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Elections 2014: Many votes, many doubts in eastern provinces

Naqib Ahmad Atal
In some eastern provinces the number of votes registered in the second round presidential run-off vote between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani almost tripled. Abdullah accuses his rival of fraud, but Ghani's…
22.06.2014  |  Nangarhar Province

The second round of the Afghan presidential election was characterized by accusations of fraud due to unexpected high turnout, especially in the eastern provinces of Kunar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika, where leading candidate Abdullah Abdullah accused his rival, Ashraf Ghani, of “rampant, shameless and systemic fraud”.

When a high profile Indepenent Election Commission (IEC) figure was linked to a fraud scandal – a car stuffed with filled-out ballots was stopped by police in Kabul – Abdullah called for the IEC to stop counting votes. "From now on, today, we announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies," Abdullah told reporters.

High turnout or fraud?

The main controversy revolves around the high turnout in the eastern, mainly Pashtun-populated, provinces near the border with Pakistan. Abdullah and others say the high turnout shows systematic fraud. In Paktika, for example, the number of voters more than doubled from the first to the second round of voting, according to preliminary IEC figures - based on observer tallies, leaked IEC documents and early estimates.

A spokesman for Abdullah’s team and a tribal elder in Kunar, Ghazi Nawaz Tanai, told Afghanistan Today that an agreement was reached between Ghani's team and tribal elders before the second round to ensure broad support for the Pashtun technocrat and former finance minister on election day.  

“The campaign teams of Ghani were going door-to-door to ask people to vote for Ghani. They would say to the people to vote for their Pashtun; and if they don’t, they added, they would never succeed to power again,” says Tanai.

Vote: "Collective decision" in many areas

Voters celebrate outside a poll station on June 14 in Gardez, Paktia Province. (Photo: Haqmal Masoodzai. Main photo: Khalil Rahman Omaid)

Community elders supporting Ghani don’t hide the fact that they block voted. “This collective decision and consensus was extremely effective in encouraging unprecedented participation of men and women in this election,” says Haji Samad Khan, an elder in southern Khost. “We all voted for Ashraf Ghani. No one can betray the decision made by the elders.”

Khan says the community are bound by such decisions, in life or in death. “A young lady in our village passed away on election day, but the deceased’s father didn’t inform the villagers about their loss, as he didn’t want to stop anyone from voting that day. Once everything was over, we held her funeral,” recounts Khan.

Abdullah's team says such feverous support was obtained through a campaign highlighting ethnic fears. “Dr. Ghani’s supporters were telling people that if Abdullah wins the election, the situation will get worse and a crisis will emerge. They also accused him of having close ties with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's Intelligence agency. They said if he becomes the president he will officially recognize the Durand Line," says Khushal Tasal, a spokesman for Abdullah's team in the region, referring to the territorial demarcation dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan along the border known as the Durand Line.

Eastern governors for Ghani

Ghani also had broad political support in the eastern provinces. The governor of Paktia province, Juma Khan Hamdard, publically campaigned for Ghani in the run-off. The governors of Kunar, Paktika and Khost all publicly remained neutral, although it is understood all three privately support Ghani.

Despite such staunch support for Ghani in the region along the Afghan-Pakistan border, a quick look at the figures raises doubts about the authenticity and the number of votes cast in the border provinces. Ghani was expected to do well in Kunar, Khost, Paktia and Paktika – he received at least 62 per cent of the vote in all the above provinces in the first round – but turnout was substantially lower on April 5 than in the latest June 14 vote.

In the first round in Paktia, 253,234 went to the polls. In the second round, turnout was 340,000, according to Mohammadullah Haqmal, provincial head of the IEC in the province. Janan Paktin, a tribal leader in Paktia, says Pashtuns voted en masse for Ghani but that there was ethnic intimidation from powerful tribal elders to do so. “People had promised to vote in the second round for Ashraf Ghani and they were told if anyone dares to not vote or vote for the rival candidate, they will no longer be considered part of  the tribe,” says Paktin.

The Paktika conundrum

In Paktika, turnout increased substantially from the first to the second round. Zabiullah Wagrai, head of the IEC in the province, says 470,000 votes were cast in the second round run-off vote, nearly three time the amount of votes in the first round, when 181,079 we cast, according to IEC figures. Wagrai says 75 extra polling centres opened on June 14.

Prof. Nimatullah Karyab, who teaches social sciences at Said Jamaluddin Afghan University in Kunar Province, says Ghani benefitted from other candidates dropping out of the race. Islamist and Pashtun leader Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, for example, won 13 per cent of the vote in Kunar in the first round. This marginal demographic would have likely swung towards Ghani in the run-off round, despite Sayyaf pledging support for Abdullah in the run-off campaign.

Voter corridoor negotiated with Taliban

Other observers say Ghani’s team successfully negotiated informal alliances with insurgent groups in different regions to ensure their supporters could access poll centres safely. Haji Ziart Gula, Kunar resident and Ghani supporter, says local Taliban insurgents did not attack voters on election day. “Qutbudin Helal supported Dr. Ashraf Ghani in the runoff. He is one of the closest people to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; they said to people if you vote, you should vote for Ashraf Ghani,” Ziart told Afghanistan Today.

An IEC staff member counts votes shortly after polls closed on June 14. (Photo: Asghar Noor Mohammad)

In neighbouring Nangarhar Province, a spokesman for Ghani, Sediq Mohmand, says similar deals were reached with local Taliban leaders to ensure voters could safely cast their votes, for example in the district of Bati Kot. “Our people in places in insecure areas participated in the election with full confidence to vote for the candidate of their choice,” Mohmand told Afghanistan Today.

The Taliban used letters and threats to deter citizens from voting in many areas, but largely refrained from aggravtaions in the eastern provinces. Analysts say the small number of strikes is an indirect endorsement for Ghani, given that Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia and Khost are all key target areas for the technocrat.   

Abdullah has accused IEC staff in the highlighted provinces of impartiality. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has until July 16 to investigate the hundreds of frauds complaints from across the country. The IEC is scheduled to announce the final results of the election on July 22.

Mohammad Yaseen Yaseen, a resident of Paktika Province is confident the reasons for the high number of voters will be clarified. “Good security was one of the main factors that contributed to a larger turnout on election day,” says Yaseen. Some things still surprised him all the same: “Such large scale participation of women was a miracle,” he says.