Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

High Afghan Turnout Reflects Hopes of Change

"No one should underestimate the Afghans," says one voter.
  • A woman votes in Kabul. (Photo: Mina Habib)
    A woman votes in Kabul. (Photo: Mina Habib)
  • Long lines of voters formed outside polling stations. (Photo: Mina Habib)
    Long lines of voters formed outside polling stations. (Photo: Mina Habib)
  • Voters shelter from the rain. (Photo: Mina Habib)
    Voters shelter from the rain. (Photo: Mina Habib)

As rain fell over many parts of Afghanistan, long queues of people formed outside polling centres at seven in the morning on election day, defying predictions that they would be deterred by insurgent threats or sheer apathy.

It had been widely expected that turnout figures would be unimpressive, even negligible, in this historic presidential election as well as in the provincial council ballot taking place the same day. So everyone was surprised and pleased at the way April 5 turned out.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that by the time polling closed at five in the evening, 58 per cent of the around 15 million eligible voters had cast their ballots – much higher than past elections.

The count is still under way as ballot boxes are brought in from far-flung polling stations, and no clear winner had yet emerged at the time this report was published.

Many had feared that the Taleban would be able to carry out enough acts of violence to completely undermine the electoral process. That does not appear to have happened. Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai reported that 140 insurgent attacks designed to disrupt the elections took place within 24 hours. Nine policemen, seven Afghan National Army soldiers, four civilians and 89 insurgents were killed in these incidents.

Around 400,000 police and soldiers – Afghan and foreign – were deployed to ensure that the elections were not derailed.

Daudzai noted that aside from the attacks that took place, government forces foiled a number of attempted suicide bombings around the country.

FOR THE FIRST TIME, PEOPLE THINK ELECTIONS MATTER

Analysts interviewed by IWPR said the high turnout was due to a realisation among Afghans that elections mattered, that the results would count for something, and that real changes would not come by themselves.

"In the past few years, people have come to the conclusion that any process opposed by the insurgents and neighbouring states [Pakistan and Iran] is going to be their own country’s advantage,” political and regional affairs analyst Abdul Ghafur Lewal said. “They went to the ballot box with an understanding of the policies of Pakistan and of the government's opponents, and with an understanding of the importance of their vote."

Furthermore, Lewal continued, voters began believing in the electoral process itself.

"In previous elections, people thought their affairs were wholly in the hands of foreigners. Because of the xenophobic sentiment among Afghans, they were reluctant to engage with the process,” he explained. “But in these elections, people saw that the whole process was Afghan-owned, as was responsibility for security. This encouraged them to participate on a wide scale.”

Amanullah, a student at a private university in Kabul, reflected this new sense of ownership, saying, "These elections were in fact a national festival, and people celebrated as if it was festival too. With their votes, the people warned the Taleban, Pakistan and Iran that their dramas will have no impact on Afghans any more…. The people of Afghanistan showed their enemies, and the world in general, that they have all kinds of abilities, and that no one should underestimate the Afghans."

Lewal said that ahead of these elections, the media and civil society institutions had done a great deal to shape public opinion, inform people of political developments and encourage them to vote.

"It would be a great ingratitude if the role of these [media] institutions was overlooked,” he added.

Another politics-watcher, Wahid Mozhda, agreed that there had been a massive shift in public perceptions.

When Hamed Karzai first became president in 2004, people felt he had been imposed on them by Washington, so there was no point voting. In 2009, as Karzai sought a second term, they suspected he would engineer the outcome anyway, so why bother voting? This time, Mozhda said, Karzai was going, the vote was seen as Afghan-run and -owned, and there was some prospect that a new administration might bring about substantive progress.

"Time has made people more politically acute,” Mozhda said. “They thought that if they didn’t participate this time round, someone else would be imposed on them, so it was better to go to the ballot box and prevent some undesirable figure coming to power.

“The experience of the past 12 years was in fact the major motivating factor.”

Kabul resident Abdul Shukur, 65, was among those who voted for a change of leadership.

"I went to the ballot box for two reasons. First, I wanted to ensure that another Karzai was not elected again, because the nation suffered a lot because of him and his team over 12 years. Second, I wanted to fire my vote at Pakistan's head like a bullet. Unless people went to the ballot box, the Taleban and the Pakistanis would have won. But thank God, all their plans were foiled."

Matiullah Abasin, another political analyst, agrees that people felt driven to vote to be rid of an administration they felt was profoundly corrupt, but he believes they also made more informed choices than in past elections.

"People were weary of the actions of our current rulers. They had no alternative but to go to the polls,” he said.

"Although people did look to ethnicity to an extent, they mostly based [decisions] on the programmes of the candidates, who also campaigned better than in the past, and explained their programmes."

Abasin also noted that turnout was high among women and among a younger generation that is much better educated than it was 12 years ago.

DECLINING SUPPORT FOR TALEBAN

In Abasin’s view, the once-widespread public sympathy for the Taleban has fallen away.

“That interest has weakened over time. Suicide attacks, killings, especially of women and children, and the Taleban acting on instructions from Pakistan have left them in very bad shape. Some people participated in these elections because they have a grudge against the Taliban and Pakistan," he said.

Safia, who works for a foreign organisation in Kabul, said one recent attack shook her into action.

"I was undecided about going to vote until the incident in the Serena Hotel in Kabul, in which reporter Sardar Ahmad was killed along with his wife and lovely children,” she said. “After that, however, I suddenly resolved to use my vote to shake a strong fist at the servants of Pakistan and to all foreigners who interfere one way or another in our country."

The relatively smooth election process and the high level of voter engagement were praised by statesmen around the world including President Barack Obama.

Karzai, the outgoing Afghan leader, said the massive level of participation in elections was managed by Afghans themselves was a great display of democracy.

Despite the positive buzz around these elections, there were still many Afghans who chose not to vote for one reason or another.

Elyas, a 21-year-old from Kabul’s Kart-e Naw district, said it was the choice of presidential candidates that put him off.

"There were many candidates who had been part of Karzai's 13-year rule. They were involved in corruption. They have blood on their hands. They have perpetrated hundreds of acts of treason,” he said. “There were some other candidates who had not been involved in crime, but I did not know them well enough. I was scared that if they won, they might prove to have been in sheep's clothing and transform into the same wild animals as we’ve had after previous elections.

“I thus felt unable to participate."

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

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