KABUL—It could have been a watershed moment for Afghanistan, the first democratic transition in the nation’s history. Instead, quarreling over yet unreleased election results is turning uglier by the hour, threatening to push the country into paralysis at best, or more likely turmoil and violence.
After a couple of days of accusing his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, of vote rigging, presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah demanded on Wednesday that election organizers stop counting ballots because of what one of his officials has called “industrial-scale fraud.” "The counting process should stop immediately and if that continues, it will have no legitimacy," Abdullah, seen by many as the frontrunner before Saturday’s vote, told reporters. "From now on, today, we announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies."
His effective boycott of the official electoral system comes at a crucial time for the country. With foreign troops packing up and resources for domestic security winding down, a full-blown power struggle with ethnic overtones is the last thing Afghanistan needs.
There is blame enough to go around for the current crisis, but one can hardly fault the Afghan people. Defying Taliban threats and inadequate security outside the cities, voters still turned out in numbers equal to an American presidential election. In the first election round in April, 58 percent of Afghans voted. Approximately the same turnout was reported after the second round on June 14—but that's exactly what some find suspicious. While the first round caused long queues in Kabul, Saturday’s runoff seemed far less busy. Election authorities say that the lower turnout in the city was balanced by better mobilization in some Eastern provinces. The critics aren't buying it.
The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), an independent group who sent 8,592 observers into all 34 provinces, says turnout in the second round was probably closer to five million than the official number of seven million. It is unlikely, they say, that the provinces in question saw such a dramatic increase in turnout, particularly since voter security there is particularly poor. Adding to the suspicion, these provinces also happen to be Ghani strongholds. “There was systematic fraud in certain provinces. Compared to the first round, the level of fraud was higher [this time],” says Naeem Ayubzada, director of TEFA.
The final result is not due until July 22—preliminary results are due July 2—but initial numbers from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) look fishy. In Khost province, for instance, 113,000 voted during the first round, while 400,000 votes were reportedly cast in the second. That alone isn't proof of fraud, but the province has a population of 549,000—including children. The same pattern repeats in the provinces of Paktia, Wardak, Nangarhar, and Logar. On Tuesday evening, state TV broadcast footage that allegedly shows Ghani’s team stuffing ballots.
On Wednesday, more than a hundred Abdullah supporters, mainly young people, gathered in Kabul’s Shahr-e Naw Park to plan future protests. “If IEC declares Ghani winner, the security of Afghanistan will be very bad. All people will come out and defend their rights,” said Ramin Shafizada, 27, an unemployed political scientist. “All people of Afghanistan and the international society know who the winner is. The majority voted for Dr. Abdullah. The government is bringing in illegal votes for Ghani.” Many Abdullah supporters claim that outgoing President Hamid Karzai, despite a pretense of neutrality, has actively helped Ghani’s campaign.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister and anti-Taliban fighter from the Western-backed Northern Alliance, has squared off with Karzai on fraud allegations before. In 2009, backed by the U.S., he ran against the incumbent president in an election marred by ballot stuffing on both sides, though mostly by Karzai’s campaign. Only after mediation from the international community did Abdullah withdraw before the second-round runoff.
The consequences of an electoral failure go far beyond the immediate power struggle in Kabul. European and American officials have set a relatively clean election as a condition for the billions of dollars in aid on which the Afghan economy depends. And the ethnic tensions, as represented by the Abdullah and Ghani camps, could boil over. Ghani, a former World Bank official educated in the U.S. who has served as finance minister and headed the security transition under Karzai, is Pashtun. To appeal to people in the North, he chose Abdul Rashid Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord, as his running mate. Abdullah, for his part, is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun ethnicity, and commands a lot of support from the North—including from Atta Muhammad Nur of the Balkh province, one of the most powerful governors in the country and a longtime rival of Dostum. Early Wednesday morning, Nur posted a Facebook photo of Mujahideen tanks rolling toward the frontline during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The accompanying text read, “To become president, Ashraf Ghani has to cross this border. Passing this border is impossible. A second generation of jihad is coming.”
“They are ready to do something,” says Ayubzada, the election monitor, of Abdullah’s supporters. “We are very concerned about it.”
In Shahr-e Naw Park in Kabul, the protesters deflected questions of how they will respond if Ghani is declared winner. They only promised that they will not back down. “The civil society will protest in the streets to defend our rights,” said Nasratullah Habibi, a governmental worker in his late twenties. “If we don’t defend our rights, there will never be democracy in Afghanistan.”
Sune Engel Rasmussen is a journalist based in Kabul.