Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (11): A first look at how E-Day went


Counting the vote in Bamyan city in Afghanstan’s fourth presidential elections (Photo: Ali Yawar Adili 2019)

Counting the vote in Bamyan city in Afghanstan’s fourth presidential elections (Photo: Ali Yawar Adili 2019)

The Independent Election Commission has given its first rough estimation of turnout in Afghanistan’s 2019 Presidential Elections. It was low, with fewer than two million voters out of 9.66 million registered, about a quarter, coming out to vote. The Taleban only managed to conduct one large-scale attack, in Kandahar city, but committed 400 other, mainly smaller-scale acts of violence against the poll in 29 provinces. However, turnout appears to have been dampened not just by Taleban threats, but also voter disinterest. The day also saw a number of technical shortcomings, from biometric devices not working to IEC personnel not finding voters’ names on the voter lists to election material sent to the wrong provinces. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica (with input from Kate Clark) have put together descriptions and data on how E-Day went, sent in by AAN’s five provincial observers, Obaid Ali, Rohullah Sorush, Ali Yawar Adili, Reza Kazemi and Fazal Muzhary, with Ali Mohammad Sabawoon and other team members in Kabul who also spoke to sources in other provinces (information only attributed when not from AAN sources).

Security

Given the sharp and repeated warnings by the Taleban that they would interrupt the voting “by making use of everything at their disposal,” polling started today with just one major attack. An explosion inside the Shah Jama Mosque polling centre in central Kandahar city, near the governor’s palace, took place after only ten people had cast their votes. 16 people were reported injured, including one policeman, several election officials and the rest voters, three of them severely by the bomb hidden in the mihrab (the niche in the wall pointing towards Mecca) area of the mosque (see also here). After the explosion, the centre remained closed for three and a half hours before voting recommenced.

The last Taleban warning to voters had come on 26 September, two days before election day, in the form of ‘guidelines’ from their Commission for [the] Prevention of Civilian Casualties and Complaints:

Civilian compatriots should “strictly stay away from the staged election process (…) due to military operations” by its fighters and that “all transport services operating on highways and owners of vehicles from districts to cities (…) are (…)to strictly avoid all travel for the upcoming two days (Friday and Saturday) except in case of medical treatment so that no civilians are harmed.

A separate statement by the movement’s Military Commission, told people  to “stay away from polling stations” and laid the blame for any eventual harm to those who casting their votes: “In case any problems or casualties arise, all responsibility shall befall [sic] the participants of this American process themselves.” There were no specific statements or warnings from the Afghan chapter of the Islamic State.

Strict security measures were imposed by the authorities in Afghanistan’s cities, all of which were largely quiet today, and the border crossings from Pakistan were closed. In Kabul, the ‘city gates’ – where major roads join the city – were closed. Lorries have been stopped from entering the city since mid-week. All motorised traffic within the city was supposed to be banned and even bicycles were not allowed near polling sites, although these stipulations were not strictly observed. Although there were additional army, police and NDS roadblocks, particular on roads with polling sites, and motorised patrols, some private car movement was allowed.

In Taloqan, Takhar’s provincial capital, the contrast with Kabul, was noticeable. AAN’s election observer there described the scene:

It doesn’t look like an E-day in Takhar. Shops are open, traffic is normal and there are no security check-points inside the city or at the entrance gates. This is so different from the 2018 parliamentary election, when NDS, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and border police all were assigned to take security measures. According to one local security official, most of the troops have been tasked with securing the provincial centre from outside the city itself. 

Fighting in the suburbs of Taloqan had been reported two nights before E-Day, but the Taleban had been repulsed. There was some more shelling on Election Day: a rocket hit the campus of Takhar University, near a polling centre. No casualties were reported, but voting was disrupted.

