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An Afghan man attends a campaign rally for Abdullah Abdullah, the chief executive of Afghanistan, in Bamiyan on Sept. 25 (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images ) PAULA BRONSTEIN/GETTY IMAGES

I write this article because I am a strong believer in free, fair and transparent elections, I have had students and friends die in Afghanistan partly fighting for such elections.

No one ever expected after the Bonn Meetings of 2001, which established the political roadmap for Afghanistan’s political future, that the realization of a democratic Afghan country would be easy.  Numerous scholarly studies have suggested that “democracy” is extremely difficult to achieve by any developing country but it is especially challenging for a country that has virtually been in armed conflict nearly forty years.

The actual political road map ascertained was extremely ambitious with tremendous and significant changes expected over a short period of time.  Initially Bonn called for National, Provincial and Local elections to be held simultaneously in April 2004.  The United Nations suggested that the initial Wolesi Jirga (legislative) Elections might be the most “difficult elections ever held” with their complexity and an on-going conflict environment.  The Wolesi Jirga elections were postponed until mid-September 2005 with the National Presidential Election being scheduled in April 2004, but eventually held on 9 October 2004.

Hamid Karzai easily won the initial Presidential Election that replaced the transitional government he led with more than 75% of 12 million registered voters casting ballots.  Karzai received 55.4% of the vote – three times greater than any other candidate.  The UN’s Joint Electoral Management Body oversaw the election that was generally praised by the international community.

This election represented a massive logistics effort to supply all 4,800 polling stations using over 30,000 ballot boxes. The complexity of this election not only involved the logistics of voting during a time of conflict but also getting the ballots counted. More than 2,000 trucks, four Mi8 helicopters, 135 donkeys, and even boats carried the election materials.

Afghanistan’s provincial elections of September 2005 had a much lower voter turnout (50% lower than the Presidential Election) with final election results postponed for a number of months because of accusations of election fraud.

Since the election of 2005, Afghanistan has faced significant problems in each proceeding election. The planned 2010 legislative election was postponed by 8 years and both the 2009 and especially the 2014 Presidential Elections were marred by extremely unusual results that many claimed were fraudulent.

It is now widely recognized that recent Afghan elections raise significant and serious questions concerning the legitimacy and utility of the entire Afghan electoral system, as well as the Afghan democracy.  Indeed the International Crisis Group (ICG) assessing the 2009 Presidential Election and suggested that the “prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s … elections has undermined (then) President Hamid Karzai’s credibility” and has politically isolated him.   The ICG posited that the Afghan election process “could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict.”

In April 2014 in the midst of considerable controversy and the inability of President Karzai to run for President again due to term limits, Afghanistan held its third Presidential election with 11 candidates officially seeking election.  The three leading candidates proved to be Dr. Ashraf Ghani (Ahmadzai),  Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. No candidate received the required majority of the vote during the April election (Abdullah received 45% of the vote while Ghani received 31.6%) and as required by the Afghan Constitution the second-round election was conducted on 14 June 2014. There were numerous reports of significant fraud with over 3000 official complaints of voting irregularities and violations during the April election.

 On 14 June 2014 the second round of the presidential election was held. This election was ‘won’ by Ghani with 56.4% of the vote compared to Abdullah’s 43.6%. The vote was so controversial that the results were not announced until 21 September.  During the months before and after this election Afghanistan experienced considerable violence and allegations of significant voter fraud that some argued cost Abdullah from receiving the required 50% of the vote. A similar dynamic was witnessed during the 2009 Presidential election where 1.3 million fraudulent votes were discarded.

A detailed and systematic analysis of the 2014 Presidential Election focusing on polling data center data found 606 polling places where Dr. Ghani received all 600 votes, the maximum number of votes allowed for any ballot box, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah received none and another 900 polling centers that gave virtually all its votes to Ghani.  Such results are not only substantively highly unlikely but statistically impossible as found by official election studies performed by the United States using highly sophisticated election models immediately after the 2014 run-off election.

