The 2009 Afghan presidential election seemed more like a public celebration, rather than a political process. For months, people cheered at election rallies and excitement filled the hearts of people. That year, I could not vote. It was not because I was just too young, but because when I tried to register, the voter registration officers were absent; the second time I attempted to register the center ran out of materials.
I was so jealous of the people who passed through colored lines around my school, a polling station, and cast their votes. Their votes, marred by widespread accusations of electoral fraud, led to a second round between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abduallah, the latter refused to participate in the run-off. Hamid Karzai was declared president of Afghanistan.
A decade after taking power in an election marred by fraud, former President Karzai along with other Afghan politicians — among the first politicians to help establish and run the country’s democratic system — said in a statement that the 2019 Afghan presidential election “plunges the country into deeper political and social crisis and it does not help to bring peace in the country.”
“No one can suggest a lawful solution other than elections for a political transition in Afghanistan,” said Javid Faisal, spokesperson for State-Builder, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s re-election ticket. “With this, Karzai becomes third after Pakistan and Taliban to oppose the election.”
In Afghanistan, both parliamentary and presidential elections have been plagued by violence and allegations of corruption and massive fraud. The 2019 presidential election is the country’s fourth presidential election and seventh election in total since 2001. It has also been plagued by widespread accusations of fraud.
“We are fed with [this kind of] marred, fraudulent election,” said Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, former MP in the Afghan parliament, and a former member of the Northern Alliance which assisted the United States in toppling the Taliban in 2001. “Ballot boxes were sent to places where zero population is. The ballots are filled right now [before election day].”
Mansoor accuses the United States of neglecting the widespread fraud that undermines the value of elections and other democratic process in the war-torn country, and that one candidate has misused his power and U.S. aid.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul posted five tweets in less than a week to address issues mostly related to transparency in the election. “So that these brave voters do not go out in vain, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission and Ministry Interior of Afghanistan must clarify the locations of 445 closed polling centers immediately,” said the U.S. embassy in one of the tweets.
Ali Yawar Adili, a researcher with Afghanistan’s Analyst Network, explained that there have been concerns that the closure of 431 polling stations by the country’s security agencies might have been politically motived, as the polling stations are in provinces where previously a certain candidate had more votes. “We face an uncertain date again in the country,” Adili added.
The spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Election Body, Zabihullah Sadat, said that the country’s security forces were responsible for closure of the polling stations, and that they were committed to holding a fair and free election.
But the closure of the 431 additional polling stations was only part of the dispute over the election.
“I believe that this election will be the most marred… election than ever before,” said Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, presidential candidate and reconciled leader of Hizb-e-Islami, during in a debate on a local TV channel on Wednesday September 25. Hekmatyar, who made peace with the government in 2016, has also warned: “Don’t make us regret our coming. Don’t make us regret taking part in the election. Don’t force us to select other options. Because we can do it and we are experienced.”
The dispute has created deep fear among Afghans who have been bloodied and shattered by violence for more than four decades. Repeated marred elections have stolen the trust of ordinary Afghans in the election bodies.
“The election seems to be [an] even bigger problem,” referring to remarks by Hekmatyar, Hikmatullah Himati, a tribal elder from Sangin district of southern Helmand province, said. “I do not have 100 percent trust that my vote will be counted. A local commander once forced people to vote for a certain candidate in Helmand.”
Aziz Koshan, a researcher based in Kabul, explains that the first election in 2004 was free and fair, but that as the country took responsibility of holding its own elections, the process worsened. In 2014, after Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed a political agreement, the election bodies announced Ashraf Ghani as a president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive of the government. In October 2018, Afghans went to polling stations, but the election lasted two days due to widespread technical issues. Results of the election were announced almost six months later; a dozen candidates did not accept the results.
“In Afghanistan, democracy is one day in five years,” said Koshan. “The president is a king more than a king. People elect a monarch,” who is not accountable. Koshan adds that there is no mechanism to enforce accountability on a president as the president has run of parliament and the judiciary.
The lack of accountability seems to be a reason why Afghan politicians try every option to win the race for office in a country that is entirely depended on the United States and other alliance countries. Mere days before election day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the administration would cut $100 million in funds for an energy project because of corruption and mismanagement. He criticized two of Ghani’s programs to monitor public spending, adding that they had not been “transparent,” a charge Ghani denied.
“We expect the Afghan government to demonstrate a clear commitment to fight corruption, to serve the Afghan people and to maintain their trust,” Pompeo said. “Afghan leaders who fail to meet this standard should be held accountable.”
Mansoor, the former MP, says that in other countries a president should step down after facing this large a scale of accusations. He adds that democracy has devolved into marred elections, misuse, and bullying.
“People get pessimistic of democracy,” said Mansoor. “We are in love with democracy and human rights, not American armored vehicles.” Mansoor explained that ordinary Afghans are unable to distinguish between democratic values and a fraud-marred election, and thus turn away from democracy.
“Afghan citizens demand primary political stability,” said American University of Afghanistan lecturer Omar Sadr. “Many people see stability in autocracy, not in democracy. And they think that [largely as a result of processes like the fraud-marred elections] democracy cannot bring stability.”
Yet still, many Afghans head to polling stations with hope for stability and a democratic Afghanistan. The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan released a survey which showed only 42 percent of eligible people were willing to vote in the election. More than 9.7 million Afghans have registered to vote, according to the country’s election body.
“I vote with the hope that the result will be acceptable for all parties,” said Ahmad Eqbal, a medical graduate who works at a private hospital in Kabul. “There is a possibility of widespread fraud, but we try to prevent it in our neighborhood.”
Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. His work has appeared in The Diplomat Magazine, South China Morning Post, Times of Israel, and many more.