Political Landscape

Afghanistan’s 2019 Election (13): Observations from Kandahar, Takhar, Wardak and Balkh


With intermittent fighting and rocket attacks throughout the day, election workers in the Awal Baba school voting centre in Maidan Shahr, had little work to do. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2019.

With intermittent fighting and rocket attacks throughout the day, election workers in the Awal Baba school voting centre in Maidan Shahr, had little work to do. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2019.

Observations from the provinces show an election that, in general, saw less violence than anticipated, although some provinces were still very violent. Despite this, turnout was low, even in the relatively safe provincial capitals. Problems with the biometric verification process also meant that some voters who were registered were sent away. In this dispatch, AAN observers present detailed findings from four provinces.  Fazl Muzhary reports from Kandahar, Obaid Ali from Takhar, Andrew Quilty from Wardak and Rohullah Sorush from Balkh, compiled by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark. Separate AAN reports are forthcoming about how the elections went in Herat, Zabul, Bamyan and Daikundi.

The monitoring of Afghanistan’s vote by election observers has two main purposes: to check whether proper procedures are followed and to notice and flag any problems that may arise. They also document their observations, for instance in terms of turnout and vote count, so that this can be checked against the data that the Independent Election Commission (IEC) releases later.

The presence of observers is often seen as a deterrent against fraud. However, on-the-ground observers rarely have a full overview of the full extent of any problems on election day, simply because the places where they are present are usually not where fraud happens. Observers tend to congregate in urban areas and in polling centres that are relatively secure and accessible. This should be kept in mind when reading the four provincial observation reports. Even so, they provide key clues as to what the likely themes and controversies will be in the coming weeks.

All four observation reports describe election day as it took place in the respective provincial capitals. In Kandahar city, security was much better than anticipated (although there were a few security incidents). Turnout, however, was still low – according to all interlocutors, it was significantly lower than the 2018 parliamentary election. Taloqan city in Takhar had faced a week-long power outage and the shut-down of telecommunication and internet networks on election day, which hampered communications and reporting for all involved. This was also the case in Herat and Zabul. Turnout in Taloqan was again observed as low. In Wardak, even in Maidan Shahr, polling seems to have been heavily affected by Taleban attacks, so much so that even the relatively low turnout reported by the IEC looks like it may well be inflated. In Balkh, finally, Mazar-e Sharif was secure, but turnout reported to be extremely low compared to the parliamentary election last year (when it was already visibly lower than in elections before).

The observed low turnout, even in provincial capitals that were relatively safe, was across the board. It was blamed on fear of the Taleban making good on their threats of violence and on disappointment with the government in particular and the electoral process in general. In most provinces, there had also been a noticeable lack of campaigning and accompanying local political jockeying. This was particularly noticeable in Kandahar. In Herat – as will be reported on separately – local figures of influence only came out at the last minute out in favour of their favoured presidential candidates. Another factor may have been the absence of organised transport, which in other presidential elections was often provided by campaign teams or local candidates who were running for the simultaneous parliamentary or provincial council election.

In all places where people did come out to vote, observers noted some problems with the Biometric Voter Verification (BVV) process, resulting in the sending away of some voters who had registered but whose names could not be found on the lists or whose QR code was not accepted. The IEC’s decision in the middle of the day to allow people to vote without BVV in these cases means that there are now, again, several categories of votes. There is already confusion and disagreement over whether they will be tallied as valid votes or not.

Of all the four provinces observed, Kandahar seems the most likely candidate for closer scrutiny. As a populated province, it brings in a large number of potential votes and the turnout figure as released by the IEC seems inflated, compared to what was observed. (1)

1. Kandahar election day observation

AAN visited six polling centres in Kandahar city on election day. During the visits, AAN researcher Fazal Muzhary spoke to voters, senior government officials, IEC workers, civil society activists, candidates agents and local journalists, including reporters who went to various districts on election day. AAN also checked the number of votes cast in the above-mentioned centres at midday and in two of them at the end of the day, and attended a post-election press conference by senior government officials.

Kandahar: security

Overall, security on election day, both in the city and in the districts, was much better than almost everyone we spoke to had expected, whether they were regular voters, journalists, senior government officials, tribal elders, civil society activists or observers. There was one major bomb blast in Police District 1 in the Shah Bazar area at around 8:15 am. Sixteen people were wounded: one member of the security forces and 15 civilians. According to IEC director Emal Abdullah, the polling centre in that area was closed for one hour, after which it reopened.

