Editor’s Note: USIP’s Kabul office was one of the only international organizations to conduct election observation for Afghanistan’s October 20 parliamentary elections and this article was informed by their monitoring on Election Day.

On October 20, Afghanistan held its third parliamentary election since the fall of the Taliban, after a three-year delay. The lead up to the elections was marred by violence, as the Taliban orchestrated a series of attacks before and during Election Day, including an attack in Kandahar two days before the vote, which killed powerful police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq and a provincial intelligence chief, leading to a week delay in polling in the province. In some parts of the country, particularly rural areas where the Taliban have more control, voting did not happen at all.

Afghans attend a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Afghans attend a campaign rally in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

Despite the violence, the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) reported that four million Afghans—out of nine million who registered—braved the Taliban’s threats and came to the polls. The violence wasn’t the only obstacle for Afghan voters, however, who were faced with a host of challenges when they went to cast their ballots, largely due to a lack of preparation and training. The late introduction of biometric machines, designed to take photos and fingerprints of voters to prevent duplicate voting, led to a host of problems, including lengthy delays at some polling centers.

Observing the Polls in Kabul

Another consequence of poor security: there were limited international election observation missions for this vote. USIP registered as an observer organization, however, and several USIP Afghan staff members observed the process at polling centers in Kabul after casting their own votes. Their observations provide a snapshot of the process in these relatively secure areas of the capital.

While USIP did not conduct a countrywide observation mission, it detected flaws similar to those reported by other observers. Some of those observations include:

  • Voters’ lists were not properly ordered (neither alphabetically nor by serial number), causing polling center staff to spend extensive time finding names on the list. In other centers, voters’ lists were unavailable and IEC staff recorded their names on paper. Many voters, frustrated that their names could not be found on the list, simply left without casting a ballot.
  • IEC staff were poorly trained to use the new biometric machines. In many cases, the machines were not functioning properly, out of battery, or delayed in reaching polling centers.
  • In nearly every polling center observed, voting began hours later than scheduled due to the late arrival of IEC staff or polling materials. (The IEC noted that because of security issues in some areas, it was wary to bring sensitive materials to polling stations the night before.)
  • In some polling centers, the vote had to be postponed to the next day due to the lack of materials.
  • Despite the threat of violence, the IEC was unable to quickly move voters through the voting process, leading to overcrowding at men’s and women’s polling stations.
  • Observers were hindered in fully executing their duties due to overcrowding—sometimes exacerbated, ironically, by the large number of observers and candidate agents at some polling centers—and chaotic polling operations.
  • IEC staff were inconsistent regarding cell phone usage in polling centers: in some centers observers and voters were not allowed to bring the phones into the station at all and in others voters could be seen taking pictures after marking their ballots.
  • In some cases, polling staff treated candidate agents poorly, and forced them to leave the polling centers altogether. Some candidate agents, however, were seen advocating for their candidate within polling centers and disrupted the voting process.

‘It is my joy to vote’

Undaunted by these technical difficulties and Taliban threats, many Afghans expressed their enthusiasm to vote. “It is my joy to vote,” said 77-year old Qamber Ali in an interview with The Guardian. According to USIP’s Abdul Wahid Sabri, “Voters were mostly enthusiastic and did not have [many] complaints about the whole process despite the … short comings.” USIP also observed polling stations where election commission staff were prepared and professional and facilitated an efficient voting process.

Other voters demonstrated their resilience and noted their desire for change: “The lines are much too long, but I will not leave without voting,” said Abdul Ghafour, adding, “Our country needs new people in power. I have a candidate I like … it is worth the wait.”

USIP staff observed long lines throughout Kabul: “There were long queues of voters, both men and women, which was out of my expectation due to the security threats [that] exist,” said USIP’s Rafiullah Jawad. Similarly, USIP’s Muzhgan Yarmohammadi noted that when she went to vote there were a “huge number of women and men casting their votes in rows and … overcrowding at both men and women’s polling stations.” Some voters left their polling stations—as election commission staff troubleshooted technical difficulties—only to return later to vote.

Young Afghans used social media to post pictures of their inked fingers and congratulate their fellow voters. “Democracy comes with a lot of sacrifices and perseverance. Aside from challenges and difficulties, this year’s #AfghanElections was a big milestone for #Afghanistan. Congratulations @IECAfghanistan,” wrote Hamid Sakhi. And women celebrated the advances they made in this election: “It’s heartening to see Afghan women overwhelmingly participated in #AfghanElections. I hope it paves the way to a prosperous #Afghanistan where women and men work on equal basis,” said Afghan activist Malika Shaeed.

What’s Next?

The Afghan Independent Electoral Complaints Commission received 5,333 complaints after the voting on October 20, with 1,700 from Kabul alone; these figures do not include complaints from delayed polling. On October 30, Afghanistan’s Attorney’s General Office reported that they received 130 cases of election-related crimes, many of which had to do with the forgery of ID cards.

Before the election, Scott Worden, USIP director for Afghanistan and Central Asia programs, noted, “The more time and political capital the Kabul government must spend resolving election disputes, the less focused it will be on fighting the insurgency and the more divided it will be in any negotiations with the Taliban.” With such a high volume of complaints, it looks like Kabul will indeed have to spend political capital on resolving disputes. Ultimately, the Taliban’s control and influence over much of the country suppressed voting even before Election Day, resulting in closed polling centers and low registration numbers.

Afghanistan’s pivotal presidential election, which has much greater political consequences for the country, is scheduled for April 20, 2019, leaving little time to process results and fix the procedural flaws identified by observers in the parliamentary elections.

Related Publications

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: Alex Thier

While the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban were recently thrown-off course, a peace agreement among Afghans remains an urgent priority. The U.S.-led negotiations over a phased drawdown of U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment to eschew terrorism and engage in intra-Afghan negotiations took nearly a year. Yet these talks excluded the Afghan government and other political elites and didn’t address the fundamental question of what it will take for Afghans to put a sustainable end to four decades of war: how will power be shared?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: William Byrd

As the United States has pursued peace talks with the Taliban, international discussions continue on the economic aid that will be vital to stabilizing Afghanistan under any peace deal. Yet the Afghan government has been mostly absent from this dialogue, an exclusion exemplified this week by a meeting of the country’s main donors to strategize on aid—with Afghan officials left out. The government’s marginalization, in large part self-inflicted, is a danger to the stabilization and development of Afghanistan. In the interests of Afghans, stability in the region and U.S. hopes for a sustainable peace, this rift in the dialogue on aid needs to be repaired.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By: USIP Staff; Andrew Wilder

President Trump’s weekend announcement of a halt to U.S. peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban—including a previously unannounced U.S. plan for a Camp David meeting to conclude that process—leaves the future of the Afghanistan peace process unclear. USIP’s Andrew Wilder, a longtime Afghanistan analyst, argues that, rather than declaring an end to the peace process, U.S. negotiators could use the setback as a moment to clarify the strategy, and then urgently get the peace process back on track before too much momentum is lost.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Breaking, Not Bending: Afghan Elections Require Institutional Reform

Breaking, Not Bending: Afghan Elections Require Institutional Reform

Friday, August 30, 2019

By: Scott Smith; Staffan Darnolf

Afghanistan’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on September 28. In planning the election, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) must overcome a number of practical challenges to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 2018 parliamentary elections—elections that undermined the legitimacy of the state and reduced Afghans’ confidence in democracy as a means for selecting their leaders. Based on a careful analysis of the IEC’s performance during the 2018 elections, this report offers recommendations for creating more resilient electoral institutions in Afghanistan and other postconflict countries.

Type: Special Report

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications