Amid Intense Violence, Afghans Show Support for Democracy

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Operation errors and security risks undermined Afghans’ ability to vote. What does it mean for the 2019 presidential elections?

By: Scott Worden

After a three-year delay, Afghanistan finally held its long overdue parliamentary elections over the weekend. The lead up to the elections was marred by intense violence, leading to delays in voting in some provinces, and on Election Day the Taliban claimed to have staged 164 attacks. Overall, the Taliban appeared better prepared than the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversaw the most operationally flawed election since the end of Taliban rule. Nonetheless, the IEC reported that four million Afghans defied the violence to cast their votes, and more are due to vote next Saturday in the delayed election in Kandahar. USIP’s Scott Worden examines the impact of violence, the elections’ credibility and what implications the polls will have for the peace process and the critical 2019 presidential election.

How did violence impact Election Day?

Similar to past elections, the parliamentary elections on Saturday and Sunday took place in the face of exceptional levels of violence. The Taliban threatened to disrupt voting with attacks, and did so. A full picture of security incidents is still emerging, but initial numbers released by the Afghan government show 17 civilians and security personnel killed and 54 wounded in 193 overall attacks. Still, Afghan voters demonstrated their bravery and remarkably strong support for democracy by waiting in long lines, even though they were exposed to possible attacks in many locations across the country. After explosions near some polling stations, voters returned later in the day to vote.

Overall, however, turnout was down significantly from the last elections for president and provincial councils in 2014. This is a product of intimidation by the Taliban as much as direct attacks on Election Day. Several polling centers could not open because election staff failed to show after threats of reprisal issued before Election Day. Delays in opening polling stations and shortages of materials during voting are also a product of poor security that makes transport of ballots across the country unduly difficult. And more than a third of planned polling locations were closed in advance of the elections due to security concerns.

From a technical perspective, how well were the elections conducted? Were there any major glitches in the biometric machines or other issues that could imperil the elections’ credibility?

Unfortunately, these elections had greater operational problems than any other Afghan elections since the end of Taliban rule. Initial observer reports indicate a host of problems that prevented voters from casting ballots in many areas: polling stations opened late, reducing the time to vote; new voter lists had not been properly vetted and many people could not find their names and left frustrated without casting a ballot; and it appears that counting procedures were not followed consistently across the country. For the first time since 2001, polling was extended into a second day in approximately 400 polling centers where problems on the first day impeded the ability to vote. The extension allows greater enfranchisement, which is important, but also exposes greater risks of fraud because the ballots and results have to be safeguarded overnight, when it is difficult to observe the process.

The biggest change in this election was the last-minute introduction of biometric voter verification machines, which took photos and fingerprints of voters to reduce double voting and ballot stuffing. Although the machines worked in some cases, the overall effort appears to have been a failure, as many machines did not make it to the polling centers on time and confusion about how to use them delayed the voting process in areas they did reach. The IEC now needs to upload all the data from the machines once they return to Kabul over the coming week. That will reveal a clearer picture of whether technology ultimately helped or hurt the integrity of the vote.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission has said that four million voters cast their ballots on Saturday. What significance does this have for the more critical 2019 presidential election and Afghanistan’s democracy?

While voter turnout was low, there are some positive signs for the scheduled vote on April 20 of next year. Voter enthusiasm appears to have been high, and the low turnout reflects several factors that can be corrected for the presidential vote. The four-million vote total does not include Kandahar or Ghazni provinces, which provided more than 600,000 votes in the last presidential election. (The Kandahar election will take place on October 27 and was delayed by the Taliban assassination last week of Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Razziq; the Ghazni election was postponed indefinitely due to ongoing insecurity.) Also, problems with the supply of election workers, ballots, voter lists, and biometric machines may have reduced turnout by a few hundred thousand votes. Better training and organization can fix the operational flaws, although time is very tight.

Security is the biggest obstacle to a fair vote, however, and there is little reason to believe that the Taliban will have less influence across the country in April than it does now. It appears that fewer than 4,500 polling centers opened out of 7,300 that were planned. The Taliban was able to prevent polling more in less populated rural areas than in secure and populous urban centers. This raises significant questions about how much participation is required to hold a legitimate vote for president: Will a president elected with the support of urban voters be seen as legitimate by voters in rural areas where the insurgency has more influence? And will turnout of less than half of the country’s eligible voters produce a result that the entire country accepts? With these risks in mind, increasing voter registration and improving voter access are key priorities before the presidential vote.

What implications will the parliamentary elections have for the peace process?

These elections confirmed much about the status quo in the peace process. The Taliban have significant control of large areas of the country, and significant influence over areas they do not directly control. The Taliban again expressed opposition to the elections and were able to significantly impair their performance. This tends to reduce government legitimacy and provide fissures that the Taliban can exploit for their own gain.

At the same time, Afghan citizens demonstrated again with their votes and their lives that they oppose the Taliban’s vision for the country and seek a nonviolent political solution through elections. For its part, the government was unable to execute a smooth election due in part to poor organization exacerbated by political divisions. Overall, this election highlights the tragic gap between citizen’s peaceful and democratic vision for the country and the failure of either the government or the Taliban to deliver it.

The weak performance of the parliamentary election sets the stage for a more important contest in the April elections, which will be seen by the Taliban and the different slates running for the presidency as a “winner-take-all” event. For the Taliban, the question is whether they can be brought into the presidential election process as part of an interim deal that promises future political concessions to accommodate a disarmed Taliban within the government in exchange for a cease-fire that would enable more inclusive voting. For the nonviolent political factions, the question is whether they can unite to form a cohesive slate that wins support from across the country, or do they revert to ethnic alliances that divide the electorate and provide fuel for prolonged conflict ahead. For the Afghan people, the question is whether they can impress upon the leaders of the fighting, as they did during peace marches and support for a cease-fire during Ramadan in June, that their overwhelming priority is peace.