After a three-year delay, Afghanistan finally held its long overdue parliamentary elections over the weekend. The lead up to the elections was marred by intense violence, leading to delays in voting in some provinces, and on Election Day the Taliban claimed to have staged 164 attacks. Overall, the Taliban appeared better prepared than the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversaw the most operationally flawed election since the end of Taliban rule. Nonetheless, the IEC reported that four million Afghans defied the violence to cast their votes, and more are due to vote next Saturday in the delayed election in Kandahar. USIP’s Scott Worden examines the impact of violence, the elections’ credibility and what implications the polls will have for the peace process and the critical 2019 presidential election.

Attendees are searched before entering a political rally in Kabul. Voting under threat of Taliban violence, Afghans across the country cast ballots for parliament on October 20. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Attendees are searched before entering a political rally in Kabul. Voting under threat of Taliban violence, Afghans across the country cast ballots for parliament on October 20. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

How did violence impact Election Day?

Similar to past elections, the parliamentary elections on Saturday and Sunday took place in the face of exceptional levels of violence. The Taliban threatened to disrupt voting with attacks, and did so. A full picture of security incidents is still emerging, but initial numbers released by the Afghan government show 17 civilians and security personnel killed and 54 wounded in 193 overall attacks. Still, Afghan voters demonstrated their bravery and remarkably strong support for democracy by waiting in long lines, even though they were exposed to possible attacks in many locations across the country. After explosions near some polling stations, voters returned later in the day to vote.

Overall, however, turnout was down significantly from the last elections for president and provincial councils in 2014. This is a product of intimidation by the Taliban as much as direct attacks on Election Day. Several polling centers could not open because election staff failed to show after threats of reprisal issued before Election Day. Delays in opening polling stations and shortages of materials during voting are also a product of poor security that makes transport of ballots across the country unduly difficult. And more than a third of planned polling locations were closed in advance of the elections due to security concerns.

From a technical perspective, how well were the elections conducted? Were there any major glitches in the biometric machines or other issues that could imperil the elections’ credibility?

Unfortunately, these elections had greater operational problems than any other Afghan elections since the end of Taliban rule. Initial observer reports indicate a host of problems that prevented voters from casting ballots in many areas: polling stations opened late, reducing the time to vote; new voter lists had not been properly vetted and many people could not find their names and left frustrated without casting a ballot; and it appears that counting procedures were not followed consistently across the country. For the first time since 2001, polling was extended into a second day in approximately 400 polling centers where problems on the first day impeded the ability to vote. The extension allows greater enfranchisement, which is important, but also exposes greater risks of fraud because the ballots and results have to be safeguarded overnight, when it is difficult to observe the process.

The biggest change in this election was the last-minute introduction of biometric voter verification machines, which took photos and fingerprints of voters to reduce double voting and ballot stuffing. Although the machines worked in some cases, the overall effort appears to have been a failure, as many machines did not make it to the polling centers on time and confusion about how to use them delayed the voting process in areas they did reach. The IEC now needs to upload all the data from the machines once they return to Kabul over the coming week. That will reveal a clearer picture of whether technology ultimately helped or hurt the integrity of the vote. 

The Afghan Independent Election Commission has said that four million voters cast their ballots on Saturday. What significance does this have for the more critical 2019 presidential election and Afghanistan’s democracy?

While voter turnout was low, there are some positive signs for the scheduled vote on April 20 of next year. Voter enthusiasm appears to have been high, and the low turnout reflects several factors that can be corrected for the presidential vote. The four-million vote total does not include Kandahar or Ghazni provinces, which provided more than 600,000 votes in the last presidential election. (The Kandahar election will take place on October 27 and was delayed by the Taliban assassination last week of Kandahar Police Chief Abdul Razziq; the Ghazni election was postponed indefinitely due to ongoing insecurity.) Also, problems with the supply of election workers, ballots, voter lists, and biometric machines may have reduced turnout by a few hundred thousand votes. Better training and organization can fix the operational flaws, although time is very tight.  