There were several other explosions which caused no casualties: in the early morning in Police District 12 in the Graveyard Area, not near or at a polling centre; 10:00 am in Police District 2, again not near or at a polling centre; near Zainab High school in Police District 2; near the teacher training centre in Police District 4; and near Sardar Painda Muhammad School in Dand district. The deputy provincial police chief said ‘the enemy’ had planned a further 48 explosions, but these explosives had been defused beforehand as a result of police operations.

Rocket shelling, fighting between the Taleban and security forces, and bomb blasts were reported in four districts, security officials told AAN. In Daman district, which is located to the south of Kandahar, a bomb was detonated near Tarnak bridge, wounding three Afghan National Police (ANP) in the evening of 28 September. Spokesman for Kandahar police headquarters Jamal Nasar Barakzai told AAN the blast took place after the ANP had brought ballot boxes to Kandahar city and were on their way back to the district. In Maiwand district, fighting was reported between Taleban and ANP in the Mushak area, starting around 11:00 am and ending around 1:00 pm; according to a source in the Afghan security forces, the fighting resulted in no casualties. In the Shatur area of Arghandab district, a roadside bomb went off at 10:30 am on election day, wounding an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier. In the Wayand area of Shah Wali Kot district, the Taleban attacked an ANP post near a polling centre; in fighting which lasted one hour, there were again no casualties to either side. Lastly, there was also fighting between Taleban and ANP near Baba Sahib police post at 7:00 am in the same district. Sources in the security sector told AAN that seven Taleban fighters were killed and another four wounded. AAN could not confirm the fatalities independently.

Given that the Taleban have some backing inside Kandahar city and in the province, the relatively low number of incidents may have been due to a decision not to damage that support by carrying out major attacks against voters or polling centres. According to one senior journalist in Kandahar, who has been following the Taleban and the security situation since 2002, the Taleban had only wanted to put psychological pressure on the electorate. He said that he had witnessed similar tactics from the Taleban in all previous elections. In any case, the very threat of violence already appears to have worked in helping to dampen turnout (see below).

Kandahar: turnout

Turnout was pretty low on the day of the election, indeed lower than anticipated. It was expected that at least the people in Kandahar city, particularly in the relatively safe areas of Aino Mena in the Chowni area, Topkhana and Police District 2 would come out to vote in considerable numbers because they had done so in the 2018 parliamentary and 2014 presidential elections. The expectation was for thousands of voters, rather than hundreds. In the gated community of Aino Mena, AAN visited 34 polling stations, in two polling centres. According to the IEC database which was checked at 5:00 pm, only about 350 women and about 1,500 men out of the 12,982 voters registered at these centres cast their votes. Similarly, by 3:40 pm at Aino 2 High School in the Chowni area, where AAN visited 21 polling stations, in two polling centres, just 150 women and 650 men out of 6,796 registered voters had shown upto vote. At Zarghuna Ana High School, where AAN visited 20 polling stations, in two polling centres, at 4:30 pm, 121 women and 647 men, out of 7,758 total voters had then cast their votes.

People gave different reasons for the low turnout. One was the lack of voter mobilisation by influential Kandaharis. A local analyst who works with an international NGO told AAN, “The Kandahari elites were silent both before and during the election about who they would vote for.” Haji Agha Lalai Dastagiri, the deputy governor of Kandahar, said that the influential Karzai family had not come out in favour of any particular candidate and said instead that their priority was peace not elections. Sadiq Reshtinai, local reporter of Azadi Radio pointed out that out of the local influential figures, only the head of the provincial council, Sayed Jan Khakrezwal, had appeared in public after casting his vote. Other notables, such as former and current parliamentarians, members of the provincial council and tribal elders did not show up to publicly vote on election day, and had not made public statements about their voting. In Kabul and in other cities, public figures shared their photos on social media as soon as they cast their vote, but in Kandahar this was not done.

