Afghan Voters Cast Presidential Election Ballots Amid Taliban Security Threats

Afghanistan’s presidential elections were held last Sunday after being delayed twice due to failed peace talks between the Taliban and the US. According to Al Jazeera, bombings and rocket attacks in the Helmand, Nangarhar, Ghor, Kandahar, and Maidan Wardak provinces prevented or discouraged Afghan voters from going to the polls. Logistical problems also ensued, including names missing from voter rolls and officials accusing voters of trying to vote with fraudulent documentation. Ultimately, low turnout was reported, as voters largely evaded polls amid threats of violence by the Taliban. At least four were killed and 80 wounded in bomb and mortar attacks at polling places, according to the BBC. The timing of the election may also have been a factor – fewer voters may have chosen to go vote, as the presidential polls do not coincide with parliamentary or local elections.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), tasked with overseeing polls and tabulating ballots, will announce the results in three weeks. The IEC estimated a turnout of just under two million, in a country of 37 million people and roughly 10 million registered voters. Moreover, a report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network showed that the IEC announced different figures of the number of polling centers open on election day; while the IEC planned to open 5,373 polling centers, only 4,905 centers were open, as a result of security concerns. A large pool of men – including former warlords, ex-spies, and former communist government members – vied for the presidency. The frontrunners in the election, the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and the chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, have shared power since 2014 after an election marred by allegations of fraud.

Hawa Alam Nuristani, chief of the IEC, told reporters, “Despite all the challenges, we witnessed the responsible and committed presence of Afghan citizens in voting centers […] We witnessed a better election compared to other elections.” Voters remained less optimistic about the process, however. According to Najib Jabarkhel, a voter at a heavily guarded center in Kabul, “The Taliban have threatened that if you go to vote, bring your shroud with you.” Over 70,000 members of the Afghan security forces were deployed across Afghanistan to ensure the peace at polling places. Voters were further frustrated by the IEC and what came across as inconsistencies in voter rolls for the presidential election and parliamentary elections last October. “They keep saying ‘fraud, fraud, fraud,’ but if this isn’t systematic, planned fraud, I don’t know what is. It seems like the commission itself is the one trying to make fraud,” Yar Mohammad told reporters after being told that his name was missing from the voter rolls. Particularly concerning were warnings issued by candidates should they lose the election. Former warlord and presidential candidate, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, appeared to threaten to use violence if he loses: “Don’t make us regret our return, don’t make us regret our participation in elections, don’t force us to choose another option – we can do that,” referring to insurgencies he led in past civil wars.

Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, offered insight on what low turnout will mean: “Under election law, a low turnout does not make the results less legitimate, but, of course, there will be worries about fairness and participation.”  Such concerns are especially acute in context; US President Donald Trump called off much-anticipated peace talks with the Taliban for US troop withdrawal. Moreover, according to the UN, unemployment in Afghanistan is approximately 25% and nearly 55% of Afghans live below the poverty line. Both Ghani and Abdullah have been accused of corruption in office in their previous terms, following election disputes and intervention by the United States resulting in a “national unity government,” which is something both of them said they would not accept again. The stakes are undeniably high, and contested election results would leave the nation especially vulnerable to chaos and violence. As no candidate is expected to earn a majority of the votes cast, an inevitable runoff election only exacerbates the possibility of an electoral crisis.

While there is some evidence of electoral reform and the institution of necessary precautions, the IEC must continue to develop improved security procedures for voting systems and polling places. Brokering peace between the Taliban and US should remain a key international priority, as should the inclusion of the resulting Afghani government in this process. As electoral results are released, the IEC would do well to recommend to the government more security measures to reduce the possibility of violence in the coming months. Still, there remains some hope among Afghani voters that the election may yield a historic turn for the country. “The Taliban failed this country and closed the door on education,” Abdul Nazari, a retired security officer told The Washington Post, “I have been waiting for this day to bring change and opportunity for Afghans, especially the young.”

Isabelle Aboaf