Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghan Election Deemed Success at Nationwide Youth Debates
“We had two alternatives for saving Afghanistan – war or elections,” said Mohammad Amin. “Anyone who voted on election day has done something good. Those who didn’t vote should do so in future."
At the age of 80, Mohammad Amin voted for the first time in his life when he went to the polls on April 5 to choose a president and provincial councillors for Afghanistan.
He later attended an IWPR discussion event in the city of Ghazni, travelling in from his village in Dehyak district where as a younger man, he had been imam at the local mosque.
“My children, you can see I am very weak and may not have long to live, but with the help of these two young men, I got on a cart and went to vote," he told the audience.
He was just one of seven million Afghans who defied Taleban warnings and chose to use their votes. The turnout of 58 per cent was much higher than in presidential and other elections held since 2001.
As Mohammad Anwar Matin, a spokesman for the governor of Herat, put it, the Afghan nation rather than any candidate was the real winner at the polls, as long lines of voters demonstrated their disdain for the insurgents.
In the week that followed, nearly 1,000 voting-age students came together at a series of ten IWPR-run debates to discuss the elections and their implications with election officers, government officials, NGO representatives and political commentators. Aside from the Ghazni event at which Mohammad Amin spoke, the others were in Kabul and in the Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost, Kandahar, Helmand, Herat, Balkh and Kunduz provinces.
The overall aim was to take a closer look at just how fair and trouble-free the electoral process had been, based on people’s actual experiences on the ground.
In response to questions about problems in his northern province, Ezatollah Arman, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Balkh, said “Elections are inevitably accompanied by violations and offences.”
Arman acknowledged that incidents of fraud took place in Balkh, and said this was partially because the IEC had recruited polling-station staff so late. “Most of the IEC employees in Balkh weren’t even familiar with the scope of their work, so it was far more difficult for them to prevent fraud and other offences on election day," he said.
One technical problem that recurred around Afghanistan was a shortage of ballot-papers, which at some polling stations ran out halfway through the day.
Many would agree with journalist Shahpur Saber, who said that the inadequate numbers of ballot-papers in his province, Herat, were not widespread enough to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, although he urged local IEC officers to explain why it had happened.
In Helmand in the south, IEC official Mohammad Shafi Safi said the problem was purely technical and entirely unplanned.
"The reason ballot-papers ran out at some polling in Helmand was that some of the packs of papers sent out from Kabul contained 50 instead of 100 sheets as expected,” he explained.
In Balkh province, the reason for the shortages was different, as they were concentrated in the main city, Mazar-e Sharif.
"It happened in different districts within Mazar-e Sharif,” civil society activist Nilofar Sayar said. “People… were standing in line from early in the morning to use their votes. But [the ballot-papers] lasted only half the day. When it was their turn, the ballot-papers had suddenly run out."
Sayar suspected that the shortages were engineered by election candidates who wanted to get their own supporters through the process and then stop those liable to vote for someone else.
Local IEC chief Arman said that some candidates for both the presidency and the provincial council bused in voters from outlying parts of Balkh, upsetting the calculations that had been made to ensure ballot-papers were distributed according to registered voters’ place of residence. There were ballot-papers left unused in rural polling stations.
Arman agreed with Sayar’s view that this tended to tilt things in favour of certain candidates.
"It resulted in an advantage for a number of candidates, as they had brought supporters in from the villages to parts of Mazar-e Sharif to cast their votes there, in order to curb the influence of rival candidates in the city," he said.
In the eastern province of Nangarhar, journalist Naqib Ahmad Atal alleged serious wrongdoing, saying that local government officials in the neighbouring Kunar and Laghman provinces were dismissed after they refused to work on behalf of a particular candidate, whom he did not name.
In Khost province, west of Nangarhar, the allegations of wrongdoing included blatant ballot-stuffing and intimidation. (See Afghan Voters' Dismay at Poll Fraud Claims in Southeast and Election Fraud Alleged in Khost.)
Despite that, Qadirollah Lakanwal from the Free and Fair Election Foundation, a poll monitoring group, said that the scale of electoral violations in Khost was smaller than in past Afghan elections.
He said that women and men came to vote in "equal numbers” in the province.
The high female turnout was also noted by Marzia Rustami, chairwoman of the Women and Youth for Peace NGO in the northern Kunduz province. In the city of Kunduz, she said, more women than men voted, describing this as “incredible”.
"There were three reasons for the organised queues of men and women in Kunduz – assertive security measures, extreme encouragement by the media….and a rise in the level of political awareness among Kunduz people in comparison with past presidential and parliamentary elections," she said.
This report is based on reporting from the many trainee and working journalists who have participated in and reported from electoral debates around Afghanistan. It was produced as part of Open Minds: Speaking Up, Reaching Out – Promoting University and Youth Participation in Afghan Elections, an IWPR initiative funded by the US embassy in Kabul.
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