Another reason given for the low turnout was the fearful environment. Although the Taleban only carried out one major attack in Kandahar city, their threats successfully intimidated many citizens from going out to vote. One female IEC worker told AAN her parents had counselled her to stay at home, fearing bomb blasts or rocketing: “My mother told me to stay home instead of going to the polling centre. But I told her that there would be no blasts or security incidents and went anyway.” Although, this female IEC worker did go to work, her mother did not go out to vote. Similarly, a taxi driver, Nazir, said he had wanted to vote in the Aino Mena poling centre, but he returned home halfway. “When I got close to the centre, I received a call from my brother, telling me not to go there, because there might be a bomb blast.”

A third reason cited for the low turnout is a loss of trust among voters over elections in general. Civil society activist Hekmatullah Solhi thinks the 2014 election played a more significant role in this regard than the 2018 parliamentary election. He said a majority of Kandahar residents believed their votes were completely ineffective. “People say they cast their votes for Ghani in 2014, and then there was need for mediation by the US foreign secretary,” Solhi said, referring to the creation of the Nation Unity Government after the US Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s intervention during the protracted 2014 dispute over the election’s second round results.

Kandahar: the voting

During the vote, there were problems with late openings and with the data base. Of all the 71 stations that AAN visited, none had opened on time. Voters and observers told AAN they had opened between 30 and 60 minutes late, ie between 7:30 and 8:00 am, and voters complained about the time they had wasted. As regards to the time it took to cast a vote, this was a relatively lengthy process. AAN observed four voters at one polling centre, from the time they arrived at the polling centre gate until after they had cast their vote and left. Two of the voters spent 15 minutes, one person 12 minutes and the other 10 minutes casting their vote from start to finish. But since there were no crowds, there were also no complaints about the duration.

An important problem that arose was the mismatch between the voter lists and the database. There were many voters who showed up at polling centres, but found their names were not in the database. For example, at the polling centre in Aino Mena, around 40 people could not cast their votes. These voters told AAN they had registered at this same centre, and their names were on the voter list, but not on the BVV list. They were told they could not cast their votes. This was before the IEC ruling that people should be allowed to vote; it is unknown whether any of them returned later or to what extent this later ruling was implemented.

Kandahar: safety of the vote

The head of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), Ashnagul Bandawal, told AAN on 1 October that they had received 130 complaints. He said ECC workers were still categorising all the complaints, but most were technical: people complaining that BVV devices did not work, that their names were not in the database or that their names were found at another polling centre than where they registered. He also said additional complaints had been registered by representatives of the candidates in Kabul, so the number of complaints relating to Kandahar could still rise.

IEC officials said, both on election day and on 1 October, that so far no major fraudulent cases had been seen or reported on election day. This was also the view of civil society activists and journalists, although they added that there might be as yet undetected fraud, including fraud that had taken place before election day or that would be attempted after, and fraud that had taken place in the districts. They counselled that the latter would be difficult to detect, given the insecurity that makes these areas difficult to access for government and IEC officials, as well as observers and the media. According to civil society activist Solhi, the districts which will need the most careful watching are the ones that are so difficult to access that all electoral materials had to be transported by helicopter. Since the government has no control over most of the areas beyond the district headquarters, he believed, turnout would be negligible with only government officials casting their votes. He said that if any ballot boxes from these areas were found to have a large number of votes when shifted to Kandahar city, it would mean most of the votes were fraudulent.

Although the complete turnout for Kandahar city’s polling centres has not yet been announced, observers and journalists estimated that at most, around 20,000 people had voted in the provincial capital. They based their estimate on what they had seen in the 2018 parliamentary poll when, according to Azadi Radio reporter Sadiq Reshtinai, an estimated 25,000 people had voted (although according to the IEC’s official figures in 2018 the overall turnout in the city was 42,558). The 20,000 figure was also reflected in the partial turnout figures IEC officials in Kabul released on the evening of Election Day (see AAN’s previous dispatch here): 25,153 from 43 centres, assuming that these involved the reported data from the city and maybe some nearby areas, such as Dand (the total number of planned polling centres for Kandahar city was 34).

Two civil society activists and a local journalist, none of whom wanted to be named, said they feared insecurity in the province would provide an opportunity for the number of votes to be inflated and that the announced turnout would be higher than what could be expected from the insecure districts. The activists said that, since government presence was limited only to these districts’ headquarters, observers had also not been able to observe the turnout, the voting and the counting. They feared both pre and post-election ballot stuffing.

