Features | Politics | South Asia

Prolonged Patience: Elections in Afghanistan

The results are still being debated and turnout was low. But Afghanistan’s democracy remains the lone source of hope for the country.

By Gabriel M. Piccillo for
Prolonged Patience: Elections in Afghanistan

Afghan election workers check ballot papers of September’s presidential election during the recounting process of ballot papers at Independent Election Commission counting center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Polling was held on Sept. 28, but the announcement of results repeatedly postponed after accusations of misconduct and technical issues with counting ballots.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

On September 28, 2019, presidential elections took place in Afghanistan for the fourth time since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. Nearly two months later, the results of the elections are yet to be released. Voter turnout during this year’s presidential election reached its lowest point in the country’s democratic history, raising concerns over whether the results could be seen as a comprehensive representation of the interests of the Afghan people. More concerningly, it raised questions of whether the Afghan people have lost faith in the effectiveness of democracy and the legitimacy of the decisions made through democratic processes.

Out of an estimated total population of 35 million people (an uncertain figure due to the lack of reliable census data), approximately 9.6 million people (one-third being women) were registered to vote in Afghanistan during the most recent elections. Initial results suggested that voter turnout was historically low, with only between 20 and 25 percent of registered voters taking part. According to Dermalof, (the German company tasked with assisting the Afghan government in its use of electronic voting systems and biometric voter registration — a tall order), out of the 1,929,333 votes transferred to the IEC’s central database, 1,843,107 votes were determined to be valid.

On November 2, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that votes would be recounted in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces by November 14. As the November 14 deadline came and went, another postponement of the results was announced, this time with no new target date set. The indefinite wait will only further inflame tensions.

Initially, the results of the elections were due on October 19. A series of delays caused by technical difficulties with the biometric data systems used for the first time during these elections have resulted in widespread concern among scholars and policymakers along with Afghan civil society who saw this election as a litmus test of Afghanistan’s democratic maturity and endurance. Election Commissioner Awrang Zeb stated that “Our system and procedures are such that until the biometrically verified votes are not separated from the rest until the clean votes are not determined, we will not be announcing any results.”

The teams of both incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have reported incidents of fraud to the Independent Electoral Commission for review. Though important to the legitimacy of elections, such contestation will likely prolong the vote-counting process. According to Mirad Khan Nejrabi, an MP from Kapisa province who actively supported Ghani despite previously being a vocal critic of him, “If they [IEC] are unable to release the results soon, it is going to hurt the stability of the country and the trustworthiness of its institutions.”

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Recent elections were also characterized by the persistent hope and resilience that the Afghan people have shown since the beginning of their democratic history. A prominent activist and political actor involved in the peace process who requested to remain anonymous pointed out that “Afghanistan’s population is estimated to be around 35 million people. Less than 3 million votes were cast, a number which includes fraudulent ones. Such low voter turnout means that the results of these elections can not be seen as representative of the entirety of the Afghan people.” He continued, however, by saying that “Though imperfect, recent elections are a step in the right direction. They sent a message to the Taliban and other extremist groups that the Afghan people are committed to moving forward towards a democratic society and maintaining a republic as their form of state.”

Prior to the elections, Afghanistan’s Minister of the Interior Masoud Andrabi said that the Afghan government began efforts to strengthen the security of voting stations and voters months prior to elections, with the assistance of U.S. advisers. The minister described the plan in detail, stating that efforts to ensure election security were divided into three parts; prior, during, and post. During the first period, different actors from across Afghanistan’s internal security apparatus would work to ensure the security of presidential candidates and their campaigns. Candidates were provided with high-level security escorts between Kabul and different provinces across Afghanistan.

At the time, the minister was confident that these efforts had been effective, stating that there had only been one attack on a presidential candidate and that 92 percent of election centers in the country were secured and ready for use. During elections, the Ministry of the Interior would work closely with advisers and the Ministry of Defense to protect voters and election centers on election day. Following elections, the same actors would collaborate in the secure transportation of ballots from different Afghan provinces to the headquarters of the Independent Electoral Commission in Kabul.

According to a report released by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), “Eighty-five people were killed and another 373 injured during attacks related to the recent presidential election in Afghanistan. That number includes 277 casualties, 28 of them fatalities, that occurred on polling day on 28 September.”  Children made up more than one-third of the victims. The U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA Tadamichi Yamamoto stated that “These attacks, along with public statements made by the Taliban, revealed a deliberate campaign intended to undermine the electoral process and deprive Afghan citizens of their right to participate in this important political process, freely and without fear.”

In response to security threats from the Afghan Taliban, Afghan Chief of Army Staff General Bismillah Waziri said, “I have a message for the Taliban: You should not prevent the people from their right. If you are Afghans, allow the people of Afghanistan to vote so that a strong government is created and then you can attend to the peace negotiations with that government … But it will not be possible if you want to hinder the process.” Creating conditions in which all members of Afghan society are able to contribute to peace, stability, progress, and national dialogue should be one of the primary objectives of the Afghan government and the international community throughout the years to come.

