Since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, Afghanistan has held three rounds of presidential elections. All these three races have had their share of problems. To name a few, fraud, ballot stuffing, lack of institutions, proper electoral laws, and security are known to have been the main problems in these elections. In 2004, President Hamid Karzai finished well ahead of his rival, the then former Education Minister, and now President Karzai’s Deputy Muhammad Yunus Qanooni with 55.4 percent of the vote. Mr. Qanooni rejected the results, accusing the Karzai team of fraud. Then, in 2009 presidential election, known as the most contentious election, incumbent Hamid Karzai was declared the winner for another term in office after canceling the second round of voting. Karzia’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah alleged “widespread rigging” by the Karzai campaign and the Independent Election Commission. Today, we are witnessing a similar situation. The pattern of fraud allegations continues as Abdullah Abdullah, one of the top two candidates, accuses a range of officials of rigging the vote against him. He vows deadlock, and promises that he will not accept the results. Such problems in the Afghan presidential elections beg questions: how can we avoid them in the future?
Last week at an event in Washington, DC, Amirzai Sagin – Afghan Minister of Communications and Information Technology – said that in the last 12 years Afghanistan has come a long way in terms of developing the ICT sector (Information and Communications Technology). Today, there are five major telecom companies, and approximately 60 internet providing companies operating in Afghanistan. More than 90 percent of the Afghan population has access to mobile services, and 22 million of them own at least one mobile phone. The number of internet users continues to increase as the cost of internet has decreased from $1,000/mb in 2002 to $22/mb today. In addition, the Ministry has started issuing National Electronic IDs, which is a centralized system for avoiding fraud. At the end of his keynote address, the Minister said something very important that Afghanistan has the capacity to carry out the next presidential election, which will be in five years, via mobile phones. Could ICT really change the way Afghans vote?
Mobile phones are already a trusted medium for our personal information and financial transactions. We hold smart phones and gadgets that carry our emails, personal text messages, photos, contacts, and location. Most importantly, mobiles are used to transfer money. In the last few years money services provided by mobile carriers have been significantly growing in Afghanistan. All five mobile operating companies (Etisalat, MTN, AWCC, AfTel, and Roshan) are offering their own mobile money product. In 2008 Roshan began the use of the M-PAISA mobile money service. These products include mobile wallet technology, where customers can store their money digitally as opposed to using cash. Roshan’s M-PAISA operates in 6 major cities with 17,000 active users. The users portfolio is about to reach $79.5 million by the end of 2014. Most Afghans receive their monthly salary through their mobile phones, and relatives send money via phone from one province to another. Mobile phones are a big part of everyone’s daily life now, so why not make it part of the electoral process as well.
A number of countries have introduced mobile voting as an option for casting votes together with traditional paper ballots. Estonia has allowed e-voting since 2005. Independent security audits have found the Estonian system effective and reliable. India, the world’s largest democracy, has been a pioneer in introducing new and innovative technologies in casting votes. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are compact and portable briefcase-sized voting machines that are built to withstand India’s diverse and sometimes harsh climate. Its most impressive feature is its price tag; each EVM costs 10,500 Indian rupees or about $175. Switzerland is yet another country that has actively implemented electronic voting since 2006. The evidence from Zurich shows that e-voting might serve as a powerful tool to augment the participation rate, and the quality of voting. The system cost $2.1 million to develop, and it reoccurs operational costs of about $0.4 million a year, which is approximately $0.5 per vote.
Perhaps, mobile phones could be a solution for electoral problems in Afghanistan. Going mobile is likely to reduce the cost of elections. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan spends a large amount of money on voting booth installations around the country, and transportation of sensitive material (ballots, ink, boxes, etc.) by air, land and in some instances with the help of donkeys. Spending money on such activities won’t be necessary if the electoral process goes mobile. Going mobile will also help eliminate fraud, or at least reduce it to some extent. There will be no ballot stuffing, and the results will be automatically available for public at the end of the day. Most importantly, going mobile will help restore Afghans confidence in the system. It will give the future president of Afghanistan a clear mandate and legitimacy among all Afghans.
Abid Amiri -: I have an M.A. degree in International Development (Concentration on South-Central Asia) from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. I earned a double bachelor’s degree in Economics and Global Studies from St. Lawrence University. I have worked at American Councils for International Education as a program associate in Washington, DC, and as a program manager in their Kabul office. My work on unemployment in Afghanistan is published in the first issue of Global Journal and was presented at the 2010 Northeastern Economic Annual Conference in New York City. In addition, my research papers about Muslim-Americans’ representation in the media, and Road Reconstruction in Post-Conflict Afghanistan are published in Islam and Muslim Societies Journal, and International Affairs Review.