Security is the biggest obstacle to a fair vote, however, and there is little reason to believe that the Taliban will have less influence across the country in April than it does now. It appears that fewer than 4,500 polling centers opened out of 7,300 that were planned. The Taliban was able to prevent polling more in less populated rural areas than in secure and populous urban centers. This raises significant questions about how much participation is required to hold a legitimate vote for president: Will a president elected with the support of urban voters be seen as legitimate by voters in rural areas where the insurgency has more influence? And will turnout of less than half of the country’s eligible voters produce a result that the entire country accepts? With these risks in mind, increasing voter registration and improving voter access are key priorities before the presidential vote.

What implications will the parliamentary elections have for the peace process?

These elections confirmed much about the status quo in the peace process. The Taliban have significant control of large areas of the country, and significant influence over areas they do not directly control. The Taliban again expressed opposition to the elections and were able to significantly impair their performance. This tends to reduce government legitimacy and provide fissures that the Taliban can exploit for their own gain. 

At the same time, Afghan citizens demonstrated again with their votes and their lives that they oppose the Taliban’s vision for the country and seek a nonviolent political solution through elections. For its part, the government was unable to execute a smooth election due in part to poor organization exacerbated by political divisions. Overall, this election highlights the tragic gap between citizen’s peaceful and democratic vision for the country and the failure of either the government or the Taliban to deliver it.

The weak performance of the parliamentary election sets the stage for a more important contest in the April elections, which will be seen by the Taliban and the different slates running for the presidency as a “winner-take-all” event. For the Taliban, the question is whether they can be brought into the presidential election process as part of an interim deal that promises future political concessions to accommodate a disarmed Taliban within the government in exchange for a cease-fire that would enable more inclusive voting. For the nonviolent political factions, the question is whether they can unite to form a cohesive slate that wins support from across the country, or do they revert to ethnic alliances that divide the electorate and provide fuel for prolonged conflict ahead. For the Afghan people, the question is whether they can impress upon the leaders of the fighting, as they did during peace marches and support for a cease-fire during Ramadan in June, that their overwhelming priority is peace.

Related Publications

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

A Foot Forward for Peace in Afghanistan?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

By: Scott Smith

Taliban and Afghan representatives agreed early this week to a basic, albeit non-binding, roadmap for intra-Afghan negotiations aimed at ending the 18-year war. Since the U.S. resumed direct talks with the Taliban last September, the two sides have focused on the withdrawal of foreign forces and the steps the Taliban will take against terrorists on Afghan soil. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan talks on a political roadmap have yet to get off the ground. After months of seeming stasis, this week’s Doha meeting has injected renewed hope. USIP’s Scott Smith looks at what happened this week, what it means for Afghan women, and the next steps in the peace process.

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Amid a Spike in Violence, Have Afghan Peace Talks Lost Momentum?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

After rapid progress in early 2019, the Afghan peace process has seemingly slowed. The U.S. chief negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, said in May that his negotiations with the Taliban were making slow but steady progress, but there has been little headway in starting talks among the various Afghan parties. Meanwhile, violence has ratcheted up, as typically occurs in the spring and summer in Afghanistan. The country’s overdue presidential polls are scheduled for late September, further complicating efforts to achieve peace. Can talks succeed amid the violence and political discord? Will the elections drain momentum from the peace process? USIP’s Johnny Walsh looks at the Afghan peace process ahead of the next round of talks in late June.

Peace Processes

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Women in Conflict: Advancing Women’s Role in Peace and Security

Thursday, June 13, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar

Palwasha Kakar, senior program officer for religion and inclusive societies, testified on June 13 at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues' hearing on "Women in Conflict: Advancing Women's Role in Peace and Security.” Her expert testimony as prepared is presented below.

Gender; Peace Processes

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Perspectives on Peace from Taliban Areas of Afghanistan

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

By: Ashley Jackson

Notably absent from the debate around peace in Afghanistan are the voices of those living in parts of the country that have borne the brunt of the fighting since 2001—particularly those living in areas under Taliban control or influence. This report provides insight into how Afghan men and women in Taliban-influenced areas view the prospects for peace, what requirements would have to be met for local Taliban fighters to lay down their arms, and how views on a political settlement and a future government differ between Taliban fighters and civilians.


View All Publications