Police patrols in front of a polling centre in Kandahar city. The bigger voter turnout compared to the 2009 election was partially owed to better security, writes Borhan Osman. Traffic dwindled down from Thursday on, helped by the establishment of more check-points and the frisking of citizens on roads. Photo: Borhan Osman
Election day has already been praised for the high voter turnout and the relatively peaceful atmosphere it went down in. Pictures from Kandahar, a province perceived as notoriously insecure, surprised many, showing men and women lining up in long queues to vote. A look at the micro-level, however, reveals a more nuanced picture. Borhan Osman, who was in Kandahar before, during and after the elections, reports on various dynamics that influenced the vote, among them the security situation and the lack of observers in the districts. He also diagnoses a change in Kandaharis’ voting behaviour: the weakening of tribal links and affiliations that have traditionally been a strong factor dictating who rules Afghanistan.
Turnout and security
In the few days before the vote, one could feel uncertainty and anxiety in Kandahar city. There was an eerie silence from Thursday on, the day the campaigning time ended, as many remembered the last presidential election. On election day in 2009, Kandahar city had been rocked by a series of heavy explosions just as the polling stations were about to open. They forced voters to stay home and wait until midday when it finally became calm again. This contributed to a low voter turnout; the districts were, of course, worse in both insecurity and turnout. Kandahar province as a whole produced around 250,000 votes then. (1) This time around, the IEC’s provincial chief, Abdul Hadi Dawari, had not anticipated more, despite his praise of the massive rallies during the campaign period. “We expect a turnout of 200,000, but have prepared for 600,000,” he told AAN two days before the elections. Two days after, he had to correct his estimates, saying that 350,000 Kandaharis had voted throughout the province. “This was utterly beyond our expectations. And we are impressed.”
Many observers had expected voters would be reluctant to come out in the morning, thinking they would rather carefully observe the security situation first for possible violence and would show up only when they could be sure it remained calm. However, long queues of voters had formed already in the early morning and immediately corrected any previous, lower turnout estimates, at least in Kandahar city. Reports of shortages of ballot papers came from various places in the city and districts, but the next day, provincial officials of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said only a few centres had faced shortages and only in Kandahar city. These discrepancies in reporting could not yet be cleared up; it is one of many fields to be watched over the next days. Ballots ran out, for example, in the men’s polling station in the Zarghona Ana High School’s by 1 pm. After waiting for more than one hour with no delivery of more ballots, dozens of people left to other polling stations (new ballots arrived later and voting continued, though). The IEC later said the shortage was caused by an uneven distribution of the crowd of voters, with a couple of nearby centres receiving far fewer of them.
Not all parts of Kandahar saw that impressive a turnout as in the provincial capital. Although the turnout in the districts close to Kandahar city, such as Panjwayi, Arghandab, Zhari and Dand looked quite high compared to previous elections, faraway districts which are also less secure, such as Maiwand, Shorabak, Shah Wali Kot, Mianashin and Khakrez seem to have seen significantly fewer voters, according to locals AAN spoke to. However, AAN could not quantify the turnout as the IEC would not release district-level data and observers were either not present or had not collected the total numbers. In some areas, the lack of security added to the complications, like in Maruf district, a cluster of homes on a hillside. The police had fired their guns to indicate to the villagers they controlled the area and to ‘invite’ people to come and vote, but then, when the people flocked towards the voting centre, the Taleban started to fire at them.
It is still difficult to get a clear picture from these districts. However, one thing seems to be agreed by all available sources from most of the districts, especially the remote ones: there were either no or very women who voted.
The bigger turnout this time compared to the 2009 election is partially owed to better security. In the town, security was extraordinarily tight. Traffic started to dwindle from Thursday morning on, helped by new measures such as the establishment of more check-points and the frisking of citizens on roads. In addition, for 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until the end of the voting on Saturday, only vehicles with special permission were allowed to move. The increased presence of security forces made it almost impossible for the Taleban to launch a successful attack within city boundaries. Districts, too, saw more Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. According to the provincial security officials, only three men died, two of them in the Maiwand and Maruf districts. Whether that figure is true or not, no huge incident was reported from across Kandahar from any other source, including locals in districts AAN talked to.
Fraud and poor observation
Most of the reporting of fraud points to sporadic rigging. These reports include incidents of early ballot-stuffing and the intimidation of observers in places such as Arghandab, Ghorak, Takhta Pul, Dand, Panjwayi and Zhari districts. The provincial branch of the IECC said they have registered over 180 complaints, although the IECC website shows only 86, probably due to the slow updating. (2) In one example, female observers from one presidential campaign team in Arghandab reported in a videoed testimony that they had been prevented from observing, being told that they could come and have a look only if they supported another of the presidential candidates. In Panjwayi, in a few places, police forced people to vote for one of the three frontrunners. In one instance, the police tried to expel the IEC’s District Field Coordinator (DFC) and IEC workers from polling stations, but failed after the district governor and police chief were informed, as local elders told AAN. In Dand, in one centre, all observers were forced out during the counting, according to independent observers.
