With Afghan elections in full swing, premature speculations have created a great deal of paranoia within the campaign of Abdullah Abdullah, one of the two presidential candidates, as he alleges there has been an “industrial-scale” electoral fraud and that he was being set up for a loss he would not accept. He claims that President Hamid Karzai and a host of his close confidantes colluded with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to commit fraud, their goal being to either bring in Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah’s opponent, as president or to create a post-election crisis that Karzai can exploit to remain in office. His campaign has not presented any firm evidence to show that either Karzai or Ghani was involved in rigging the election. The authenticity and sources of the tapes released by Abdullah’s campaign — implicating a senior IEC official of electoral fraud, andshowing a handful of people stuffing ballot boxes allegedly in favor of Ghani — remains unverified.
Although the IEC is expected to release initial results on July 2, Abdullah’s campaign claims that early tallies show a suspicious surge in voter turnout in the Pashtun-dominated east and south where Ghani is popular. While the actual number of voters itself is hard to ascertain, largely because there has not been a thorough census in Afghanistan in three decades, indicators show a real vote surge in support of Ghani, not only in the south but across the country, as the product of a number of factors that have gone unnoticed.
First, Ghani’s heavy campaigning in the second round focused principally on Afghanistan’s grassroots, which included robust door-to-door campaigns, large-scale public rallies, and the extensive use of social media to appeal to and mobilize Afghan youth. Additionally, Ghani played a more active role in public debates and televised speeches in comparison to his opponent, who repeatedly declined to appear for public debates. This not only helped Ghani to use the extra time to boost his public outreach, but also to engage with local voters to ensure that his vision for Afghanistan was well understood.
Second, as an intellectual, Ghani is not a one-man show. By frequently highlighting his vision for Afghanistan’s future, he managed to woo the support of many prominent Afghan technocrats, intellectuals, and political leaders. His endorsements from influential religious and political leaders may have proved to be more beneficial to him, as many of those backings across the board reflected the type of leader that ordinary Afghans, especially women and youth, and civil society groups — the bulk of the voters — can relate to and trust. Importantly, Ghani used his endorsements strategically by coordinating many jirgasand city hall meetings in support of female voting, as well as by suggesting that religious leaders use their authority to issue fatwas to make voting a civic duty that local communities must embrace.
Third, Ghani appealed to Afghan youth (both men and women) highly involved in the elections by lecturing in universities, giving public talks, and arranging interactive sessions through Google and Skype conference calls. Over the years, Afghan youth, who comprise nearly two-thirds of the Afghan population, have become increasingly active in Afghan politics — mainly to carve out their own independent paths. Unlike in the past, education, easy access to technology, the internet, and a plethora of media outlets and online forums have enabled young Afghans to have their voices be heard. Active Afghan youth engagement has shifted public attention in Afghanistan to jobs creation, economic well-being, and personal security — all areas of priority for Ghani’s campaign. Most significantly, young voters have functioned as a backbone of Ghani’s campaign team, with over 60,000 young volunteers said to have registered to work on his campaign. Ghani understands the potential of young Afghans to morph the country into a better future and has made it his priority to bring the youth to the forefront of his government. Additionally, Ghani appealed to Afghan women, who compose nearly half of Afghan voters, by bringing his wife to public events and partaking in the debate on women. This marked a changing face of Afghan politics in which women’s important rule is recognized and respected.
Fourth, by frequently stating his campaign slogan, “every Afghan is equal, no Afghan is better than other,” Ghani appealed to a large number of undecided voters by stressing that Afghans are equal regardless of their ethnicity, language, creed, gender, or color. This message has had a colossal impact on wooing Afghanistan’s minority groups such as the Uzbeks, Ismailis, Kuchis, and the Hindu and Sikh communities, who have all teamed up in support of Ghani.
Fifth, unlike his political opponents, who have repeatedly used their cards for fighting jihad against Soviets as a tool for winning votes, Ghani enlisted Afghan religious leaders and tribal elders across Afghanistan. Traditional village and customary leadership have existed for centuries in Afghanistan along extended kinship lines, and village leaders such as Maliks, Khans, mullahs, community or tribal elders are an influential part of Afghan society. Although their roles have been increasingly undermined through the successive regimes over the years, local leaders command greater legitimacy and influence in the country, serving as key local power brokers and de facto interlocutors between their communities and the local government. As an anthropologist, Ghani’s unrivaled outreach to these customary leaders, who are widely trusted and respected by the locals, inevitably has had a major impact on his campaign.
Lastly, and perhaps most important of all, a considerable number of new voters, including women, in the south, southeast, and east of Afghanistan who apparently did not vote in the first round voted in the second round for Ghani. For example, reports show that in three provinces that are overwhelmingly pro-Ghani — Paktia, Khost and Paktika — there was a surge in voter turnout in the runoff round that is attributed largely to tribal agreement, or tarun, binding members of all major tribes to vote for Ghani. Additionally, local and tribal leaders worked to muster grassroots support for Ghani, including mobilizingarbaki or local militia to guard the polling stations against Taliban threats. And reports indicating local agreements with Taliban not to target polling stations may also have played a role in the surge of votes in some areas. As importantly, Ghani appears to be favored by many in the eastern and southern provinces as a better successor to Karzai, not necessarily because of his ethnicity but largely because of a growing realization among the public that there is little chance for Abdullah to reconcile with the armed opposition due to his association with the anti-Taliban alliance.
Nonetheless, as the official results of the runoff vote have yet to be announced, the possibility of higher voter turnout and fraud in both campaigns cannot be ruled out. However, Afghan voters are ready for a change and Afghanistan cannot afford further political uncertainty created by either of the two campaigns. In the interim, the best way forward is to avoid further speculation and give the election commission and the complaints commission the chance to first count the votes and then review and adjudicate the complaints. It is important that both contenders stick to the rules and abide by the conditions laid out under Afghan electoral law that they have signed on to and accepted.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Ahmad Hemmat is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher and advisor to the chairman of International Energy Partnerships. The views expressed here are their own. Follow them on Twitter: @ahmadjavid and @hemmatahmad.
Phi Beta Iota: RYP is correct, although a couple of journalists have touched on reality, most Western coverage of the campaign and the run-off election’s likely outcome has been rubbish — perhaps too many scotches to wash down Iranian caviar, along with typical “hotel warrior” laziness. This is the best article we have seen to date. Below are the two capstone articles previously posted here at Phi Beta Iota, the second includes a recap of talking points and all past posts. The third, just posted at CounterPunch yesterday, includes references to Afghanistan and why the Department of State and the White House and most of the US military get it wrong so often.