With these experiences and dynamics in mind, many were rightfully concerned about the 2019 Presidential election that was held on 28 September with only about 2 million of the 9.7 million registered Afghanistan voters participating – the lowest voter turnout in any Afghan election.

Finally after nearly three months which in and of itself is odd, preliminary election results were announced with President Ghani receiving 50.64% of the vote compared to his primary opponent, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah receiving 39.52% of the vote.

While I am presently examining the official polling center data that I presume will answer many questions concerning the election, Afghan election authorities receiving an amazing 16,500 official complaints have already marred the results. Moreover, nearly 1 million of the initial 2.7 million votes were discarded because of irregularities. This is an astonishing statistic concerning it represent a whopping 37% of votes originally “cast”.

While I am not necessarily charging election fraud, I do find some preliminary results extremely strange, if not unbelievable.  For example, President Ghani apparently received 97%, 94%, 94%, 93%, and 93% in the provinces of Khost, Paktika, Logar, Paktia, and Nangahar respectively.  While not as ridiculous as the North Korean voting results where Kim Jong-un was unanimously (100%) elected by the North Korean Parliament in 2014 or Turkmenistan Presidential Elections of 2017 or 2012 where Gurbanguky Berdimuhamedow 98% and 97% of the vote, respectfully, nevertheless such results, even at the provincial level, are almost unheard of.

I am well aware that these provinces are part of the traditional Pakhtun/Pashtun homeland and all Afghan elections have found candidate’s receiving significant support within their particular ethno-linguistic group, a problem in and of itself. Nonetheless, many of these votes were from illiterate rural populations. Such massively consistent voting by this type of voter is highly unlikely, if not impossible, on merely statistically random grounds alone.

Consider, for example, that with 8 candidates running in the 2014 presidential election Dr. Abdullah received 3.6% in Khost, 10.5% in Paktika, 18.5% in Logar, 5.4% in Paktia and 18.9% votes in the respective provinces. To witness such a drastic and significant change from the 2014 to 2019 election seems unusual to say the least.

Also ponder that in Dr. Abdullah’s strongholds, his votes decline of about 75%  in Parwan, Samangan and Sar-e Pul Provinces and 90% in Faryab when compared to the 2014 election.  Are these just coincidences or did voter preferences change that dramatically relative to Dr. Abdullah?

I also find it extremely strange that Jalalabad’s election commission chief’s email (6:00 pm) on 28 September reported a total of 77,586 votes caste but on the official IEC website for the preliminary results reported over 200,000 votes with President Ghani receiving 190,000 of these votes.    

I suspect that the official election audit will find voter overcounts for Ghani in the East and South and undercounts for Abdullah in the North, Northeast and parts of Western and Central Afghanistan.

It is clear that significant changes need to be made in the Afghanistan Election System and processes.  At a minimum, votes should tallied by at the original voting center by objective election officials and results either immediately called in or driven to the IEC in Kabul. It makes absolutely no sense that it should take almost 3 months to announce preliminary results for this 2019 Presidential election.  Second, as many election polling centers as possible should have objective and official election observers the votes and voters. Finally, the Afghan voter registration and identification process needs significantly improvement.  Until such changes are made in the Afghan election system and Afghanistan’s “democracy” appears to be in name only because free and fair elections are the foundations of any democratic country.


  • Thomas H. Johnson (@THjohnsonNPS, [email protected]) is a Research Professor and faculty member of the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, California, USA) as well the Director of NPS’s Program for Culture & Conflict Studies. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Afghanistan’s Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). For three decades, Professor Johnson has conducted research and written on Afghanistan and South Asia and he has published research on every Afghan Election since 2004 in leading scholarly journals He is a member of the Afghanistan Editorial Board of the National Security Archives. His edited a volume on COIN, Culture and Conflict was published by Stanford University Press in 2014. His most recent book, Taliban Narratives: The Uses and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict was co-published by Oxford University Press and Hurst Publishers (London) in 2018: http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/taliban-narratives/