Besides these sporadic reports of rigging, both the local IEC officials as well as members of presidential candidates’ teams say they are suspicious about more systematic fraud in the border district of Spin Boldak and also in neighbouring Arghistan. There, counting started only the day after the elections and ballot boxes arrived to Kandahar city two days after the vote – a delay of one day (the rule to count the same night and deliver to the provincial capital the morning after has been set up to reduce the possibility of post-vote manipulations). One local IEC official, talking to AAN, implicated that most of the boxes would probably be disqualified. The officials had grown suspicious when the District Field Coordinators in Spin Boldak lost contact with the IEC centre in Kandahar during the entire election day, with the police being in touch instead to report that “all things were going well”, according to sources AAN talked to. Here, too, several agents for one of the presidential candidates were beaten and detained by ANP and the border police for trying to observe the vote. In Arghistan, the district governor asked the IEC to open polling stations for women “queuing in hundreds”. The local DFC, however, found that there were no women and that the governor had apparently collected voter cards of women to cast them en masse.
The fraud or attempts of fraud at least, do not seem to be confined to these anecdotal examples. However, it will take more time to find out about the remote districts given the absence of observers there. For example, Ashraf Ghani’s team registered all its 41 complaints with the IECC from five districts and Kandahar city only, with almost no observers in any of the ten other districts. The scarce observation in remote districts was in sharp contrast to the crowds of observers milling around in Kandahar city’s polling centres. This author felt, too, however, that many of these observers were too young for the job, often merely 17 or 18 years old, and seemingly lacked the courage to talk to IEC staff when the latter did not do their job properly or tried to manipulate.
The vote that broke the tribal stereotypes
Surprising was the atypical lack of tribal considerations in people’s choice, at least of the presidential candidates. Before election day, this author has asked numerous Kandaharis, young and old, men and women, educated and illiterate, as well as men serving in the security forces who they would vote for and why. It seemed that tribally, even ethnically motivated preferences have become a rarity. Touring polling centres during the count, this impression was confirmed when Ashraf Ghani, a non-Durrani Pashtun (3), and Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik (with a Pashtun step father), received most of the votes. Most of those who preferred Ashraf Ghani cited his “academic education” and his “plans for the economy of Afghanistan”. Supporters of Abdullah Abdullah mentioned his background in jihad and him having spoken out against Pakistan.
While campaigning in Kandahar, both Ghani and Abdullah had emphasised their “blood bond” with the people of Kandahar (actually geographical affiliation of their parents as none of the two hail from the Durrani tribes that dominate the south). Abdullah Abdullah said his father was a Tokhi by tribe from Zabul province, who lived in Kandahar. (4) Ghani said that his mother hailed from Kandahar (he addressed his audience with “uncles!” – mamagano) (5). But looking at why people in the end said they voted for one of the two, this plan did not work out, clearly defying the stereotype of ‘tribal affiliation deciding who rules’. Whether this is a widespread emerging pattern or confined to specific settings, such as this recent election in Kandahar, remains to be watched.
(1) It is true that in 2009 around 250,000 votes were cast in the press election, but around 180,000 were disqualified in the ECC-led sampled audit, leaving a little over 70,000. In 2010, there were also around 75,000 votes left after the IEC and ECC disqualifications. There are indications Kandahar will be facing disqualifications this time around as well, but it is unclear how significant. There are apparently at least 200 complaints registered with the IECC.
(2) Later on, on 9 April, the IEC sent this update: “Among the 1,825 complaints registered and reported on 9 April, Kandahar PIECC forwarded 30 complaints to the central IECC for adjudication due to security threats at provincial level. The central IECC will adjudicate them under exceptional cases (Electoral Law article 66.1).”
(3) On the Pashtun tribes, here is a modified footnote from Thomas Ruttig’s dispatch on the so-called Durrani Jirga in Kabul that had tried to unify the Pashtun candidates behind one of them.
There are five tribal ‘confederations’, each with a large number of tribes and sub-tribes besides the Durrani (Abdali), the Ghilzay, the Karlani, the Sarbani and the Gharghasht. Durranis are predominantly living in the south and have long been almost the only suppliers of rulers, with few exceptions, for the past almost three centuries. According to some Afghan sources, the Durrani ‘confederation’ was more a political than a purely ethnic construct, composed by the founder of the 1747 Afghan empire, Ahmad Shah Durrani, from tribes who supported him. For this high degree of differentiation, the Pashtuns are not ‘a tribe’ but ‘tribes’, or an ‘ethnic group’.
(4) There are two narratives about the family background of Abdullah Abdullah’s father, hotly debated already in the 2009 elections. He himself says that his father was a Kandahari, who lived in Kabul. This account is contested by others – a mix of Tajiks and Pashtuns who, for different reasons, would prefer him not to be Pashtun or at least don’t want him to say he was. They claim to know that it was not his biological father who was from Kandahar, but a stepfather who raised Abdullah. According to this (unproven) narrative, Abdullah’s biological father was a Tajik.
(5) In Afghanistan’s tribal politics and social relationships, the blood bonds do not stop at the closer family level, but go far beyond. For example, if one’s mother comes from Kandahar or a certain tribe there, he is considered ‘a nephew’ for all Kandaharis in a broader sense. Although this is not a very strong bond, politicians do try to play it up. In Ashraf Ghani’s case, he did evoke a feeling of kinship when he explained that his mother was Kandahari, according to those who attended the March 28 rally.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020