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Afghan elections and the e-tazkira challenge
Posted:Nov 16, 2012
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By Monish Gulati

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has welcomed the announcement of the dates for the next presidential elections -- to be held on April 5, 2014 (Hamal 16, 1393) -- by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan.

Election results will be announced on May 14 that year. The IEC has also scheduled the Provincial Council elections alongside the presidential elections. Opposition figures have been pushing for the announcement of the schedule as an indication of Karzai’s willingness to hold elections. Further, a clear election timetable would also make it easier for observers to measure progress.

President Karzai has instructed the Afghan Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA) to formally communicate the Presidential order to all concerned, including security forces, to make necessary preparations in coordination with the IEC to ensure free and fair elections. The IEC has said that electronic National Identity Cards (e-tazkira) are vital to organising transparent and controversy-free elections.

The Afghan Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT) had first announced in August 2009 that a programme to develop, print and distribute biometrically enabled e-tazkiras would be operationalised in the coming year. The primary motivation was to curb fake national identity cards. The distribution of the e-tazkira was among the measures identified to remedy the shortcomings observed during the 2009 elections.

MCIT was designated as the nodal ministry for implementing the e-tazkira project. Subsequently, 15 private companies submitted bids to implement the $120 million project, which was to be completed within 32 months from the date of signing. A contract for the project was signed between the MCIT and JTR in December 2010. Afghanistan’s total population was then estimated at 25 million.

The Afghan Civil Code provides for the registration of Afghan male citizens and the issuance of a tazkira, or national identity card, that contains information including personal and family details, place of residence, occupation, and status of military service. The information contained in the tazkira is not comprehensive. A typical tazkira may indicate only the year of birth. According to UNHCR, tazkira will serve as an Afghan citizen’s primary form of identification and means of accessing legal entitlements. It is issued by the local (district) Population Registration Department of the Ministry of Interior (MoI).

Most Afghans may not have a birth certificate and it is the tazkira which provides the demographic data. It is mandatory for all Afghan nationals to get a tazkira, as without it they cannot be enrolled in a school. The same cannot be said for those living in remote areas and do not attend school. The tazkira, in its present form, is an A4-size paper document and its issue records are kept in handwritten books. It lacks any security features, is prone to fraud and considered of limited value as a national identity document.

The e-tazkira, on the other hand, is a biometrically-enabled national identification system. It will have the same data currently on the paper tazkira, plus fingerprints, iris scans and digital images of citizens. The e-tazkira’s use of biometric data makes it a more secure form of identification. The project is expected enhance local security enforcement.

The MCIT, in close collaboration with the MoI’s Population Registration Division, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Finance is implementing the e-tazkira project. The new national ID card will be on a multi-application chip platform, which will allow applications such as driver’s license, vehicle registration, voters’ list management and in the future, ePassport, eVoting and eTax.

During course of this project, 15 million new ID Cards are expected be issued for the registered population of Afghanistan. Besides biometric data, Public Key Infrastructure (PKIs) will be implemented for confidentiality, integrity, authentication, non-repudiation and access control.

As per the initial plan, the project was to be carried out in three phases. Phase 1 -- from October 2010 to April 2011 -- involved setting up of the National Data Center and delivery of half a million ID cards to MoI. Phase 2 -- from May 2011 to April 2012 -- included delivery of seven million ID cards to the five main provinces -- Kabul, Herat, Balkh, Ningarhar and Kandahar. Phase 3 -- from May 2012 to December 2013 -- involved delivery of 7.5 million ID cards to the remaining 29 provinces.

The first phase of the process was rescheduled to start eight months after inking of the contract in December 2010 due to capacity constraints. The Afghan Cabinet was also yet to decide on the languages and design of the cards.

There were also justifiable concerns over who would have access to the e-tazkira biometric registration data. This caused another delay of at least nine months in 2011, as the government put in place protocols to maintain sole ownership of this data. There were also apprehensions regarding the use of e-tazkira during elections, given the doubts over the availability of electricity at polling booths to power the ICT equipment.

The whole project, as per current planning, would still be implemented in three phases, with the first phase starting in Kabul. The second phase would, thereafter, cover 15 provinces within a year. The third phase would take about 16 months and would cover 18 provinces. The project cost varies between $101 million to $122 million and is being financed by Western sources.

The implementation of the project would aid the government in enhancing security and also help gather basic demographic data, including the exact population of the country. It would facilitate government institutions to gather current data on security, social and economic issues. Importantly, the e-tazkira would help to prevent election fraud and, as a spin-off, eliminate expenses in printing voter cards.

The Afghan government’s plan to issue biometric ID cards ahead of the 2014 presidential election is raising tensions with international donors, who are concerned the ambitious project could compromise the voting process instead of eliminating fraud. Officials from donor countries fear the scenario where a flawed election would reignite the civil-war fault lines of the 1990s and also curtail foreign aid.

Some Afghan officials believe that it is virtually impossible to register all the 15 million voters in time for the election. Time and logistics will allow for only between five and eight million voters to receive the e-tazkira. One of the main concerns in this regard is that if the e-tazkiras are designated as the only acceptable voter ID, it may become the reason for postponement of elections.

The argument finds support in the fact that fake tazkiras are easy to procure and many have been found even on foreign militants. Current voter cards and national IDs can be purchased on the black market. The IEC feels one of its more important tasks is to weed out an estimated five million fake voter cards in circulation.

On the other hand, Western officials are of the opinion that most of the fraud in 2009 elections took place after polling had finished, with compromised election officials stuffing ballot boxes with bogus votes. Hence the issue of fake documents is important, but not a barrier to conducting elections.

Incidentally, on the issue of national ID cards, India, too, is on the same governance curve. The security-centric National Population Register (NPR) project finds its motivation in the recommendations of the Kargil Committee headed by the late K. Subrahmanyam, which highlighted the need for colour-coded identity cards for citizens and non-citizens. The enabling legal framework for the NPR project was provided through the amendment of the Citizenship Act 1955 by Parliament in 2003. However, the Indian government persists with separate cards for different citizens’ services/entitlements (EPIC, NPR, UDAI, Driving license, etc.)

The e-tazkira project, in its present form, seeks to have an integrated database at the backend and a single ID card at the user end, providing a package of citizen services while leaving the enrollment and verification for these individual citizens services unchanged; a novel and a laudable approach.

The implementation of the e-tazkira project notwithstanding, the challenge it poses are open up exciting prospects for Afghanistan, a nation facing a host of security and accountability issues. The country’s first e-tazkira would be issued to President Karzai on December 30, 2012, before the nationwide distribution begins.

(Monish Gulati is an independent analysyt. He can be reached at m_gulati_2001@yahoo.com)

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