On September 28th, 2019, Afghanis voted for their next president. The two front-runners in the race, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, had previously faced off in the 2014 presidential election. The 2014 election, which ended in widespread accusations of fraud and, eventually, the US-mediated formation of a national unity government based on the equal sharing of power between the two men, was the first time in history that there had been a democratic transition of power in Afghanistan (Byrd, 2015). Like that election, the 2019 election was plagued by issues. In addition to the ever-present Taliban threat, after preliminary results were announced at the end of last year (with Ghani barely victorious at 50.5%), Abdullah again charged Ghani with election rigging and extensive fraud.
Voter turnout for the election was far lower than in previous years, below 20% participation of the less-than ten million registered voters (of a population of 35.5 million). Taliban threats and attacks led to a reduction of public voting sites from more than 7,000 in 2014, to around 4,500 in the recent election, and public fears of more violence significantly contributed to the suppressed turnout. Najib Jabarkhel, a voter in Kabul, explained to the New York Times that the voter turnout was so low “because of threats. The Taliban have threatened that if you go to vote, bring your shroud with you.” (Mashal, 2019. Similarly, public distrust of both the candidates and the election process gave voters another reason to stay home. Among other incidents, the previous election, a parliamentary election in the fall, was also rocked by corruption and fraud – with nine of the twelve elections commissioners being sent to jail (Mashal, 2019).
The biometric voting machines, used for the first time in an Afghan presidential election, were also partially responsible for such a low vote tally. Of the votes that were cast, hundreds of thousands were invalidated for irregularities, including “duplicate QR codes, fingerprint discrepancies, and problems with voter registration stickers, photographs or ‘timelogs’, ie the votes had been cast before polling stations officially opened, at 7 am, or after they closed, at 5 pm” (Adili, 2019).
After the election, more than 20,000 complaints were filed with the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). Though many of the complaints have since been declared invalid, on February 5th the Commission ordered the partial audit of almost a quarter of a million votes. A member of the commission dismissed the audit by saying that “the election commission says the votes are legitimate, and the complainers are saying no — the votes are not legitimate. We have doubts about the election commission’s decisions — and to consider those votes valid, we have imposed these conditions and ordered the audit so we can convince the complainers and assure ourselves” (Mashal, 2020). A spokesperson for Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammad Natiqi, attacked the IECC for not taking a stronger stance by asserting that “overall, the commissions are very weak: there is doubt, they act amateurish, they were very weak and they have even confessed their weakness.” In this case, the opposition is not alone in its criticisms of the commission: “This has been a very vague decision and it further prolongs the elections and will not be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction,” said Ahmad Zubair Habibzada, a spokesman for the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA).
The Afghani election system requires a simple majority for victory, otherwise a runoff election in called. With Ghani only above 50% by less than half a point, there is a very real possibility that any changes in the status of the disputed votes could force another runoff between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
At this point, it has been four months since the Afghani presidential election, and a clear winner has yet to be decided. Whatever the result, one has to wonder if public faith in elections in Afghanistan can easily return. If the next step for Afghanistan is another runoff election, it would likely happen by fall of this year. However, in a nation with a recent history of heavily contested elections (two of them between Ghani and Abdullah), it is hard to see how the results will be accepted by the losing candidate. The Afghani government, paralyzed and unstable from the unresolved presidential election, is now faced with navigating a potential peace agreement with the Taliban.
There may not be a simple solution to stabilize Afghan elections as long as the Taliban remains a major threat, but it is certainly possible for the two leading candidates to come to an agreement (in the same manner as 2014) to prevent any further internal conflicts. Intra-government power sharing between Ghani and Abdullah was successfully introduced after the contested 2014 election. Learning from the failures of the previous Afghan unity government, another electoral nightmare can be avoided, while also stabilizing the nation and bolstering government legitimacy.
Adili, Ali Yawar, and Jelena Bjelica. “ Afghanistan’s 2019 Election: Disputed Biometric Votes Endanger Election Results .” Afghanistan Analysts Network, 7 Nov. 2019, www.afghanistan-analysts.org/afghanistans-2019-election-23-disputed-biometric-votes-endanger-election-results/.
“Afghanistan Presidential Election: Ghani Set for Second Term after Initial Results.” BBC News, BBC, 22 Dec. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-50883812.
“Afghanistan Presidential Election: Rivals Declare Victory after Record Low Turnout.” BBC News, BBC, 30 Sept. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-49874970.
“Afghans Outraged With Delay in Election Results.” TOLOnews, 7 Feb. 2020, tolonews.com/afghanistan/afghans-outraged-delay-election-results.
Byrd, William A. “Understanding Afghanistan’s 2014 Presidential Election.” United States Institute of Peace (2015).
Mashal, Mujib, et al. “Afghanistan Election Draws Low Turnout Amid Taliban Threats.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Sept. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/09/28/world/asia/afghanistan-president-election-taliban.html.
Mashal, Mujib. “Afghan Votes Will Be Audited, Extending Monthslong Election Crisis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/world/asia/afghanistan-election-vote-audit.html.
“Nearly 10,000 Election Complaints Rejected: IECC.” TOLOnews, 15 Jan. 2020, tolonews.com/elections-2019/nearly-10000-election-complaints-rejected-iecc.