On April 5 Aghanistan will hold presidential and provincial council elections and they mark an important point in history for the country. USIP’s Scott Smith provides a background on the elections. 

election commission sign
Photo Credit: WikiCommons/Todd Huffman

Why are these elections important?
These elections should mark the first democratic transfer of power of an Afghan chief executive in that country’s history. Also, given the ongoing withdrawal of international troops, these elections are a real test for Afghanistan’s governmental institutions. Moreover, if the elections fail, the consequences of the resulting political disorder could be extremely destabilizing.

Who is being elected?
There is an election for the president of Afghanistan. And there are 34 elections for each of Afghanistan’s Provincial Councils. Most focus has been on the presidential elections, but for many Afghans the Provincial Councils are their main link to government.

Why isn’t President Karzai running again?
The Constitution limits a president to two terms. President Karzai has repeatedly stated that he will step down. He has not officially endorsed any of the candidates.

How many candidates are running?
In November 2013, following the candidate nomination process, 11 candidates were officially registered. Since then, three candidates have withdrawn. There have not been any recent polls, but three candidates are considered to be front-runners: Abdullah Abdullah  (former foreign minister and runner-up in 2009’s presidential election); Ashraf Ghani (former finance minister); and Zalmai Rassoul (former foreign minister).

What happens if there is a run-off?
If none of the currently contesting eight candidates win 50 percent of the vote on April 5, then the top two vote getters face each other in a run-off.
According to the Constitution and electoral law, the run-off must take place two weeks after the certification of the results of the first round. If there are numerous complaints about fraud, a lengthy complaints process might delay the first round certification. It is therefore impossible to know when exactly the run-off will take place, and therefore when the final outcome of the election will be known.

What is the international involvement in the election this time?
The international community has provided technical assistance to the IEC continually since the last election and is providing almost all of the funding for this election. This is the third cycle of elections in Afghanistan and the IEC has become a competent electoral management body. The position of the international community is to support the electoral process, but not to support any single candidate.

How influential have civic groups and Afghan women been this time compared to previous elections?
One of the success stories since 2001 has been the growth and development of civil society. This development has been obscured by the focus on government politics, but the election campaign over the past two months has revealed how important and articulate civil society has become. Women’s groups in particular have played an active role in this election, raising awareness among women concerning the importance of voting, but also organizing forums in which candidates are forced to respond to women’s concerns.

Another important group is that of youth. Sixty-eight percent of the population is under 25 years old, and millions of young people have come of voting age since the 2009 election. These groups are increasingly organized, especially in urban areas, with different youth wings backing different candidates. Their participation, given the importance of this election to their own future, might drive turnout.

How likely is the Taliban to be able to disrupt this election, and how have the Afghan security forces fared in thwarting the militants?
The Taliban have stated that the elections are illegitimate and that they will consider everyone who participates to be a legitimate target. They have, in the two weeks ahead of the election, unleashed a wave of violence against election-related and other targets.

Most experts believe that the Taliban do not have the capacity to prevent the elections from happening, but they do have the capacity to undermine it. For example, by intimidating voters in areas where they have influence, they might depress turnout and disenfranchise part of the population. A successful election, characterized by large turnout, would be a major blow to Taliban claims to represent Afghanistan’s political aspirations.

What happens if there’s widespread fraud?
Most experts expect that fraud will take place. The main problem is that polling stations that open in insecure areas are difficult to observe. These are particularly susceptible to ballot stuffing, which in the past has been the most common fraud technique for presidential elections. The IEC has, however, put in place a number of fraud mitigation measures. For example, in 2009, any ballot boxes where all 600 allocated votes were cast, or where 95 percent of the votes were cast for a single candidate, were quarantined and not included in the preliminary count until the ballots were further investigated. Since 2009, additional measures have been put in place, such as better systems to track ballots and measures to prevent altering the tally sheets.

When can we expect results?
Ballots will be counted at the polling centers. From there, the ballot boxes and tally sheets will be shipped to Kabul, where they will be tabulated. The IEC will not release any results until at least five percent of polling stations from at least 20 of Afghanistan 34 provinces have confirmed preliminary results. Given transportation times and the logistical complexities of handling the incoming materials, it might be several days or even more than a week before the first results are released.

What about observers?
Several international organizations and groups are sending technical teams of 10-15 experts each to carry out long-term observation. These include the European Union, the Organization for  Security and Cooperation in Europe, the National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and the Asian Network for Free Elections. Local Afghan observer organizations are planning to deploy around 15,000 observers. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation (FEFA) reports that it has registered 10,000; FEFA has observed every Afghan election since 2004.

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