The April 5th elections that took place in Afghanistan received wide international coverage. There were concerns of voter fraud and ballot stuffing, threats of violence from the Taliban, and the enduring influence of departing President Hamid Karzai. What is often left out of this discussion, however, is the importance of elections from the perspective of Afghan voters and how voters relate to the Afghan national government.
According to The Economist, despite threats from the Taliban, only about 200 of over 6,000 polling stations were closed during the April 5th elections. Voters were largely unharmed. Even in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, not a single attack on a polling center took place. Nonetheless, reports of ballot stuffing, voter fraud, and early poll closings in some locations, will make transparent vote counting the next major challenge for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission.
Leading up to this year’s election, experts identified three main contenders out of the eleven total candidates listed on the ballot. The top three include:
- Abdullah Abdullah – a liberal candidate, advocate for women’s engagement in Afghani life and politics, and vocal critic of Taliban rule before 2001. He was an early supporter of Karzai, but is now running on a platform of change. His campaigners have been subject to militant attacks.
- Arshaf Ghani Ahmadzai – a moderate, communicating reform, security and peace in his platform. He is a former U.S. citizen who taught at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins. He has also worked at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. and served as a former advisor and finance minister under President Karzai—though he has since distanced himself from the current president. Some view Ahmadzai negatively as an outsider with strong ties to the U.S.
- Zalmai Rassoul – a moderate who advocates better relations with neighboring countries. Even though Karzai has not publicly backed any candidate, Rassoul is viewed as the favored candidate for the President and one that represents continuity of the current administration. His running mate for vice president, Habiba Sarabi, is one of only three women on the ballot in this election.
Unfortunately, none of the candidates received a 50 percent majority of the vote share in the April elections. The top two candidates, Abbullah Abdullah and Arshaf Ghani, who received 45 percent and 32 percent of the vote respectively, will now move to a runoff election scheduled for June 7, 2014. Karzai’s favored candidate, Rassoul, received only 12 percent of the vote and has been dropped from the race. The complaints and elections commissions have until May 14 to certify official election results and resolve any cases of fraud.
While the international stakes in this election are high, the outcome depends on the views of Afghan voters. About 80 percent of citizens are rural Afghans with stronger ties to their local community leaders than to the national government. Less than half of all Afghan citizens are old enough to vote. In 2009 after Karzai’s reelection, USAID administered an extensive survey to all Afghan citizens to gauge how closely they relate to national and local government institutions. Researchers identified a number of common themes among Afghan citizens:
- Confidence in national institutions, the President, and political parties was low. Local customary and religious leaders, though often unelected, maintained about 90 percent approval ratings.
- Security consistently ranked as the most important issue facing the nation, but support for Afghan security forces was low (about 50 percent). When asked about important issues facing their local communities, respondents highlighted unemployment and poverty, health care, and infrastructure.
- Approximately 73 percent disapproved of the Taliban. This varied by ethnic group: Pashtuns had slightly more confidence than the average, while ethnic minorities tended to show more opposition to the Taliban. Minorities also show the highest voting participation.
- Those in the north and central regions tended to be more optimistic about democracy than those in the south, where Taliban support was high. Urban residents also showed greater confidence in and support of the democratic government.
The Asia Foundation conducted a nationwide survey of similar scope in 2013. Their findings showed that most Afghans see the country moving in a positive direction, citing recent reconstruction efforts, and improvements in security and education. Security and corruption continue to be national issues of high concern, and confidence in public institutions and officials has declined at almost all levels of governance. Nevertheless, 75 percent of respondents gave the national government a positive assessment.
The transfer of power from Karzai to the next democratically elected Afghan president has major implications for regional security and Afghanistan’s foreign relations. Karzai has thus far refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, an agreement that could significantly affect Afghan security. Both leading candidates moving on to the final round of elections have stated that they will sign it. The stability of the new administration and continuance of democracy is vital, and largely depends on the transparency of this election and the support of the general public. Without a strong and legitimate national government, international aid will be at risk and the opportunity for Taliban resurgence could grow.
By: Kate Fisch, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern