in China. What transpired in China is yet unclear with the Chinese spokesperson only saying that China supported Afghans resolving their problems themselves through talks and that the visit was an important part of China promoting such peace talks.

Meanwhile the absence of an elected government was proving to be a hurdle in the peace process. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told the media that the EU was waiting preliminary results of Afghanistan’s presidential election. She said the EU had discussed post-presidential election situation in Afghanistan and was determined to accompany an Afghan-owned and an Afghan-led process for negotiation.

But which government will there be in Afghanistan to restart the peace process? Could it be a new government with Abdullah Abdullah at its head? Or will there be a pleasant surpise for Ashraf Ghani? Given the complexities of the Afghan polity and the very obviously affected functioning of the Independent Election Commission it would be foolhardy to speculate a guess. Much better to wait for the final announcement from the IEC of the winner and then calculate the odds of peace returning to Afghanistan.