Security incidents across the country included small arms fire in the suburbs of Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul, before and during the first hour or so after polling centres opened. It was audible in the city centre. This was followed by some rockets fired into the city itself. Locals interpreted all this as an attempt to scare off voters, not cause destruction. However, one missile hit a clinic, slightly injuring two patients, according to security sources. Qalat was the scene of one of the three worst instances of pre-election violence. On 19 September 2019, the Taleban detonated a car bomb which destroyed the largest hospital in the town, killing 39 people and wounding 90 others. In the Shajoy district centre of Zabul which was taken over by the Taleban mid-week, fighting was ongoing today; it blocked traffic on the Kabul-Kandahar ring road which passes through the district. Around midday, government troops apparently pushed the Taleban out again after heavy fighting, and the polling centres there were reported opened, but no voters seen. Later, phone connections with the area broke down and were still not working by the evening, so further developments are unknown. There was also fighting reported from a number of other Zabul districts – Shumulzayi, Shahr-e Safa, Mizan and Arghandab.

Ghazni city witnessed some incoming mortar fire. The chairman of the provincial council, Nasir Ahmad Faqiri, told Afghan media that “one child and a police[man] were wounded.”Due to patchy phone connections with the province all day, it is again not clear whether this is the final toll.

In Paktia, Zurmat’s district centre, Tamir, and in Daykundi, the polling centre in Buk-e Suf in Kejrandistrict, came under fire. No casualties were reported. The Buk-e Suf centre was temporarily closed. Near a polling centre in a school in Shakardara district north of the capital Kabul, a hand grenade was detonated, without injuring people. The Taleban reported they had blown up Daudzo polling centre in Qarabagh district, also in Kabul province, but this has not been confirmed by local AAN sources. However, the Khalazai polling centre in the same district came under Taleban fire in the morning and remained closed for two hours, according to local residents. According to an Afghan journalist from Kunar, citing local residents from Dangam district, “at least 4 civilians – 3 female and one male member of a family“ were wounded “in a Taliban rocket attack” there. A local journalist in Kunduz told AAN that more than 30 rockets hit the city in the morning. At around 2:15 pm, another hit the provincial police compound.

The Taleban reported that they had blocked a number of major roads. Apart from the ring road blocked in Zabul, local sources confirmed this was also the case for the Baghlan-Kunduz and Kunduz-Takhar roads and in Maidanshahr in Wardak Province the night before E-Day. (There was no phone connection today, 28 September, so it is unclear whether this continued.). Taleban reports that they had blocked roads in all districts of Daykundi were incorrect, according to local NGO sources.

The Taleban had intended to impose a blackout on private telecoms companies over the election, which the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and government tried to counter by using the government-owned Salaam and UAE-based Etisalat networks. There were days-long blackouts in several northern and northeastern provinces immediately before the election. On E-Day, the picture was mixed, with connections on all networks patchy in all regions, and generally better in the cities than in the countryside. Provinces such as Maidan-Wardak, Farah, Ghazni, and the entire northeast were almost completely out of reach; Faryab and Jawzjan were also partially hit. In Taloqan and Maidanshahr, there was also no electricity.

The Taleban’s aim was to disrupt the elections by blocking communications between members of the campaign teams, reporters and their editors and audiences, independent observer missions and IEC headquarters and its district and provincial officials. Significantly, this time, the intention is to send results through the internet. Any disruption to the mobile phone networks will hamper this.

It seems the disruption, although partial was significant. Head of IEC secretariat Habiburrahman Nang told a same press conference at 1:30 pm that had communication with 4,503 out of a total of 5,373 polling centres, and had lost connections with (presumably) 870 polling centres in Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces.

Almost all the security incidents, apart from the blast in Kandahar, were reported from the countryside, often around district and a few provincial centres. They comprised some shelling by rockets, but mainly small arms fire, with hand grenades thrown and other small explosive devices and roadside IEDs exploding. AAN compiled, through international security observers in Kabul, our own and other public sources a provisional list of 51 security incidents in 40 districts in 22 provinces by 9 am. (1) By midday, that number had risen to 171 in 100 districts in 29 provinces, with the southeastern region suffering the most (42 incidents), followed by the east (37) and the central regions (35). (2) By the end of the day, more than 400 incidents had been reported. The Taleban, by mid-afternoon, claimed 314 attacks on the elections.

The Afghan authorities reported that they had discovered and defused “dozen of bombs” in Kabul province alone, in the districts of Qarabagh, Musahi, Khak-e Jabbar and Shakardara.

The German Press Agency meanwhile reported three people confirmed killed on Election Day: one person (and three injured) when a mine exploded in a polling site in Surkhrod district in Nangrahar province; one election observer killed by a rocket in Kunduz city; and one child (with four more children and two adults injured) when mortar grenades impacted near polling sites in Paktika, Paktia and Kunar provinces (the report does not say in which province the child was killed). It said there were also at least 24 people injured.

This election has already suffered a much higher number of violent attacks as during the three-day parliamentary election of October 2018 (two general voting days plus the delayed election in Kandahar, see AAN reporting here), which a special UNAMA report put at 108. However, it looks like the number of today’s casualties is much lower than in 2018, possibly by as much as one half. The fact that several provinces faced phone outages, such as Kunduz (see for example here), Baghlan and Ghazni, but had a few reports coming through of attacks, means that incident and casualty numbers might further rise. At the end of the day, defence minister Asadullah Khaled called Logar, Takhar, Kunar, Jawzjan, Faryab, Ghor and Kunduz “the most threatened provinces today.” However, he provided no concrete figures. By way of contrast, UNAMA verified 435 civilian casualties (56 deaths and 379 injured) in 108 incidents of election-related violence in the 2018 parliamentarian elections. [corrected at 10:35, on 29 September 2019]

An empty polling centre in Qala-ye Fathullah in central Kabul that would later close because of lack of voters. Photo: Norwegian Afghanistan Committee.

Technical problems

A number of cases of late opening of polling centres have been reported by AAN observers, the media and observer organisations, including from: Ayesha Durani High School in Kabul where voting only started after almost one hour, Marifat school in west Kabul were IEC staff did not appear on time, Herat’s Abdul Ali Tokhi school where by 10 am the election material had not arrived and the Anwar Bismel PC in Kabul’s Khairkhana district where there were not enough IEC workers and many showed up late. In Kabul, the president’s brother Hashmat Ghani was reported not to be on the voters list in the Habibia High School PC.

There were even more reported incidents of Biometric Voter Verification (BVV) devices not working properly. Each device has the complete voter list for the country saved on it, but only the list for its designated polling centre can be activated. However, in some cases, voters registered to a particular centre found their names were missing from its lists. The cases of BVV devices not working seem to be widespread, reported from almost all provinces it covered, including a number of polling centres in several cities such as Kabul, Taloqan, Qalat, and from other sources in Faizabad (Badakhshan), Ghazni city, Paktia, Khas Kunar in Nangrahar.

In Pul-e Khumri, the capital of Baghlan, some polling stations did not open on time due to problems with the BVV devices. In two Faizabad polling centres, local NGO workers said people trying to vote were kept waiting because the BVV devices were not working and the problem had not been solved as of 10:30 am. In Sultan Razia High School of Mazar-e Sharif, one voter registered there had his name deleted by the BVV device. Another AAN observer reported problems with the BBV devices in every polling centre he visited in Taloqan city: some were not active at all, some did not accept fingerprints and some did not recognise voters who had stickers on their tazkiras (IDs). In one of the polling centres, there was no Election Complaints Commission (ECC) worker to register complaints with. However, all these cases were mainly minor technical glitches which were resolved quickly by IEC staff.

Sometimes, however, it seemed IEC staff were not sufficiently trained in operating the devices. In one case in Taloqan, the AAN observer was asked to help getting the device working. In Zabul, a local journalist told AAN the biometric process was “very slow.” Elsewhere it was better. In Mahdawia Mosque in PD 13 in west Kabul, where some 200 voters failed to find their names in the voter lists, the situation came to noisy complaints, some shoving of IEC personnel and accusations of fraud (see a video here).

