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Ballot Box Distress and Future of Afghanistan

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 30, 2014

    The recently concluded Afghan Presidential election, rather than facilitating crucial political transition, is mired in controversy. The preliminary results of the run-off round of the election, announced by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) on July 7, reversed the electoral trend of the first round amid allegations of wide-spread rigging. Abdullah Abdullah, who was leading the first round of election in April with 45 per cent votes, was overtaken by Ashraf Ghani, who came second with 32 percent of the votes and was trailing by more than 13 percent. However, the preliminary results of the run-off put Ghani in the lead with 56 percent of the total votes while Abdullah Abdullah was trailing behind with 44 percent. The voter turnout in the run-off was 8.1 million, an increase of over 1 million votes, compared to the first round.

    Stuffed Ballot?

    This election, like the previous one, was not free from the accusation of large-scale fraud. The supporters of Abdullah have been accusing Zia ul haq Amarkhil , the head of the IEC, and President Karzai of supporting Ghani and orchestrating a massive electoral fraud. His supporters also circulated a video where a close aide of the Afghanistan chief electoral officer Amarkhil apparently instructed his officers to get the ‘sheep stuffed’ in a reference to ballot boxes. Afghan television channels also telecast the police chief of Kabul stopping Amarkhil from transporting ballot boxes from the IEC headquarters after the poll was over.

    All this led to the resignation of Amarkhil. The fact that there was ‘industrial scale fraud’ was accepted by both the contesting parties involved in the election. Abdullah supporters put pressure on the Karzai government and the IEC, and announced that if this fraud was not investigated, they would announce the formation of a parallel government. There were also talks of forming a transitional government for one year till the entire controversy surrounding the election was sorted out.

    At this juncture, when Afghanistan seemed to slide into chaos, Kerry’s visit seemed to make some headway. After grueling negotiation with the two contesting parties, Kerry could make the two contending candidates agree to an audit of all the 23,000 polling stations across the country, after the ballot boxes were flown by ISAF into Kabul for this purpose. Both the parties further agreed that they would form a national unity government and accept the results of the audit. The UN was asked to prepare a proposal detailing the manner in which the audit could be supervised in consultation with both the candidates.

    The Audit

    The audit will take place in two stages – (i) physical recounting and (ii) the criteria to invalidate votes after all the ballot boxes are verified using a 16-point check list.1 While the physical auditing is continuing at the moment, the procedures for invalidation or necessary regulatory decisions are yet to be put in place and the UN has tasked the IEC with the responsibility of adopting the necessary regulatory decisions.2 The procedures of auditing are going to be important and should be acceptable to the supporters of each camp. According to media estimates, roughly around 4.5 per cent of the ballot boxes have been examined for fraud. The audit has been suspended thrice since it began on July 17.

    Examining the fraud

    A close examination of the results of both the rounds would reveal the reasons for Ghani’s spectacular win and Abdullah’s allegations. The following table shows the comparative votes the two presidential candidates secured in the first round:

    Click here for Table

    This table clearly illustrates that Abdullah led in 19 provinces and Ghani in 14 provinces, while Rassoul led in 1 in the first round. Since both the candidates failed to garner 50 per cent of the votes as required by the Afghan constitution, the second round was necessary. Even with the support of Zalmai Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai for Abdullah, it is clear that the voting pattern was vastly different in the run off. With the number of candidates reduced to two, ethnic polarization seems to have determined the pattern of voting by the electorates in the run off eleading to drastic reversal of fortunes for Ghani. According to preliminary results, while Ghani surged ahead in 18 provinces, Abdullah could only manage 16. According to reports, Abdullah was more concerned about rigging in Ghor, Nuristan, Khost, Paktia and Paktika which are the strong holds of the Pashtuns and the Taliban.


    Comparison of Abdullah and Ghani’s performance in the First Round:
    Comparison of Abdullah and Ghani’s performance in the First Round

    Comparison between the two Candidates as per preliminary runoff results
    Comparison between the two Candidates as per preliminary runoff results
    Data Source: 2014 Election Results, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan

