In The News

In First Runoff Election, Afghans to Vote for Reform

June 11, 2014

On April 5, 2014, Afghans turned out in the first round of elections to choose a successor to outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, in what was perhaps the most successful election Afghanistan has ever held. Despite a limited number of international forces and endemic intimidation by insurgents, 7 million Afghans – one-third of whom were women – stood in the rain in long queues before the polls had even opened to cast their votes.

Afghanistan elections

On April 5, 2014, Afghans turned out in the first round of elections in what was perhaps the most successful election Afghanistan has ever held. On June 14, they will return to the polls in the country’s first runoff. Photo/Flickr user UN Photo/Fardin Waezi

Aside from a few cases, Election Day was relatively peaceful, with officials reporting far fewer violent incidences than in 2009. The voters, covered with plastic sheets, the security institutions manned exclusively by Afghans, the electoral bodies, the media, and the international and domestic monitors dealt a blow to those who would have stopped them from going to the polls. At the close of Election Day, Vice President Yunus Qanooni declared that, “Afghans [have] defeated their enemies.”

On June 14, Afghans will head to the polls once again in the country’s first runoff. According to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) certified results, neither of the frontrunners –Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff to take place as required by the constitution. Both candidates have endorsed the results and agreed to compete in the second round of voting.

Since the first round of voting two months ago, there has been an obvious change in the fervency of the campaigns. In the lead-up to Election Day, buildings and streets in cities across the country were covered in billboards, signs, and banners, and election coverage dominated radio and TV stations. This time around, the two candidates have opted for fewer advertisements highlighting their presidential tickets and their endorsers. However, last week election officials warned both candidates against fueling ethnic tensions at rallies and large gatherings as they travel the country attempting to sway voters’ minds in what will be a very close race. Although turnout is expected to be high – evidenced by recent demonstrations in Herat and a few other provinces demanding more polling centers this time – concerns that the runoff could exacerbate such deep-rooted ethnic tensions are on the rise. While the deep ethnic divide was not so visible when candidates competed on April 5, now that there are only two frontrunners in the race, campaigners will try to exploit ethnic sentiments that could polarize the country ethnically.

While security measures have been tightened, particularly after the attempted assassination of Abdullah Abdullah last week, insecurity, along with fraud, are the other major concerns ahead of Saturday’s runoff. The insurgents, who have officially kicked off their fighting season, have announced plans to disrupt voting. Although the IEC fired around 5,000 of its staff charged with committing fraud in the first round, and have received lessons learned from civil society organizations to be considered in the runoff, many experts assume that some levels of fraud might take place.

As I’ve spoken to Afghan voters ahead of the runoff, they are determined to turn out for the polls, despite these very real threats. What is interesting is the different motivations that trigger them to vote: many people, especially the women I’ve spoken with, say they vote in hopes that the election results will bring positive development in the peace talks with the insurgents. Others say they are more than happy to vote just to witness vibrant economic growth, as business of all kind has suffered since the beginning of election season. The majority of the public seems keen to vote to bring about reform in the governance structure that for decades has been crippled by corruption and favoritism.

At any rate, the hopeful outcome for the runoff is a peaceful transfer of power, and that the next administration directs its focus on peace and economic stability. It is widely hoped that the new administration ought to sign the Bilateral Security and Defense Agreement with the United States, focus on international forces withdrawal, and that honest, serious discussions should take place with the insurgents. The widespread perception is that, regardless of the results on Saturday, committed international assistance is needed to ensure Afghanistan’s peaceful transition and political and economic stability.

Idrees Ilham is director of The Asia Foundation’s Governance Program in Afghanistan. He can be reached at Iilham@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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