An agent for the Abdullah team from Spin Boldak told AAN “All the ballot boxes were under the complete control of the district governor and the district police chief. Therefore, it was hard for observers to see whether the officials did ballot stuffing or not.” (For reporting on systematic fraud in Kandahar, and particularly Spin Boldak, during the 2009 presidential election, see this previous AAN reporting.)

Kandahar: reported turnout

According to the latest IEC figures, 167 of Kandahar’s 174 planned polling centres, and 1,567 of Kandahar’s planned polling stations, were open on election day. Seven centres, with a total of 17 polling centres, were reported closed. Kandahar, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of almost 194,000 votes.

Turnout in Kandahar in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at around 30 per cent. The latest IEC figures put turnout in this election a little higher (around 35 per cent), which seems unlikely, based on election day observation in Kandahar city, the lacklustre campaign and relative lack of political jockeying ahead of the election, as well as the observed reluctance of people to come out to vote in the face of Taleban threats. As indicated by observers on the ground, the results and voting patterns in the more remote districts will need, in particular, to be closely scrutinised.

2. Takhar/Taloqan election day observation

AAN visited ten polling centres in Taloqan city, capital of Takhar province, on election day and spoke to IEC officials, observers, journalists, a number of presidential candidate agents and voters.

Polling station in Sayed Abdullah Boys high school in Taloqan, Takhar on election day. Photo: Obaid Ali, 2019

Takhar: No power, internet or phone connection  

On 23 September, electricity pylons that transmit power from Tajikistan to Takhar province were destroyed during clashes between the Afghan forces and Taleban in Kunduz province. Takhar province was without electricity for almost a week before the presidential election. Some government institutions were using generators during official working hours. During the nights, city restaurants and stores that had generators were full of people watching television programmes or the news and charging their mobile phones.

On 26 September, Taleban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid sent messages to journalists saying they had warned telecommunication companies in the north to switch off their networks. He said if the instruction was ignored, telecommunication towers would be destroyed. He also told AAN by message that this instruction might be enforced all around the country.

Mobile phone networks and internet connections were largely out of service from 27 September until 2 October. This caused serious problems not only for the IEC trying to communicate with staff in the field, but also for government institutions and local people. For this reason, it has been difficult to report on the election in Takhar’s 16 districts, or even other parts of the city the author did not visit. To meet local officials, presidential campaigners, local journalists and civil society workers, one had to find their offices or their houses and knock on the door to see if anyone was available to talk.

Takhar: security  

During election day, direct attacks against a few polling centres in the northwest of Taloqan city disrupted voting. IEC workers and locals told AAN about these attacks while we met in a polling centre in the city. They said that, in the late morning of election day, two rockets shot from unknown areas targeted a polling centre near Takhar University. No casualties were reported, but it disrupted voting in a nearby polling centre. IEC workers, speaking to AAN on election day, said they thought that because of the Taleban’s rocket attacks, most of the voters would prefer to stay away from polling centres.

The security forces had set up no visible check posts or security belts in Taloqan city or around the city, as had been observed during the 2014 and 2018 elections. For the protection of the polling centres, NDS and national police were assigned in each polling centre. AAN tried to meet security officials, but was unable to contact them for further information.

There were also serious clashes reported in some districts in the northern parts of Takhar province.

Takhar: turnout 

Turnout in Taloqan, compared to previous elections, appeared very low. AAN’s observer visited ten polling centres inside the city and in all of them only a limited number of people had come to vote. For example, in Abu Usman Boys High School, with 3,419 registered voters (see IEC voter registration data here) and ten polling stations, the number of voters by mid-day had only reached 750. In Al-Faruq Boys High School at late morning, the head of the polling centre said that out of a total of 2,348 registered voters, only 537 people had cast their votes. In Khatayan Boys School, only 308 voters out of a total of 1,601 registered voters had cast their votes by late morning. By late afternoon, when AAN visited polling centres again to see if the number of voters had increased, the polling centres were empty. IEC workers in one of these polling centres told AAN that they were tired of sitting around and playing games on their mobile phones. “We are here to work,” they said. “But if people don’t come to vote, it is not our problem. It is their choice.” The IEC workers in these polling centres did not provide further details about the number of voters that had come. Instead, they said the total figures would be released after the count, two hours later.

