Following the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghanistan has seen gradually declining turnout since the country first held national elections in 2004. In the first election after the overthrow of the Taliban from power, turnout was about 70 percent.
The fourth-ever presidential elections in Afghanistan’s history were held on 28 September 2019. Afghanistan’s election commission has announced that about 1.7 million Afghans cast their ballots at 85% of polling stations across the country, and it is estimated that ballots from the remaining 3,900 stations will increase the turnout to 1.9 million. Those numbers may decrease as the vetting process gets underway to discard fraudulent ballots and duplicate voter biometric data. The low turnout was confirmed by election observers and most other sources reporting from around the country.
There are several reasons why the people stayed away from the polls on the election day. First, security threats seem a major factor. Many Afghans were fearful of attacks by the Taliban who had repeatedly threatened to target polling stations. Since the election campaign began, Taliban launched several attacks on election events and candidates’ offices across the country. According to the United Nations, in total, election-related attacks killed 85 and wounded 373 civilians. Although, the low turnout figures suggest that the Taliban’s campaign in the lead-up to the election succeeded in keeping people away from the polling stations, but not to the degree that many feared.
Second, the delay of the provincial or district councils election also contributed to the low turnout.
In the past, the presidential and provincial councils elections were held together, but the election commission announced in late 2018 that that holding two separate elections on the same day would create challenges. A decision was made to hold them at different times. Although there are no survey figures yet to assess the impact of the decision, but given the importance of local politics for the electorate it is not difficult to speculate about its adverse effect on the turnout.
Third, and perhaps most important reason for the low turnout could be the lack of voter confidence in the election commission and fear of electoral fraud. Since Afghanistan’s first election in 2004, successive votes have been riddled with fraud.
In the third-ever presidential elections in Afghanistan’s history in 2014, Abdullah Abdullah and Mohammad Ashraf Ghani were the front-runners, and indeed the results of the first round of the election had Abdullah in the lead and Ghani behind him. However, since neither candidate could secure a majority, the election went into a runoff which became controversial due to widespread allegations of ‘industrial scale’ fraud. As a result, John Kerry, then United States Secretary of State, mediated the negotiations between the two final candidates. The United States mediation resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the two leading candidates, where Abdullah compromised to settle for the position of Chief Executive and Ghani became President.
Similarly, the 2018 Afghan parliamentary election was marred by allegations of fraud. Given that the parliamentary elections were held after a delay of three years in order to make due preparations, voters were entitled to expect a far better election. The election commissioners were in the middle of finalising the results when they were replaced with the new set of commissioners. This was done after huge accusations of misconduct and mismanagement and a claim that they were unfit to manage the presidential elections. Later, in September 2019, the appellate court of the anti-corruption criminal justice center sentenced seven former commissioners of the Independent Election Commission and three commissioners of the Electoral Complaints Commission to five years imprisonment. The commissioners were convicted for committing fraud and rigging in 2018 parliamentary election.
The 2019 presidential election remains a serious matter not only for Afghanistan but also for the international community. There should be maximum emphasize on a transparent, accountable and credible process. It is crucial to avoid political deadlock and crisis of the sort that afflicted the 2014 presidential election.
The Afghan election commissions should work independently and must be transparent and accountable to the people of Afghanistan. They should review votes and process complaints, concerns and allegations of fraud from across the country. They must adhere to the electoral regulation that only those ballots where voter identity has been verified through the biometric system should be validated. Fraudulent ballots and duplicate data need to be weeded out and only the votes during the hours when the polling stations were supposed to be open must be accepted. The willingness and ability of the election commissions to do their work independently and transparently will increase public confidence in the credibility of the election results.
In such critical times, only a transparent and credible election outcome should result in Afghanistan’s new administration. Considering the fragility of the situation in the country, not just the stability of Afghanistan, but also the trust of the Afghans in election and democracy is highly linked to the credibility and transparency of the election outcome. A transparent and credible election will promote democracy in Afghanistan.