In several cases, polling material was sent to the wrong places, sometimes to the wrong province. A report from NGOs workers in one of the biggest polling centres in Maimana, Faryab province, said the names of local voters had been registered to Daikundi. Former Vice-President Muhammad Karim Khalili reported from a polling centre in the west of Kabul city that voters’ lists from Badakhshan had ended up there, causing the centre to be closed.

Irregularities

A number of irregularities were also reported that were not linked to technical problems. One of the major problems in Qalat was that women were not allowing their photos to be taken for the BBV. IEC staff did not allow them to cast their votes and sent them home. One voter in the Habibullah Zurmati High School of Zurmat, Paktia, was allowed to vote without a sticker on his tazkera and without his name being in the voter list. In one polling centre in Herat city, a man who had been registered there received a sticker numbered for a woman, so was not able to vote.

In front of the Sheikh Mati High School polling centre in Qalat, campaigners of both the favourite contenders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah were still trying to influence voters, although the campaign had legally ended 48 hours previously, overnight between 25 and 26 September. In the Amani High School PC in central Kabul, a large Ghani poster hung on the wall behind the election workers, as shown by the media. In Bamyan city, a voter was observed who did not find his favourite candidate on the ballot and asked the IEC staff for help. The polling centre’s IEC head ticked the ballot paper for him, although only after having been given permission to do so by observers present.

Observers

In almost all provincial capitals that AAN is covering, the number of Ghani’s agents was double that of Abdullah’s election agents. These two candidates also have the most agents of all the candidates. This is reported across the country’s polling centres. Independent agents, however, are not present in all polling centres. For example, they were absent from Kandahar city’s Aino Mena neighbourhood, and in Taloqan city.  

Turnout

IEC commissioner Mawlana Abdullah speaking on 1TV said during the morning’s broadcast that there had been “a very good turnout if it continues like this.” However, at the end of Election Day rough IEC estimates put turnout at under two million voters, our of 9.66 million registered. This was after the IEC had ordered an extra two hours for voters to get to the polls.

The low turnout was also confirmed by AAN observers and most other sources reporting from around the country. Here are some snapshots from the provinces.

Kandahar

By noon, in Kandahar’s Aino Mena, a gated community considered the safest area of the city, only slightly more than ten per cent of the total number of 12,982 registered voters had come out to vote. In the one male polling centre located in the Sayed Jamaluddin Boys High School (25 male polling stations), 1,067 men had turned out to vote while in neighbouring Safia Ama Jan girls’ High School (nine female polling stations), 207 women had turned up. 40 men were waiting to vote before the centre opened at 7.00 am, while there were no queues of women, despite their polling centre opening an hour late. IEC officials who worked in previous elections at this school told AAN that previous election mornings had been busier.

Voting getting underway in Kandahar this morning (Photo: Fazal Muzhary)

The province, according to Emal Abdullah, the provincial IEC head, has 174 polling centres, comprised of 1,584 stations, for about 500,000 registered voters, among them around 70,000 women. By the time this text was published, he could not provide AAN with the exact number of the polling centres that had actually opened in Kandahar.

Zabul

AAN visited three polling centres in Qalat city. By 11 am: only 784 men, out of 3,699 registered voters  had voted at Sheikh Mati High School; 466 people, all women, had voted (no man showed up) out of a registered 4,431 voters at Bibi Khala High School and; 344 men out of 1,862 voters had voted at Tarnak Boys School. Out of almost 10,000 registered voters in these three polling centres, only somewhat less than 1,600 (or 16 per cent) had voted in the first half day of the election, showing a very low, or at least a very slow turnout. If province-wide, this pattern would follow the 2018 parliamentary elections, when just 13,934 out of 71,438 people registered to vote cast their ballots.

In Zabul province, head of security for the IEC office told AAN that, out of 43 planned polling centres, only 36 had opened that morning.

