As the polls closed and the counting of votes in Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections began, rain was still pouring down in many parts of Afghanistan. Despite the weather, first impressions suggest turnout was good, at least in the cities. Taleban violence was worse than on an average day in early April and their threats kept polling centres closed and voters at home in some areas, but the number of major insurgent attacks was far fewer than the Taleban had promised or that the country had feared. Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark report (with input from the whole AAN team).
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.
Information, in particular on how the rural areas fared, will however trickle in far more slowly. The areas that are likely to have faced most irregularities are also those from which news takes time to travel. So it will be a few days at least before we have anything near a complete picture of what happened and what it might mean. So far, the reports and the anecdotes indicate that, as usual, the picture will be mixed. But there are already a few themes that can be pulled out.
The most obvious is the absence of the kind of huge security incidents that keep people at home and overshadow the process. Although there was a large number of incidents (the Ministry of Interior reported 140 attacks or attempted attacks by insurgents, and that may not be the full picture yet) the impact of both the individual attacks and the total impression that it gave was, in most cases, limited to a very localised disruption of the vote, and in some cases not even that. The Taleban’s dire warnings that they would be disrupting the elections by all means at their disposal did not, in the end, amount to much at all. The country as a result has breathed a sigh of relief.
Security was tight, at least in the urban centres and at the ‘gates’ to the cities, and seemed well organised. From remoter areas, however, there have been reports and indications of more ‘alternative’ security arrangements, where local commanders and strongmen tried to arrange both the security and the vote. The details of such tactics are likely to emerge in the coming days.
The second theme was the weather. This is the first election in this era that has been held within the constitutionally proscribed timeline. Previous elections were postponed, both because the necessary preparations had not been made in time, and also because the organisers were afraid an election so early in the year would be hampered by snow, rain and floods. It is too early yet to assess what the overall impact has been of an election in springtime, but there have been reports of areas where people could not, or did not dare to vote – for example, fresh snow meant that the risk of avalanche kept voters at home in parts of Daikundi. On the other hand in Gardez, on the eve of voting, people were reported to be praying for rain: “If there is rain at night, there will be mud everywhere and the Taleban will not be able to use their secret routes through the mountains to travel by motorbike and disturb election day.”
Third has been the hunt for fraud. All kinds of people seemed primed to detect, expose and prevent fraud. The domestic observer organisations tried to deploy their members to the areas that had shown high levels of irregularities in the past, while many journalists weighed up the risk of insecurity with the chance of stumbling on a story. The NDS established its own electoral complaints hotline and social media presence.
It is too early to say what the impact has been on how would-be fraudsters may have felt about their chances of perpetrating and getting away with significant rigging. It is possible that the attention has pushed the more brazen forms of fraud into the ‘fringes’ of the country. On the other hand, our own observations – which need further looking into – have unearthed indications that these fringes may be as close as the outskirts of Kabul. Early reporting included allegations from all over the country – as well as discoveries – of ballot stuffing, the hijacking of ballot boxes or polling stations and serious intimidation including preventing voters from voting and observers from witnessing the vote. The fraud may, or may not, be less than in 2009, but working out the scale and the patterns will take time.
The IEC announced during the day that 211 of the polling centres they had planned to open on polling day had had to remain closed because of security. This brings the total number of open polling centres to 6,212 which is 86.6% of the original list of 7,168. If this figure stays stable over the coming days and weeks, this would indicate that the IEC has significantly tightened its control over electoral materials, as compared to 2009 and 2010. In those earlier elections, the number of polling stations open on election day continued to fluctuate during the weeks of counting, due to the large proportion of polling stations that had returned results without ever having actually opened (the so-called ‘ghost polling stations).
The IEC has also already released its first turnout estimate: around seven million votes cast. Several commentators have tried to turn that into a percentage, but turnout figures in Afghanistan are notoriously tricky. Neither the total number of eligible voters, nor the number of voters that hold a voter card is known, and the number of ballots cast tend to include a considerable proportion of fraudulent votes (at least 20-30% in the last two elections). It is difficult to see how it could work out the figure, given how notoriously tricky determining turnout is (not least because there is no register of voters).
There were a lot of complaints about the apparent shortage of ballots in a large number of polling centres across the country. In many areas, polling stations had already started running out of ballot papers by early afternoon. There were reports by electoral staff and voters of large numbers of voters being turned away, often after having waited for hours.
Every election has seen areas run out of ballot papers before the end of polling, sometimes spectacularly so, but it appears to have been much more widespread this time than during earlier elections. Some of the candidates and voters are now claiming intentional marginalisation. Many people will probably be spending the coming days analysing figures to assess whether the IEC can indeed be blamed, or whether this is a byproduct of a system where voters are not assigned to polling stations. The number of ballots printed always exceeds the total number of eligible voters (this year the IEC printed more than fifteen million, so the problem was not that there weren’t enough, but rather that the distribution didn’t match the voting). In the past these large number have sometimes, conversely, been taken as an indication that the IEC intended to defraud the electorate. The main problem is that it is difficult to predict how many people will turn up and in particular where. This is another question to be looked into.
Observer organisations and many civil society activists seem to have already been swept up by enthusiasm. By midday, the director of one of the domestic observer organisations, Afghanistan National Participation Organisation (ANPO), for example, in a press statement emailed to AAN and other organisations was already confident enough to say:
“With a few bumps and bruises the election process continued well into the day with the Afghans overwhelmingly participating in the elections and casting their votes for their candidates. Reports received from the provinces indicated some minor cases of obstruction and fraud as well as unlawful entry into the polling stations was reported in a few provinces, however general census remains optimistic about the elections and its outcome. … The Director of ANPO believes that this has been the best and most incident-free election in Afghanistan’s modern history and it could set the precedence for a historic peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan.”
Another observer organisation, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) released a fairly factual statement in the middle of the day that detailed their findings so far: it noted irregularities and a high turnout and flagged the issue of the shortage of ballot papers. Its preliminary conclusion: “In general, the overall assessment so far indicates that the election process went well.”
Aziz Rafiee, head of Afghanistan Civil Society Forum, like many on social media was elated:
“Today, 5 April, was such an unbelievable day for us. It is great, peaceful and promising. Everyone has a smile on the lips and hope in the eyes. It is elections day. The turnout is almost double in comparison to the past two presidential elections. The provincial reports are amazing. In our history, for the first time, the Afghans said yes to a non-violent transfer of power through this elections. It is because we are a living nation. We hope the results are counted in a professional and transparent way to assure the trust and confidence of people towards this young democracy.”
The enthusiasm is infectious. The relief that the Taleban failed to disrupt the ballot is palpable and many seem to feel that the reports of irregularities that are trickling in are still fairly manageable. However, even in the past elections it took two to three days for the contours of the most pronounced problems to be become clear. And the full magnitude only became apparent after weeks of counting and audits. It will thus be a few more days, and then a few more, before we really know what this election day has been like.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020