Locals and IEC workers commented on what appeared to have been a remarkably low turnout. Several of them blamed the government’s failure to win people’s trust and support. A local elder said that lots of people did not take part because of the failure of the government to deliver services. Haji Qasim, another local elder and campaigner for one of the presidential tickets in the 2014 election said: “Apart from promises, I haven’t seen any outcome of my work with candidates. Therefore, I no longer campaign for any candidate and I don’t allow my family and relatives to take part in the election.” A teacher in Taloqan told AAN that people were tired of fake promises. He added that candidates only come when they need locals’ support, but when the people need the candidates, they are not available.

Because of the shutdown of mobile phone networks, it is not yet possible to say how the vote went (either turnout, or technically, voter lists and BVV devices etc) in Takhar’s 16 districts, or, indeed, if it took place at all in the heavily-contested districts of the Mawara-ye Kokcha area: Khwaja Bahauddin, Khwaja Ghar, Yangi Qala and Dasht-e Qala. Local officials a day before election told the author that no election had been planned in Darqad district.

Takhar: voting

A number of polling centres that AAN visited during election day faced technical problems with the BVV devices and printers. In several polling centres, the BVV devices either had no charge to operate or did not connect with the provided power bank. In a few others, the devices did not accept the IEC workers’ log-in code. This caused delays to some centres in opening on time (7:00 am). In one polling centre where the BVV device rejected the IEC worker’s log-in code, this AAN observer was asked for help. In another polling centre at 7:30 am, the head of the polling centre was running around without noticing that the BVV device had no charge at all (the device was later plugged into a power bank).

The voter list was another issue in some places. For example, in Pir Muhammad Khaksar mosque polling centre, two voters who were registered there were not allowed to vote. Their tazkeras had a sticker from that polling centre, but the BVV device rejected them. Similar issues were seen in a few other polling centres too.

AAN’s observer followed the entire process to assess how long it would take for a voter to cast a vote. To smooth the process of voting IEC had posted voters’ lists in each polling centre and had assigned a designated worker to look at tazkera and instruct voters where to go. At each polling station, another IEC worker checked the tazkera again before letting the voter in. Once inside, at three separate desks, the IEC staff 1) checked the tazkera with a special torch, 2) captured the biometric data of the voter (fingerprints and photograph) and 3) handed over the ballot paper and inked the voter’s finger. The voter then proceeded to the voting booth and cast their vote. The entire process took on average three to four minutes per voter.

Mahbubullah, a local IEC official, told AAN that because of the telecommunication shut-down and lack of internet connection, the BVV devices would be sent entire to the IEC in Kabul. He added that all data would be entered into BVV devices and that the IEC office in Kabul would connect the BVV devices to the internet and count the turnout figure.

In the polling centres visited during the election day, AAN encountered some observers from the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), Afghan Civil Society Forum (ASCF), as well as candidate agents who were observing the vote for the two incumbent presidential candidates: Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Local IEC official Mahbubullah told AAN the IEC had prepared observation cards for all candidates, but that only a few candidates had assigned observers (he did not specify which).

Local journalist Abdul Ghafur Ibrahimi told AAN that only three presidential candidates had held large gatherings in Takhar. The others, he said, had had no campaign activities in the province.

Takhar: reported turnout 

According to the latest IEC figures, 169 of Takhar’s 229 planned polling centres, and 791 of Takhar’s 1,026 planned polling stations, were open on election day. 60 centres with 235 polling centres were closed. Takhar, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of around 64,000 votes. Turnout in Takhar in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at over 60 per cent. The current turnout seems to be coming in at less than 20 per cent, which seems to fit the conditions and observations, although large numbers of votes cast in remote or insecure areas will still need to be closely scrutinised.

3. Wardak/Maidan Shahr election day observation

AAN visited two polling centres in Maidan Shahr, Wardak’s provincial capital; one outside the municipal office in the Provincial Governor’s compound and a second in Awal Baba school, and spoke to IEC workers, ANSF personnel, election observers and one voter.

