The second round of the Afghan presidential elections held on 4 June saw Afghans returning to the polling stations in large numbers with no regard for Taliban threats.
Unfortunately, instead of resulting in a successful end to a long and uncertain political transition, the run-off has left Afghans fearing the worst. The runoff has been bogged down by corruption charges against the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). Questions have been raised over Karzai’s neutrality, a spurious 7 million-voter turnout forecast, and threats by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s team to derail the elections. These issues have also combined to bring Afghanistan to the brink of political crises. To understand how Afghanistan went from a successful election to a troubled political process, it is important to examine how the two elections differed from one another.
The voter turnout was expected to be lower in the second round primarily because of the absence of provincial elections which provoked higher turn outs the first time round. Observers and local media channels affirmed this on Election Day. However they were quickly contradicted by the IEC that claimed there were potentially over 7 million votes casted, with 38 per cent female turn out – a figure that left many in Kabul scratching their heads.
Thomas Ruttig, an analyst, stated that the number of distributed voter cards is “so botched that no reliable, consolidated voter registry exists.” Thus, if we go by the the IEC Chairman Yusuf Nouristani’s, claims of approximately 7 million out of the 13.5 million eligible voters and 58 per cent votes on 14 June, the figures do not match. Nuristani’s “absolute figures (number of voters who turned out) does not match the relative figures (percentages),” Ruttig further stated. First, considering that the IEC had 23,136 polling stations open and each station had been approved for 600 ballot papers, this would mean there were 13,881,600 ballot papers. Therefore, 58 per cent of the total printed ballot papers would mean that there were over 8 million voters and not 7 million as suggested by the IEC. Moreover there are approximately 21 million voter cards floating around, which means if the maximum number of eligible voters is put at 13.5 million then 7.5 million of these are illegal. The crux of the voter turnout issue being contested by Abdullah lies with the country’s outdated population statistics which last conducted a census in 1979. Hence, any claims concerning population statistics stands on shaky grounds.
Some international media reports have claimed that the influence of ethnic loyalties as a determining factor in Afghan politics has declined over the years. However, while this may hold some truth, it is still not enough to suggest a real change in local attitudes. Ethnicity is still a determining factor in Afghan politics regardless of these truths.
There have been innumerable instances in the 2014 elections where Ashraf Ghani’s Pashtun and Abdullah’s mujahiddin- Jamiat party rhetoric’s have espoused ethnicisation. The New York Times’ Mathew Rosenberg recalls that in Afghanistan, winners of elections “are populists who cut deals with their enemies, win support from their rivals and appeal to Afghan national pride.” A reality, Rosenberg correctly argues, Ghani has “embraced” well after years of “inhibiting the role of pro-western intellect” he added – a quality, Abdullah, a veteran of Afghan politicking has not been known to shy away from either. Similarly, senior supporters in both camps have also done much to bank on the ethnicity card. Atta Muhammad Noor, Governor, Balkh province, and a Jamiat commander and supporter of Abdullah, took to the media when the ECC accused his province of producing fraudulent votes. He said both the bodies [ECC and IEC] should “avoid telling lies and bringing themselves under question.” He also went further to state that he would not partake in the new government if Ghani wins. On the other hand, a senior Ghani supporter, Juma Khan Hamdaar, Governor, Paktia province, during a rally in Balkh called on Pashtuns and Uzbeks to display their loyalties to their tribes and vote for Ghani.
Unlike the first round, this time, the campaign tones have been far more accusatory as both the candidates entered a fierce dispute over early tallies showing Ghani with a lead of almost one million.
In the first round of elections, the ECC audited 1964 polling sites out of 20,561, resulting in the disqualification of 525 polling stations. While the disqualified polling sites were kept out of the preliminary results, an additional 444 sites deemed problematic were kept out to avoid further delay in the announcement of the preliminary results. As a result, it was only later that 291of these 444 sites were audited and considered acceptable and then added to the final count. The process of disqualifying votes while simultaneously adding new votes not counted earlier made the final results exceedingly ambiguous.
Additionally, according to analysts, the IEC did not audit all the 444 polling stations. The Afghan Analyst Network’s Martine van Bijlert argues that “in most cases only one or a few, of the polling stations were audited.” This suggests that the IEC’s auditing framework was far too constricted, “strictly following indicators rather than trying to ascertain and address the total level of fraud” in the first round of elections.
Consequently, the outcome of the first round of votes had both clean and dirty ballots counted. Yet both candidates accepted the final results and prepared for the second round.
The international community has urged both the presidential candidates to discuss their concerns with the electoral commissions – a key reason why these bodies exist in the first place. However, Abdullah’s halting of the IEC’s process means abandonment of the legal process and framework. A shift away from this framework and appealing directly to the public can put the political transition process in jeopardy and may provoke further instability.
Now, the UN has the daunting task of mediating between the two candidates in an effort to determine Afghanistan’s political future. So far the UN has been very cautious by maintaining that whatever role is given for it to play it is with the consensus of all parties involved, avoiding any possible inferences of interfering in Afghan affairs. At the current juncture, Afghans can only hope that a solution arises, and quickly, to mitigate the political crises Afghanistan finds itself in and ensure people’s faith remains strong in the democratic process.