According to interviews with Afghans by Pamela Constable and Susannah George, threats to security, violence, and fear of fraud were the primary reasons people decided not to vote on election day.

MP Mirad Khan Nejrabi said that “as always, security was a big issue during elections and it played a large role in low voter turnout. However, the more significant cause of low voter turnout was a large decline in trust for institutions in Afghanistan. It was still good for the election to be held. A government needed to be formed. To increase confidence in elections, the Afghan people must be shown that the Independent Electoral Commissions is free of any political meddling.”

According to Nejrabi, “fewer people vote each election because they lose trust for the process each time an election takes place and a successive Afghan government fails to live up to its promises. They lack trust in the electoral commission and feel like their votes do not count.” Faltering trust for democracy in Afghanistan is perhaps the most concerning trend to emerge between the 2014 elections and today. It is of utmost importance that institutions inside and outside of Afghanistan cooperate closely with civil society, NGOs, and other actors in order to restore and preserve faith in democracy amongst the people of Afghanistan.

The United Nations Security Council “applauded the courage of Afghan voters, poll workers, election observers, and security forces, who made the presidential election possible despite technical challenges and security threats” and condemned the actions of those who attempted to disrupt the elections.” The European Commission released a statement saying that “we expect that the candidates exercise restraint, await the official announcement of preliminary and final results by the Independent Electoral Commission and submit any evidence-based complaints through the established institutional complaints mechanism, the Electoral Complaints Commission.”

Following the 2014 presidential elections, disagreements between the two leading presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, led to a wobbly power-sharing agreement brokered by the United States’ government, limiting the effectiveness of the Afghan government in efforts to foster security and socioeconomic stability in the country. It is likely that when results are announced this time around, the same two candidates will encounter similar disagreements.

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Against the advice of the IEC, both candidates claimed that victory was imminent shortly after initial results became public. They both indicated that they would not concede victory to the other candidate due to what they perceived to be flaws in this year’s electoral process. As mentioned by Mujib Mashal of the New York Times, “Mr. Ghani’s advisers say their margin is so comfortable that even if half a million votes are thrown out, they would still win. Mr. Abdullah’s advisers, on the other hand, say if all fraudulent votes are removed their candidate will win in the first round and if some level of questionable votes get counted, the most likely scenario is a runoff.” It is important that candidates accept results quickly after they are announced as to ensure that there is no delay in the new president’s ability to adopt efforts to address the significant security, social, and political challenges faced by the country.

Nejrabi reiterated the significance of the challenges that lie ahead for the future president of Afghanistan. He stated that though both Ghani and Abdullah have outlined a series of economic and political initiatives, “many of their promises seem unrealistic.” He also mentioned a series of questions related to internal security that the new president will need to reflect on, such as whether or not armed conflict with the Taliban is the way toward long term and sustainable peace. When asked about the biggest security challenge that the new president would face, he spoke of the difficulties associated with strengthening partnerships and cooperation between regional powers and Afghanistan in counterterrorism efforts.

Nejrabi noted concerning trends in U.S. foreign policy, such as the large-scale U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria. He said that recent developments in northern Syria are “concerning for us …  if the same scenario happens in Afghanistan with no peace deal, the situation will get worse on the ground and Afghanistan will turn once again to a haven for terrorists.” He insisted that the United States cannot afford to be distracted in its efforts in Afghanistan. Doing so will result in exacerbation of already highly complex geopolitical, social, and security challenges.

Zubair Ghairat, a youth activist who has grown up in a post-Taliban society, said, “The election was a turning point for the people of Afghanistan. We decided about our future and did not let anyone else make this decision for us. We want the next president to follow in these footsteps. They need to continue to elevate Afghanistan’s geopolitical role, not decrease it.” When asked about the things that most disappointed him about the elections, he said spoke of the significant role that he thought sectarian and tribal tensions continue to play in Afghan politics. “It was unfortunate to see that many people vote for tribe or ethnicity and not democracy. Tajiks vote for Tajiks and Pashtuns for Pashtuns. Many people are not voting for the candidate that presents the best plans and programs for the future of the country,” he said.

Though the number of Afghans to cast their vote was substantially lower than what was hoped for, elections demonstrated continued commitment to the pursuit of peace, progress, and stability in a country whose identity has been defined by extremism, corruption, war, and bloodshed for nearly two decades. The people of Afghanistan are characterized by remarkable hope. It is the international community’s responsibility to help them sustain that hope. Failure to do so could result in a reversal of much of the progress that has been made throughout the past two decades.

Gabriel M. Piccillo is the Vice President for Conflict, Stabilization, and Reconstruction at the International Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development (IIPDD), an Afghan-U.S. NGO. He is based in London and Washington, DC.