Wardak: security 

The roads in and around Maidan Shahr were almost entirely deserted. A Taleban statement issued two days before the election asked “fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that, may God forbid, no one is harmed.” Civilians in Wardak, it seemed, took the threat seriously. On the Kabul-Ghazni Highway, between the gates of Kabul and Maidan Shahr, there was only one single civilian vehicle—an armoured Land Cruiser—on the normally bustling 30 kilometre stretch of road. It was flanked front and rear by Afghan National Police Humvees.

Afghan Border Forces fight from inside the grounds of the Awal Baba school voting centre in Maidan Shahr. Sher Mohammad, pictured, said Taliban fighters were 200m away. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2019

The majority of violence in Maidan Shahr involved indirect fire, especially rockets, rather than targeted attacks. This was experienced directly by the author while visiting the polling centre in the provincial governor’s compound. At 11 am, while speaking with Rahmatullah, a 19 year-old fIrst-time IEC worker from Maidan Shahr, a rocket struck. He said it was maybe the seventh that had struck the city that morning. No one flinched. Then another whistled through the air above, scattering election workers and security personnel, before thudding somewhere east of the city.

By the time we reached our vehicle outside the main entrance to the compound, nine rockets had struck close enough to hear in less than 30 minutes. Machine gun bursts in the distance were becoming more frequent as well.

The Awal Baba School polling centre was a short drive away, approximately half a kilometre west of the city centre. The streets were deserted. The road immediately outside the school was open to traffic, though there was none. Two men from the Afghan Border Force manned the open school gate. Inside, an IED had been found and removed from the front yard, between the gate and the polling centre, earlier in the morning.

By midday, the sound of machine gunfire could be heard outside almost constantly. The IEC manager for the centre, Ehsanullah, blamed the poor security situation for the dismally low turnout. “Listen,” he said. “There is fighting. People are staying in their homes.”

At 12:45 pm, a rocket struck 150 metres away. Another followed soon after, sending a column of dust into the air, which was just visible above the treetops from the school. IEC workers and observers hurried into the corridor to get away from the classroom windows should the next rocket land closer.

A group of Afghan Border Force soldiers fought from a small amphitheatre on the eastern edge of the school. One of them, Shah Muhammad from Kapisa, rotated between a belt-fed machine gun, which he fired from the hip until smoke rose along its length, and a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Incoming rounds from Taleban fighters that Shah Muhammad said were about 200 meters away sounded overhead. The men ran and crouched in the lee of the amphitheatre stairs when a rocket fizzed above and, having overshot its mark, exploded somewhere beyond the school.

According to additional information received from Sayedabad district centre, one of the more populous district towns of Wardak province, continuous shelling – by the Taleban against the district centre and by government forces against surrounding villages held by the Taleban – prevented people from voting. The shelling was so intense that the local population was even unable to bury a prominent local tribal elder, who had passed away on election day, on the same day as tradition requires.

Wardak: turnout and voting

In Maidan Shahr, the first polling centre visited was located in the provincial governor’s compound, outside the province’s municipality office. At 11 am, Rahmatullah, the IEC worker from Maidan Shahr, explained there were 15 stations in the centre, including three for women. Three hours after the polls opened, his station had received “10 to 15 votes.”

A female police officer conducting security checks on women entering the voting centre said two had come through since the polling centre opened three hours before.

At the Awal Baba School polling centre, a two-storey school building, IEC workers at six stations waited for 2,170 registered voters, including 304 women to turn up. After five hours of voting, according to the centre’s manager Ehsanullah, only 20 people had cast ballots, two of whom were women. It was Ehsanullah’s second presidential election as an IEC worker. The difference between 2014 and 2019 was two-fold, he said: “This time, the process is better, but people aren’t attending because of [the lack of] security.” He anticipated a total of 50 to 60 votes at his centre once the polls closed for the day. Even that may have been optimistic.

Because of the extremely low turnout in Maidan Shahr, AAN was unable to make any meaningful assessment regarding the proficiency of the voting process on the ground.

AAN only witnessed one person voting at Awal Baba over a two-hour period, though part of that time was spent outside with members of the ANSF. The process was without incident. Abdul Wahid, who dropped his vote in a clear plastic box alongside three other ballots at 1 pm, was the first voter to arrive in half an hour. “We’re voting for the future of Afghanistan,” he said. “Although we’re not sure the process will be transparent, we would at least like to try to select the person we want.” With fighting still audible outside, Wahid said he had been worried about the Taleban threats but unlike a majority of registered voters, it was not enough to put him off casting his vote. “We’re used to these conditions,” he said. “It doesn’t scare me.”