Takhar

The AAN observer in Taloqan who visited seven polling centres reported that turnout was extremely low compared to the 2018 parliamentary election. In the Usman Taloqani Boys High School, voting started at 7:40 am, after a 40 minute delay. By 8 am, around 20 male voters were there. In Pir Muhammad Khaksar Mosque, with six polling stations, three for men and three for women, AAN counted 20 out of the 1,262 registered male voters and two out of the 839 female voters coming to vote in the first three hours. At the Faruq Boys High School, there were long queues of male voters, mainly because of the problems with BVVs, but only two female voters came to cast their ballots. Of 2,402 registered voters, only 537 had cast their ballot by 3 pm.

A Biometric Voter Verification device malfunctioning in Taloqan, Takhar (Photo: Obaid Ali)

In Khatayan Mosque PC, located around 15 kilometres outside the city to the east and with very few voters registered, AAN witnessed an almost empty site. IEC officials said that the voters registered there were mainly farmers and were busy with in their fields, so usually came later to vote.

Balkh

In Mazar-e Sharif, early turnout was visibly low. Indeed, the AAN observer in Mazar saw “people accompanying their friends” to certain polling centres who “did not vote themselves.”

Using a BVV to check a voter’s identity in Sultan Razia High School in Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh (Photo: Rohullah Sorush 2019)

In the Oil and Gas Institute PC in Mazar city, with 2,376 registered voters in seven polling stations (five male and two female) turnout by 11:45 was just 406. Similarly, in the Ustad Wejdan High School PC, with 3,008 registered voters in eight polling stations,  turnout by 11 am was 416. AAN observed that the whole process from a voter arriving to casting his or her vote took two to three minutes.

In Seddiq Shahab High School PC voters complained that IEC staff worked very slowly and they had been waiting for an hour. An IEC staff member told AAN they had problems with voters whose names were found on the voters list, but the biometric device did not recognise them. They asked voters to return in the afternoon to vote.

Herat

Turnout was low in Herat city, as well. One ECC observer told AAN “If this is the turnout in the city, there is likely a much lower turnout in the districts.” In one polling centre AAN visited, Masjed ul-Reza, there was a queue of 20 to 30 people early in the morning when the centre opened, but no queue after, although small numbers of voters continued to trickle in. At the end of the day, in that polling centre, some 1,600 of the roughly 6,500 registered voters had cast their ballots, some 25 per cent.

Voting in Herat city (Photo: Reza Kazemi)

Some people said that in the last election, there were more voters, but the IEC had not been not prepared; this time, the IEC was much better prepared, but the people were not coming out to vote in large numbers.

Bamyan

In the three polling centres in Bamyan city AAN visited in the morning, approximately one third of registered voters had voted by noon. IEC official Shakila, who also worked with the IEC during the 2018 elections, told AAN, “Last year, we did not have a chance to drink a cup of tea during E-Day. This time, we have a plenty of time to relax, and even enjoy lunch.”

Kabul

In Spina Ade, a girls school in polling centre Qala-ye Fathullah in central Kabul, Afghan staff working with the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC) reported to AAN that they were “alone in the polling station” in mid-morning, with “no other voters in sight.” This polling centre had been relocated from a nearby, heavily-guarded Shia mosque that had served as a voter registration centre in October 2018. However, the mosque’s ulema committee had refused to allow it to be used as a polling centre, fearing attacks. The relocated IEC staff told AAN on the eve of E-Day, local voters had been informed about the polling centre’s relocation by the mullahs during prayer time, the wakil-e guzar (head of the neighbourhood) and in written notes – but either these measures did not work or there was no big interest in voting.

In four polling centres in the Qala-ye-Fatullah and Shahr-e-Naw neighbourhoods of Kabul, the NAC staff said, “There are more police and security personnel than voters… a big difference from the last presidential election in 2014.” AAN found that one polling centre on Street 8, Qala-ye Fathullah, was closed due to lack of voter turnout and people redirected to a polling centre on Street 5.

Other provinces

In Zurmat district of Paktia, the local IEC chief told AAN that 18 of the 22 polling centres were open. All are in the district centre Tamir and its immediate vicinity. However, information from two independent local sources later indicated that only five centres were open, and that there had been “very little” turnout. Given that other centres in the district were under Taleban attack, citizens may have been dissuaded from coming out to vote, they said.

