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What to Look for Ahead of Election Runoff in Afghanistan

April 30, 2014

Over the weekend, a clearer picture of the results of Afghanistan’s April 5 presidential election emerged, with preliminary results showing Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as the front-runner. With 45 percent of the vote, this will not be enough to avoid a runoff with the other leading candidate, former Finance Minister and World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani. There’s no arguing that – despite extreme security threats – with a turnout of over 50 percent (36 percent of whom were women), Afghan voters surprised the world as they cast their ballots and took a firm step toward institutionalizing the democratic process in their country. Voters are expected to head to the polls again for a runoff in late May or early June.

An IEC worker with voting rolls at the Chenar polling station in Khak-e Jabar district, Kabul province. Concern that election rigging will increase in the runoff is on the rise. Photo/Casey Garret Johnson http://bit.ly/1heO1Vt

An IEC worker with voting rolls at the Chenar polling station in Khak-e Jabar district, Kabul province. Concern that election rigging will increase in the runoff is on the rise. Photo/Casey Garret Johnson http://bit.ly/1heO1Vt

Even though this election is widely seen as a positive step, there are big concerns in the mind of people as a runoff nears. While ethnic division had little impact on the first round of elections, it is expected they will be a bigger factor in the runoff. Abdullah Abdullah, who is a mix of Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity, is partnered with Mohammad Mohaqeq, a leader of the Hazara ethnic group. Dr. Ashraf Ghani, who is of Pashtun ethnicity, has chosen Abdul Rashid Dostum, a leader of the Uzbek ethnic group as his running mate. There is no Tajik representation in Ashraf Ghani’s leadership team, and Abdul Rashid Dostum is the controversial former warlord who is accused of grave human rights abuses, most of the victims Pashtuns.

Some are sounding the alarm that the Tajiks may take revenge on Ashraf Ghani at the polls for not including a person of Tajik ethnicity on his team, and will instead vote for Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the presidential election in 2009. On the flip side, Abdullah Abdullah could face challenges securing the vote from the Pashtuns as many Pashtuns do not view him as one their own because he is strongly connected to Tajiks. With less than two months to go, each candidate is expected to do what it takes to attract people’s vote, and there is a serious concern that ethnicity may be used as a potential wedge, which could subsequently lead to a deepening divide in ethnic differences and a crisis of political power distribution based on ethnicity post-election.

There is also fear that there could be an increase in systemic rigging in the runoff elections. The independence of both the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission has been questioned, and some staff members have been accused of partiality toward both of these front-runners. There is little expectation that either side will receive 100 percent “clean” votes, so many people expect that both sides will make efforts to secure votes fraudulently in the runoff, which has the potential to undermine the transparency and the validity of the entire election process.

In addition to concerns related to technical, logistical, administrative, and financial aspects of the run-off, the first in the country’s history, many are worried that the run-off may not take place at the time stated in the law (two weeks after the May 14 first-round final results are announced), and any delay in the process could increase the chance for election rigging and could discourage some voters from going to the polls. Although civil society organizations will do their best to protect the process, there has not been much time to prepare and distribute voter information materials about the runoff to remote areas of the country, and attracting financial resources for domestic observers and security personnel for a second round will be a challenge.

In press conferences this week, both candidates have ruled out the rumored possibility of forming a coalition government. No matter the outcome, acceptance and support of the final results by both candidates will reflect not only the political maturity of the two candidates but also the entire political process, and could set the future political direction of the country.

Amid these concerns, the electoral bodies, Afghan government, candidates and their teams, and the international community must work to protect the votes of the people in the run-off within their jurisdictions. International and national observing agencies including civil society, media, and the citizens of Afghanistan must act rationally and not let the hopes of the people and the institutionalization of democracy vanish.

Najla Ayubi is a deputy country representative for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. She can be reached at nayubi@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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