The biometric machines distributed to polling stations appeared to be working smoothly. The main problem was that streaming YouTube videos, as at least one bored IEC worker was doing in Awal Baba, was not their intended use (with internet connections, the devices were apparently permitted some browsing functions).

The mobile phone network in the provincial capital was not affected by the bans instituted in many of Wardak’s other districts.

Wardak: safety of the vote 

There was a handful of observers present in the polling centre. Sayed Yaqubshud was twice the age of most observers that were there. He was volunteering for Hezb-eIslami, whose leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, had made statements days prior to the election threatening a return to arms if the vote was found to be fraudulent. Yakubshud was satisfied with the process–at least the steps he could see. Even though no one was voting, he said, “The transparency is good.” He did, however, express scepticism about steps in the process after the ballots had left the voting centre. He also believed that if there was fraud, it would be evident in districts like Jalrez and Nerkh, where, he said, no one would vote. “If there are votes in those boxes,” he said, “we will know.”

Wardak: reported turnout

According to the latest IEC figures, 83 of Wardak’s 106 planned polling centres, and 392 of Wardak’s 516 planned polling stations, were open on election day. 23 centres with 124 polling centres were closed. Wardak, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of a little over 20,000 votes. Turnout in Wardak in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at over 40 per cent. The current turnout seems to be coming at around 13 per cent, which is not high but might still be inflated, given the fact that even in the provincial capital few people were voting.

4. Balkh/Mazar-e Sharif provincial reporting

AAN visited eight polling centres in Mazar-e Sharif city, capital of Balkh province, on election day and spoke to IEC officials, observers, journalists, agents and voters.

Balkh: security

 Mazar-e Sharif, capital of Balkh province, was quiet on election day with not many security forces on the streets. Five or six policemen were stationed in front and inside of each polling centre. Only in one of those visited, Ali Chopan High School, were there also two people from NDS (recognised as such by AAN’s local driver). Otherwise, the only visible security measure was a ban on trucks entering and leaving the city. There were no visible checkpoints in the city. In the evening before the election, the provincial head of FEFA for Balkh commented on the lack of visible security measures, saying, “It’s so quiet, it does not seem there will be an election.” There did not appear to be a telecommunication ban, as had been the case in some other northern areas, although the networks were sometimes weak. In some districts, such as Sholgar, AAN noticed that only some of the networks were active.

Balkh: turnout

Observed turnout was extremely low in Mazar city compared to the Wolesi Jirga Election in 2018 (which this observer witnessed) and other elections in the past. In all eight polling centres AAN observed there were no lines and voters could easily go and cast their votes. For example, at the first polling centre visited in Sultan Razia High School on Saturday morning, there was no queue, just ten to 12 people arriving one after another. In October 2018, more than 50 people were waiting outside this centre queuing up to vote. In the polling centre in Oil and Gas Institute in Mazar-e Sharif, at 11:40 am the total turnout for all seven polling stations was 406, while in October 2018, at 11:30 already more than 400 voters had appeared in only three of the centre’s polling stations.

Civil society activist and head of a local think tank, the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization (AHRRAO), Hayatullah Jawad, told AAN they had expected the turnout to be lower. He thought fear from the Taleban and disappointment in the political leaders in the government were the main reasons for this. Another civil society activist who asked not to be named told AAN people were afraid of the Taleban after they warned they would use violence to disrupt the election. A taxi driver in Sheikh Seddiq Shahab High School polling centre who spoke while cleaning his inked finger after voting, explained why he was voting, but thought others would not. People in Mazar city were able to come out to vote, he said, but in the districts they would be too afraid of the Taleban. He himself regularly took passengers to districts along roads where Taleban were present – which was why he was so assiduously cleaning his inked finger.

Qari Muhammad Taqi, imam of a mosque in Mazar and taxi driver, thought people were disappointed because candidates promise many things, but do not keep their promises. “They voted in the past hoping things would get better,” he told AAN, “but they only got worse. People say, ‘None of the presidential candidates serve the nation’.”