There was low turnout in Daykundi province, according to local NGO sources. Sources in Maidan-Wardak and Khost province also told AAN there were no women voters in the provincial centres of either.

How many polling centres opened?

 As the official closing hour of the polls, 3 pm drew near, it was still not clear how many polling centres actually opened today. This confusion is a worrying déjà-vu of the 2018 election administrative mess (for detail, see here and here).

Afghanistan has 7,366 polling centres, of which the IEC had planned to open 5,373 (the others were not safe). A couple of weeks ago, the Ministry of Interior said they could not secure 431 of these (see this AAN report). Yesterday, a security officials had upped that figure, saying 445 out of the 5,373 centres would be closed on election day. Confusion today has mainly been caused by IEC officials contradicting themselves at various press conferences as to the number of centres open, closed and out of contact (because telecom services have been closed by the Taleban).

At 1:30 pm IEC Chief Hawa Alam Nuristani said 4,041 centres were open and 481 closed due to security issues.

A couple of hours later, election commissioner Mawlana Muhammad Abdullah gave another set of figures at another press conference: in total, 464 polling centres were closed in 17 provinces, he said, including 33 centres closed due to lack of election materials. This was 17 fewer centres open than Nuristani reported.

In Taloqan city, people were relaxed and shops, like this kite shop were open (Photo: Obaid Ali 2019)

At 2:50 pm, director-general for operations at the Ministry of Information gave yet another set of figures. He said 4,905 polling centres were “active across the country” and 468 polling centres were “inactive due to different reasons.” This is four more open centres than Mawlana Abdullah reported and 13 fewer than Nuristani.

Conclusion

This first look at Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential poll shows that, in an election where a substantial number of citizens were never going to be able to vote anyway because their areas were too insecure, by E-Day, even more voters had been disenfranchised by the Taleban. The latest figures from the IEC and Ministry of Interior show that a third of all possible polling centres did not open; 27 per cent were never going to open and a further six per cent that the authorities had hoped to open could not be. There is confusion over the final figure, which is unhelpful. Any discrepancy sparks suspicion as it creates a space for the possible manipulation of official turnout figures at a later date.

The Taleban also managed to cause disruption to the mobile phone network and major roads and have launched more attacks in an attempt to prevent voters turning out than they did in the last election in October 2018.

Turnout was low – with even the IEC having to revise down its initially optimistic forecast. It is not clear whether Taleban threats alone drove that low turnout. Citizens may also have been uninspired by voting in general, or by the candidates on offer where both frontrunners are incumbents, or by the insipid campaign, or the constant talk during the year of US-Taleban talks in Doha that there might be an interim government instead of an newly-elected one, or the fact that the last presidential election ended in such vitriol and confusion.

A local farmer from Takhar told AAN he felt guilty for taking part in the last election and would not take part in another or allow family members to cast their votes, either. A rickshaw driver from Herat who has also given up voting (read more here) said he preferred to earn money with his vehicle on E-Day.

As the polls closed today, memories may go back to 5 April 2014 and the first round of the presidential elections then. We reported:

It was easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm today. The rain poured down in many places, but many voters still appeared determined to pour into polling stations. The internet was full of pictures of smiling voters showing off their voter cards and inky fingers, as well as long lines of both men and women patiently waiting to vote. Social media helped amplify the mood, as many of the country’s journalists and activists expressed both their elation and their defiance of the Taleban. By noon, commentators already started speculating that the turnout was likely to be double what it was in 2009.

We were cautious about being too hopeful about the vote in 2014, knowing how bad news can trickle in. Even so, the general picture by this point on E-Day in 2014 seemed rosier than the one today.

Edited by Kate Clark

 

(1) Badghis, Baghlan, Daykundi, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Herat, Jawzjan, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Laghman, Maidan-Wardak, Nangrahar, Nimruz, Paktia, Paktika, Parwan, Uruzgan, Zabul.

(2) By 12 am, the following province were added: Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamyan, Kapisa, Logar, Sarepul, Takhar.

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape