Presidential election in Afghanistan

Defying the Taliban

Last Saturday, around 12 million Afghans were called upon to vote for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Although the Taliban warned that numerous attacks would take place on voting day, large numbers of Afghans refused to be deterred. Details from Emran Feroz in Kabul

The fact that the presidential election in Afghanistan went off relatively peacefully has been widely acclaimed as a great success, especially as there were more than enough reasons to be anxious in the run up to the poll. The past weeks have seen numerous attacks throughout the country, with the extremist Taliban claiming responsibility. Even the city centre of Kabul, previously assumed secure, was not left untouched by the violence. Among other places, a number of polling stations and a luxury hotel frequented by many foreigners were also attacked.

As if that weren't enough, the extremists repeatedly called on people to boycott the elections. "Whomever you vote for, you're voting for the enemy!" announced Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed in an official statement. It exhorted citizens to stay away from all polling stations. As it happened, however, the Taliban's plan did not work. Even before election day dawned, many Afghans refused to be intimidated by the threats.

According to information from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), voter turnout was around 58 per cent. In particular, the IEC emphasised the fact that many women had cast their votes. High turnout proved to be a problem at many polling stations: there weren't enough ballot papers in many provinces, which meant that many people couldn't vote; in other areas, polling stations had to keep their doors open longer to accommodate voters.

Overshadowed by violence

According to the Afghan Ministry of Defence, 690 violent attacks were carried out on polling day across the country and no less than 165 rebels were killed. However, it is impossible to verify these claims. Afghan media, such as the highly respected Pajhwok news agency, reported that there were 140 attacks and that 89 Taliban were killed on election day. The news agency also based its reports on sources from the Ministry of Defence. In any event, there were no massive terror attacks resulting in high casualty figures.

The Taliban concurrently issued a completely different depiction of events. The extremists took to Twitter to announce that there had been over 1,000 attacks across the country and that the majority of polling stations were closed.

A long queue of voters waiting outside a polling station in Kabul (photo: DW)
Despite the Taliban's threats to carry out deadly attacks and its warnings that people should stay away from polling stations, voters queued for some time in order to be able to cast their vote, as here in Kabul

Signs of election fraud

Irregularities were also reported. In many provinces, witnesses claim to have seen people casting more than one vote. In those parts of the country controlled by militias, the election conformed to the wishes of the relevant local warlord. At the same time, some people were not provided with any ballots whatsoever and were therefore unable to vote. Some individuals exploited this situation by selling their ballots at exorbitant prices.

The highly praised Afghan National Army, whose task was to provide security, often showed itself in a rather negative light. Among other things, it is said to have prevented journalists from reporting on events and to have disturbed the election process.

Final election results will only be made known in a few weeks. Until then, there is a widespread fear of election manipulation of the kind that was reported in 2009. At the time, Hamid Karzai was accused of massive election fraud. This time too, over 160 complaints of irregularities were made to the electoral commission on the first day alone.

The election campaign itself was anything but fair. Just a few days ago, the commission came to the conclusion that a number of candidates had engaged in unfair practices during their campaigns. Zalmay Rasul, one of the favourites, was accused of having forced people to attend his election rally in the province of Kandahar. Rasul was forced to pay a fine equivalent to approximately €1,200 as a result.

Poster for the Afghan presidential election (photo: Emran Feroz)
Poster for the Afghan presidential election: this is the fifth election to take place in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban in late 2001. All of them, including this one, have been marred by accusations of corruption, rigging and irregularities

Three favourites

Right from the very start of the count, experts and observers predicted a neck-and-neck race between three candidates. One of them is the aforementioned Rasul, a Pashtun who served with the Karzai government as foreign minister and who previously lived many years in exile with the former King of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir.

Polls suggest that another Pashtun, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is currently leading the field. He has also spent long periods abroad, teaching as a professor in the USA and working at the World Bank. He was once finance minister under Hamid Karzai. The American magazine "Time" regards him as one of the great thinkers of our time.

The third front-runner is Abdullah Abdullah, who ran in the last presidential election against Karzai in 2009. Abdullah was once one of the most loyal followers of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik warlord and leader of the Northern Alliance. For this reason, Abdullah can rely on the firm support of the country's Tajik population.

Karzai's political manoeuvres

In the run up to the elections, all three candidates made clear their intention to sign the strategic partnership agreement with the USA. This fact has probably pleased President Karzai most of all. According to the well-known Afghan political scientist and journalist Ahmad Waheed Mozhdah, Karzai is certainly aware that this agreement will do Afghanistan more harm than good. "If you look closely, it is perfectly clear that the agreement is little more than a colonial pact. Karzai knows this and wants to get rid of his reputation of being little more than a puppet," says Mozhdah.

The political scientist even goes so far as to claim that Karzai's strategy is to ensure that he is one day acclaimed a national hero. "But regardless of who succeeds Karzai, the country's situation will only get worse," predicts Mozhdah.

Whether this will be the case or not, remains to be seen. For the moment, at any rate, the world waits to see which candidate will garner the support of the majority of Afghan voters.

Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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