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

New Fears Over Afghan Election Run-Off

Success of first round may not be repeated when country votes again to pick its next president.
By Hafiz Gardesh, Mina Habib
  • Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. (Photos: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)
    Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. (Photos: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

Afghan analysts warn that the second round of voting to decide the presidential contest is likely to face a fresh series of challenges.

In preliminary results announced on April 26 by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah came first with 44.9 per cent of the vote, and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was in second place with 31.5 per cent.

The nearest other candidate, Zalmai Rasul – another former foreign minister – finished a distant third with 11.5 per cent.

Final results will be announced on May 14 after suspect votes are investigated, but no candidate is predicted to be able to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote.

According to Afghan law, a run-off must be held within two weeks of the final results being announced. The IEC has already begun preparing for this second round, with a tentative date of May 28.

The April 5 polls were hailed as an historic success, with nearly seven million of the country’s 12 million eligible voters turning out on election day. Numbers were so high that polling stations in some areas ran out of ballot papers.

There were relatively few incidents of violence around the country, and the Afghan security forces were praised for their efforts to ensure calm as the country went to the polls. (See Euphoria at Afghan Poll Security Success.)

However, experts fear that the tight security and high turnout might not be replicated in the second round. They also note a clear ethnic dimension to the run-off, with Abdullah perceived as Tajik and Ashraf Ghani a Pashtun.

The last presidential election in 2009 were marred by fraud claims. They ended in a run-off in which the incumbent Hamed Karzai was pitted against Abdullah, who withdrew before the vote was held saying he did not trust the validity of the process.

Fazel Rahman Oria, a member of Abdullah’s team, told IWPR that once again, there were concerns about the transparency of the vote and the actions of both the IEC and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC).

“We do not agree with the announcement of these [preliminary] results,” he said. “Abdullah was the winner in the first round. We have filed our complaints and the ECC should respond to us and to the public.”

Oria added that if the campaign team’s objections were upheld, Abdullah would emerge with an outright majority.

“A number of domestic and foreign mafia circles are trying to take the elections to a second round by violating the country’s laws, particularly electoral law,” he claimed, adding that Abdullah was certain to win a second round if it went ahead.

“Those who trample on the law, eliminate transparency from the elections, or make efforts to favour a specific candidate will have to take responsibility for their actions before the people in future,” Oria concluded.

Ashraf Ghani dismissed these claims at a press conference on April 27, adding that he was not interested in negotiating a deal and would fight a second round.

“Insisting that there is a victor in the first round amounts to trampling on the law, because it is obvious that the first round had no winner,” he told reporters, while reserving a measure of criticism for the IEC.

“The commission should explain the shortage of ballot papers at some polling stations, as well as the [preliminary results] announcement that did not differentiate between clean and unclean votes,” he said.

To avoid further allegations of corruption, Ghani called on the IEC to ensure that ballot papers were distributed to all polling stations, and suggested photographing each voter.

“The government and the commission should dismiss those who were involved in fraud as soon as possible, otherwise the second round will again fall victim to fraud and violations,” he concluded.

Despite the success of the first round of voting, political analyst Abdul Ghafur Lewal warned that a run-off “comes with many problems”.

Lewal said that the Tajik-Pashtun divide in the run-off risked damaging hard-won Afghan national unity and fuelling ethnic divisions.

“If the winner in the second round, who will become the future president, does not appoint specialists and experts in equal measure from the losing team’s ethnic group to ensure national participation, the gulf between the people and the government will widen more than it did during the 13-year term of Hamed Karzai, and this will cause many social problems,” he continued.

Lewal also highlighted the security challenges of this new round of voting, arguing that having failed to massively disrupt the April 5 vote, the Taleban would now renew their efforts.

“Since the weather is getting milder and the government’s armed opponents are more active in warmer areas, it is going to be dangerous for those who participate,” he said.

An additional factor, he argued, was interference by foreign intelligence agencies, each of which had its favoured candidate. Their influence had been less noticeable in the first round, in which eight candidates competed, but the narrower field now made the stakes higher.

“I am confident that regional countries – Pakistan, Iran, Russia and India – supported specific candidates in the first round, and they will do the same in the second,” he said.

The April 5 elections were for both presidential and provincial council candidates, and this time, the turnout might be lower and the opportunities for fraud greater, Lewal said.

“The number of observers will be fewer in this round, because the provincial council observers won’t be there. Government officials, including provincial governors, police chiefs and the like will use nationalist sentiment to interfere in the electoral process,” he said.

Others accuse Karzai of engineering a second round in an attempt to guarantee continuing influence over Afghan politics for himself. The Afghan constitution bars him from seeking a third term.

Political analyst Wahid Mozhda said the wide field of candidates in the first round was due to a Karzai strategy to divide the vote and ensure a run-off.

“Karzai’s goal behind setting up sham contenders was so that none of the candidates would win. He wants a coalition government to be created so that there will be a safe place for him and his brothers as part of it, and so that they will somehow have a part in the future government,” he said.

Mozhda added that the Americans also saw Karzai as a valuable asset due to his experience over the last 13 years.

“As far as I know, efforts are being made behind the scene to create a coalition government,” he added.

Karzai’s office has repeatedly denied accusations of interference, insisting that the president wants a transparent process and has no preferred candidate.

Ordinary people seemed unenthusiastic at the prospect of going to the polls again.

University student Sayed Mansur claimed that interference by Iran and Pakistan had been clear in the electoral process.

“I thought our people had reached a level of political maturity, but the votes that went to warlords changed my mind,” he said. “People still aren’t thinking of the national interest…The election was a laboratory experience for Western countries, too. They will develop their future plans for the country after assessing the Afghan people’s political understanding and demands.”

Kabul resident Shamsuddin, 40, said he now regretted voting in the first round.

“I voted enthusiastically, hoping that power would be transferred from the corrupt Karzai to a good person, but we saw there was a lot of fraud. I am very disappointed. I will not go to the ballot box again. The issue is now ethnic. No one cares about the country or the people,” he said. “Afghans still haven’t learned – they don’t know who their friend is and who their enemy is. The same warlords will come to power again, and they will have a right to do whatever they want to do to the people, because the people have supported them themselves.”

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kabul.

[Correction: changing tentative election date to May 28. Apologies]