Another factor that may have affected turnout was that there appeared to have been no organised transport to ferry voters to the polling centres. During the 2018 parliamentary elections, some of the candidates provided transportation to people so they could easily reach the polling centres.

Balkh: voting

Voting, when it happened, appeared to go relatively well, albeit with some technical problems. The first polling centre AAN visited was Sultan Razia High School. Although the centre opened on time, voting only began at 7:40 when the first voters showed up. Ten to 12 people were observed coming to cast their votes that morning. When voters came, an IEC staff member near the polling station checked people’s names against the voter list hanging on the polling centre’s outside wall. The rest of the procedure – identifying voters on the print-out voter list, reading the QR code on their stickers and matching them with the BVV, taking their photographs, inking their fingers and printing the code to be fixed onto the ballot paper, so that they could finally cast their votes – went smoothly. The entire process took two to a maximum of three minutes for each voter.

In most of the eight polling stations visited, the BVV device stopped working at times or was running very slowly. There were voters whose names were on the printed list, but the BVV software did not recognise them, and as a result, some voters were deprived of their right to vote. In the Sheikh Seddiq Shahab High School polling centre, a man came to vote, but the BVV showed his sticker number was for a woman, so he could not vote. He said that in the parliamentary election he had been able to vote. In the polling centre in the Ustad Wejdan High School, there was a case with a printer that was not working, and the IEC staff asked for another one. This took half an hour, and then voting started again. In polling station number 4 of Ustad Wejdan High School, which was for women, the BVV device was not working and many women left without voting.

There were candidate agents for Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani in all polling stations and in three cases, also for Rahmatullah Nabil, and in one case for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. There was also an independent observer each from FEFA and the Afghanistan Civil Society Forum in each polling station.

In Ghulam Rasul Sanayi School, where the turnout was very low, most IEC staff were sitting relaxed behind their desks, with only one polling station busy serving voters. Sheikh Seddiq Shahab High School was a little more crowded, but it seemed not because more voters had turned up; voters complained that the IEC staff were working very slowly. They said the BVV was very slow and that was why everything was taking longer.

Balkh: reported turnout

According to the latest IEC figures, 156 of Balkh’s 282 planned polling centres, and 980 of Balkh’s 1,467 planned polling stations, were open on election day. 126 centres with 487 polling centres were closed. Balkh, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of almost 75,000 votes. Turnout in Balkh in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at almost 44 per cent. The reported turnout seems to be coming in at around 16 per cent. This seems to fit the conditions and observations, although large numbers of votes cast in remote or insecure areas will still need to be closely scrutinised.

Forthcoming provincial reporting

For more election day reporting from the provinces, see also AAN’s forthcoming reports from Zabul, Herat and Bamyan. The turnout and polling centre/polling station figures for these provinces are:

According to the latest IEC figures, 36 of Zabul’s 43 planned polling centres, and 197 of its 213 planned polling stations, were open on election day. 7 centres with 16 polling centres were reported closed – in an earlier update this had been 8 centres with 21 polling stations. Zabul according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of a little over 18,000 votes, which would be a turnout of around 28 per cent. This seems implausibly high, particularly since turnout in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at a little over 20 per cent.

According to the latest IEC figures, 253 of Herat’s 300 planned polling centres, and 1582 of its 1738 planned polling stations, were open on election day. 47 centres with 156 polling centres were closed. Herat, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of almost 130,000 votes, which would be a turnout of almost 23 per cent. Turnout in Herat in the 2018 parliamentary election stood at almost 60 per cent. The turnout figure does not seems implausible, but large numbers of votes from remote or insecure areas will still need to be closely scrutinised.

According to the latest IEC figures, 219 of Bamyan’s planned 220 polling centres, and 647 of the 649 planned polling stations, were open on election day. Bamyan, according to the latest IEC figures, reported a total of around 84,000 votes, which would be a turnout of almost 50 per cent. In the 2018 parliamentary election Bamyan’s turnout was reported to have been 75 per cent.

Edited by Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert

 

(1) The latest turnout figures from the IEC are taken from the list posted by IEC commissioner Mawlana Mohammad Abdullah on his Facebook page on 3 October 2019.

The turnout figures for the 2018 parliamentary elections have been taken from this dataset and concern valid votes.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape