Afghanistan’s 2014 Election: A Referendum Against the Taliban

April 5 was the day of Afghanistan’s historic election, a milestone in its history. I saw men and women, young and old, lined up in the rain-damped city to vote from dawn to dusk, exercising their democratic rights.  In 50 years of residence in Canada, I have not seen Canadians voting in such large numbers in perfect weather and safety conditions. Perhaps development breeds voter complacency, and violence and sub-standard living conditions raise voters’ political consciousness and their determination to influence their own future.

Afghanistan, emerging out of decades of war and insecurity has awakened. The people of Afghanistan have given their verdict against the Taliban by turning out to vote in unprecedented numbers, defying all threats. Women and youth turned out in large numbers. Thirty-five percent of ballots cast were those of women voters.  The picture of a visibly poor and aged man going to the polls in a wheel chair was widely circulated via social media, bringing tears to the eyes of the young.

Now is the moment to celebrate the success story of an election process planned and organized by Afghans for Afghans.

Seven million (60%) out of 12 million registered voters cast their ballots, doubling the number of votes in 2009. The accuracy of these initial numbers is being disputed in certain quarters by Afghans. Yet even skeptics (a group that includes me) believe that the number will not plummet by any more than a few percentage points after discarding the fraudulent ballots and the final ballot count. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) received and is investigating nearly 1200 cases of fraud, lending a fair amount of credibility to the election.

Voting in some rural areas was subdued. Apathy resulting from disappointment in the meager improvement in life conditions over the past 13 years prompted people to stay away from the polls. Surprisingly, a very high voter turnout was reported in some of the southern provinces, the heartland of the Taliban. The turnout in Kandahar (which was once the home of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team) was exceptional (and noticeably higher than in previous elections), indicating public opinion turning against the Taliban in its strongholds.

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The potential of disenfranchisement of constituents due to the closure of polling stations judged to be too dangerous appears minimal, since a very small percentage of stations were closed. The IEC worked tirelessly to deliver ballot papers using the sole helicopter in their possession. Ballots were carried on donkeys in the remotest rural areas.

Unabated Taliban attacks in Kabul and the provinces in the lead-up to the election prompted the Ministry of Interior to take unprecedented steps in deploying hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces across the country. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border was closed and all entry points to Kabul city were closed, with check points established across the city every few hundred meters. Although one case of police trying to deny voters entry to polling stations in Kandahar was reported, overall the security measures did not hinder polling. The security forces were unusually gentle, polite and helpful. I saw no foreign troops’ presence in the city.

The arterial roads of Kabul, normally jammed with traffic and people, appeared desolate on the election morning, with markets, road-side shops and restaurants closed.  A surprise waited for me as I approached the first of the ten polling stations I visited across the city. By eight in the morning, with rain pouring, large numbers of voters lined up outside the polling stations. Local observers (male and female) sat in rows in the rooms where voters were ushered in to receive ballots and cast votes. The crowd was disciplined and patient. I saw scenes of large voter queues in every station I visited until late afternoon.

When I asked voters how they got the courage to defy the threats from the Taliban, they replied that they wanted to end the war and vote for peace-building to secure their future. I asked women voters if the interest in protecting their own rights was the primary factor behind their determination to vote. Their response was that security and peace must be at the base of any advancement in Afghanistan, including for the protection of human and women’s rights. The international community that has failed to secure common Afghans’ lives over the past 13 years must take careful note of these statements.

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In the polling stations I visited in the poorer sections of the city, including the old Kabul city, foreign observers were notably absent. The station coordinators said that I was the only foreign guest they received, and I was treated royally, with snacks and green tea. Rumors are that foreign observers flocked to the stations in the heavily-protected upscale areas of Kabul. The campaign coordinators of the candidates say that with 6000 stations across the country, no meaningful monitoring could be undertaken by the foreign observer team of less than a hundred.  No observer mission came from Canada; nor did our embassy in Kabul send its staff to observe.

While the election day closed with no security incidents in Kabul, reports are pouring in of scattered violence and deaths in various provinces of the country. Yet the incidence of violence is far less than in 2009. The credit goes to the Afghan security forces, whose performance is a critical indicator of the international community’s (and Canada’s) success in building their capacity.  That achievement must be sustained through the international community’s continued engagement with a new government legitimized by Afghan voters.

It is best to refrain from quoting spurious figures forecasting number of votes counted for lead candidates. Because of the likelihood of no candidate winning more than 50% of votes, a second round of voting for the two top candidates will be required—an expensive undertaking for a country already experiencing economic stress. The final second round results will not be available before the end of June.

Nonetheless, now is the moment to celebrate the success story of an election process planned and organized by Afghans for Afghans.

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