Afghanistan’s Never-Ending Election Multiplies Causes for Concern

A relatively orderly and peaceful first-round election in Afghanistan this year saw an almost 60% voter turnout in defiance of Taliban threats, symbolizing Afghans’ determination to unite in the interest of peace and stability. The democratic process appeared to have united the country’s factions. However, a second round of election, made necessary because no candidate won more than 50% of votes, crushed the semblance of unity. Those who believed that from diversity and decades of discord a semblance of unity was emerging in Afghanistan proved to be wrong.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) had issued an early alert on signs of drift towards ethnic divisions during the campaign period of the second round. Analyses of provincial voting patterns clearly reflect the reality of ethnic divisions. With very few exceptions, the Pashtun candidate, Ghani, received the largest percentage of votes in the provinces with majority Pashtun population; and Abdullah, perceived to be Tajik, received largest percentage of votes in provinces with Tajik majority. That Uzbek votes were captured by Ghani’s vice-presidential nominee Dostum (of Uzbek origin) was admitted by members of Ghani’s camp.

Disputes over the never-ending election have promoted a revived Taliban insurgency and alarming Taliban gains in strategic areas.

Voters felt cheated as the news of extensive election fraud circulated, with TEFA (Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan) confirming large-scale fraud.  Allegations of “industrial scale” fraud were repeatedly raised by Abdullah during the vote-count period and after the announcement of the preliminary results by the Independent Election Commission (IEC).  Ghani, the winner according to the preliminary results of the second round, also acknowledges fraud.

Announcement of the preliminary results brought Afghanistan to the brink of a political crisis. A plunge into civil war—threatened by ethnic factional fights and the formation of a parallel government by the losing candidate Abdullah’s camp—was avoided when both presidential candidates stood up to the occasion in the interest of national unity. With American mediation, Ghani and Abdullah agreed to a full audit and recount of all ballot boxes (roughly 23,000 polling stations and 8.1 million votes). The international community acknowledges this to be the largest and most complex election audit ever done. Formation of a national unity government upon completion of the audit and announcement of the final election result was also agreed upon.

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The audit required transport of ballot boxes from the remotest corners of the country to IEC auditing warehouses in Kabul. For a country with weak rule of law, rough terrain and weak infrastructure, this task alone proved to be time consuming; but all ballot boxes are now in Kabul.

Phase one of the audit involves inspection of ballot boxes, the results forms and voter logs. Phase two, conducted by IEC Board members (in the presence of the media, an UN advisor and international and national observers including candidates’ representatives) involves separating invalid from valid votes followed by vote recounts.

The second phase was suspended several times due to disagreements between candidates’ camps on criteria for invalidation of votes. Reportedly, the methodology for separating valid from invalid votes was not clear, and certainly was not agreed upon by the candidates before the start of the audit; unfortunate, since a country with a troubled election history requires electoral institutions to prepare a clear checklist for invalidation of votes. Election monitoring institutions and civil society advocates’ complaints range from irregularities and mismanagement to a lack of transparency in the audit process. The too-small cadre of monitors was not well trained, and in some cases appointed monitors were absent.

Based on new UN-proposed criteria for invalidation of ballots and ballot boxes, the IEC resumed the audit, only to be interrupted again due to disagreements between the candidates’ camps on the criteria for ballot marking. Disputes also concerned the specific terms of a unity government, which remains the best and most realistic option for defusing ethnic tensions and preventing a political crisis.  Once more, with America’s mediation, an agreement has been signed by the candidates facilitating resumption of the audit and discussions on the nature of a unity government.

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Transparency was again hampered on August 10 with monitors’ ousting of media from the audit room. American journalist Sean Carberry, visiting the audit room, reported an excruciatingly slow audit process due to constant arguments over vote invalidation, with most boxes requiring the UN to make a final ruling. UN has reportedly been blamed by observers for taking partisan positions. IEC says that the audit would move faster if the candidates’ observers do not create obstructions. So far only a quarter of the total ballot boxes have been audited, and the IEC has yet to set a date for completion of the audit.

Disputes over the never-ending election have promoted a revived Taliban insurgency and alarming Taliban gains in strategic areas. Serious casualties have been inflicted on civilians, Afghan forces and even the well-protected elite (such as President Karzai’s cousin). Attacks on foreign mentors and trainers of Afghan forces have re-appeared, and security concerns with respect to Kabul and the airport are heightened. Mullah Omar has issued a bold statement on the prospect of Taliban’s return to power. The national crime rate is rising and narcotic production booming. And on August 12, Ghani said that dual authority and equal power-sharing is not possible.

The Afghan economy and development are in poor shape, with a 20% drop in exports, over 36% of people living under the poverty line, unemployment rate at 56%, over one million children under five acutely malnourished, and 54% of girls not attending school Several ministers have reported shutdown of development projects due to lack of funds flow from the Ministry of Finance. The latter has blamed the uncertainties created by the election for delays in international aid disbursements, revenue shortage and budget deficits. Donors are withholding disbursement of roughly one billion dollars until a new President signs a security agreement allowing foreign troops to stay in the country.

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