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Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Report 171 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Election Challenges

Afghanistan’s forthcoming elections, with presidential and provincial council polls on 20 August 2009, and National Assembly and district elections scheduled for 2010, present a formidable challenge if they are to produce widely accepted and credible results.

 

Executive Summary

Afghanistan’s forthcoming elections, with presidential and provincial council polls on 20 August 2009, and National Assembly and district elections scheduled for 2010, present a formidable challenge if they are to produce widely accepted and credible results. The weakness of state institutions, the deteriorating security situation and the fractured political scene are all highlighted by – and will likely have a dramatic effect on – the electoral process. The years since the last poll saw the Afghan government and international community fail to embed a robust electoral framework and drive democratisation at all levels. This has made holding truly meaningful elections much more difficult. Rather than once again running the polls merely as distinct events, the enormous resources and attention focused on the elections should be channelled into strengthening political and electoral institutions, as a key part of the state-building efforts required to produce a stable country.

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The first round of post-Taliban elections in 2004 and 2005 were joint United Nations-Afghan efforts. This time they will be conducted under the sole stewardship of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) with the UN acting only in support. Preparations face a series of intertwined challenges:

  • Technical. The momentum of the last elections was lost in 2006-2007. The Afghan government, UN and donors failed to use the interim period to build the capacity and resources of the IEC; strengthen the legal framework including replacing the inappropriate Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system; and produce a sustainable voter registry. Further, failure and delays in wider institutional processes such as disarmament programs and judicial and police reform have increased popular disillusionment and thus reduced buy-in for the state-building agenda, including potentially election participation.
     
  • Political. The presidential elections in particular expose a highly centralised political patronage system in which the head of state wields enormous powers, bringing personalities rather than policies to the fore. The poor relationship between the branches of the state sees the new legislature ignored or overruled and its effectiveness greatly reduced by the absence of a formal role for political parties. The lack of an accepted constitutional arbiter in case of dispute means that even simple technical electoral processes have become highly charged political contests.
     
  • Security. The insurgency, centred in the south and east of the country, may affect the ability of people in such areas to freely exercise their franchise and makes scrutiny of the process much more difficult, increasing opportunities for fraud. This may have wider implications for overall legitimacy given that the violence is centred in areas dominated by one ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The failings of disarmament programs due to lack of political will also increases the chances of intimidation across the country. The continued low quality of police makes providing security for elections challenging.

Proceeding with the polls is however widely recognised to be the least bad option. There are 41 candidates running in the presidential poll – most prominent in challenging Hamid Karzai are former foreign minister and leading Northern Alliance personality Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank official and finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The large number of candidates – about 3,300 (10 per cent of them women) – for the provincial councils provides ample evidence of continued interest in the process. The challenge now is to ensure credible and widely accepted results that promote stability. 

Participation is likely to be uneven with a drop in candidates in areas of the insurgency-hit south in particular, a stark reminder of the effect of violence. Expectations must not be inflated, but on the other hand the bar must not simply be lowered if there is to be faith in the result. The voter registration update, while adding some momentum to the process, failed to address striking flaws in the voter registry which could lay the groundwork for fraud and which the international community has not spoken up about. Much greater political will than in 2005 is needed in tackling powerful players who flout the rules. Ultimately what will matter in judging the success of the elections is the perception of the Afghan public.

In the short time remaining before the 2009 polls, the focus must be on strengthening security provision and the impartiality, integrity and professionalism of electoral staff – the front line against fraud. The lessons learned must be used to ensure a much strengthened process in 2010. The expense of the current exercise is unsustainable and highlights the failure after the 2005 polls to build Afghan institutions and create a more realistic electoral framework. There must also be well-sequenced post-election planning including ongoing training and oversight and sufficient funds to retain the thousands of new police recruited to help secure the polls.

More broadly there needs to be a focus on building consensus on how the Afghan political system can be made more functional and representative, ending the current over-reliance on a largely unaccountable executive that has encouraged an ever-growing culture of impunity. Weakness in institutional development has only fuelled wider instability through exclusion and a lack of government services. There must be broad agreement, even within the bounds of the current constitution, on a balance of power among the branches of the state and between the central and local government; on identifying which body is the ultimate constitutional arbiter; and ensuring a more appropriate role for political parties. Embedding democratic norms and building institutions will better ensure that the Afghan state is representative, sustainable and ultimately stable. 

Kabul/Brussels, 24 June 2009 

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
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