    Data Source: 2014 Election Results, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan
    Source: Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan
    Province wise Voter turnout:
    Province Total Valid votes-First Total Valid Votes-Runoff Increase in votes
    Kabul 7,85,088 8,76,565 91, 477
    Kapisa* 66,670 85,120 18,450
    Parwan§ 1,49,701 1,44,331 -5370
    Wardak 99,686 2,35,663 1,35,977
    Logar 33,073 95, 289 62,216
    Ghazni§ 3,59,707 3,10, 937 -48,770
    Paktika 1,81, 079 4, 04, 562 2,23,483
    Paktia 2, 53, 234 3, 34, 405 81,171
    Khost 1,13,083 4,00,160 2,87,077
    Nangarhar 3,35,135 4,10,086 74,951
    Kunnar 1,07,386 2,12,218 1,04,832
    Laghman 81,647 1,19,542 37,895
    Nooristan* 61,729 80, 915 19,186
    Badakhshan* 2,94,936 3,12,215 17,279
    Takhar§ 3,16,565 3,06,866 -9699
    Baghlan* 2,53,681 3,84,540 1,30,859
    Kunduz 2,13,409 1,92,117 -21,292
    Samangan§ 1,41,592 1,41,103 -489
    Balkh§ 3,91,618 3,55,765 -35,853
    Juzjan+ 1,47,308 1,30,136 -17,172
    Sar-i-pul 1,48,197 1,32,947 -15,250
    Faryab 2,64,910 3,31,123 66,213
    Badghis* 1,28,297 1,35,352 7045
    Herat* 4,92,851 5,11,961 19,110
    Farah 56,729 75,385 18,656
    Nimroz+ 46,324 31,638 -14,686
    Helmand+ 1,03,558 59,026 -44,532
    Kandahar 2,49,666 3,20,132 70,466
    Zabul 20,375 59,854 39,479
    Uruzgan+ 22,345 20,631 -1714
    Ghor* 3,03,197 3,28,794 25,597
    Bamyan* 1,66,828 1,67,328 500
    Panjshir * 43,447 64,299 20,852
    Daikundi* 1,71,495 1,76,522 5027

    Source: 2014 Election Results, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan

    Key for the Table:

       Provinces where Ghani won by large margin is shown in bold
    * Provinces where Abdullah won and voting increased
    + Provinces where Ghani won and voting decreased
    § Provinces where Abdullah won and voting decreased

    Explaining the Voting Pattern: Province wise Trend


    Ashraf Ghani led in Kabul by a margin of around 32,000 votes, or approximately 3.5%, more than his competitor in the runoff. Compared to the first round, his vote saw an increase of 20 percentage points, from 31.62 % to 51.83 %. The Pashtun factor may have worked for him and it is likely that the supporters of Zalmai Rassoul (8.26 %) and Sayyaf (7.53 %) voted for him. Important to note here that both Rassoul and Sayyaf backed Abdullah. Though Kabul is primarily Tajik dominated, there is a dominant Pashtun population in three districts3, which might have voted overwhelmingly in favour of Ghani. In the first round, 3 per cent of the votes were found invalid in Kabul.4

    Kapisa and Parwan

    Abdullah dominated Kapisa and Parwan, the provinces that border his home province of Panjshir. He retained all three in the run-off. Both Kapisa and Parwan are Tajik-majority provinces with significant Pashtun population.5 There was an increase of voting by around 18,000 in Kapisa although Parwan saw a slight decrease by about 4000 votes. Around 2000 ballots from Kapisa (3 % of total) and 6200 votes from Parwan(4 % of total) were invalidated in the first round.6 21 polling sites in Kapisa were closed for the runoff but only one was closed in Parwan.7


    Ashraf Ghani snatched Wardak from Abdullah in the runoff, and made huge gains in terms of vote share. He received 15.11 % of the votes in the first round as compared to province-winner Abdullah who got 36.37 %. Interestingly, in the run-off, Ghani received 79.09 % of the total votes cast, an increase of around 45 percentage points. Abdullah’s vote share fell to 20.91 %. It seems that Ghani may have taken Sayyaf (24.64 %), Rassoul (16.74 %) and Hilal’s (5.03 %) vote share.

    Possible explanation for this could be that Wardak is a mixed province with large populations belonging to Pashtun and Hazara ethnic groups.8 It is possible that Abdullah, due to his Northern Alliance background, received maximum Hazara votes, and also some Pashtun votes in the first round. In the runoff, however, Pashtuns seem to have rallied around Ghani with ethnic consolidation working in his favour. His massive lead means he got some Hazara votes as well.

    However, that still does not give the entire picture. This is because the number of votes cast in this province increased by 1.35 lakh from the first round, and most of these votes seem to have gone to Ghani. This points to a possible fraud. However, only 1765 votes (1.7 % of total) were invalidated from this province for fraud and other irregularities in the first round.9


    Although Ghani retained Logar in the runoff, he increased his vote share from the first round by more than 25 percentage points in the runoff (from 63.35 % to 90.85 %) or around 60,000 votes. This can only be explained by Ghani taking away some of Abdullah’s votes from the first round (18.65 %) as well as votes earlier polled by Sayyaf (11.25%), Hilal (2.65%) and Rassoul (2.41%). But even that does not explain the lead, until we take into consideration the increase of 60,000 in the votes cast in the runoff as compared to the first round. Most of these went to Ghani, pointing to a possibility of fraud.

    This province being a Taliban stronghold, it could also mean that there was a tacit understanding with the Taliban which allowed the people to come out in large numbers and vote. However, according to Ghani this turnout was because they stepped up their campaign through religious leaders and tribal elders and their persuasion worked in his favour. Sixty two polling stations were closed in Logar in the runoff, due to security and other concerns.10 There was a rocket fired at a polling station, reportedly killing two voters on the day of the runoff election.11 About 750 votes were invalidated in Logar in the first round, about 2 % of its total valid ballots.12


    Abdullah retained Ghazni in the runoff, but Ghani increased his vote share from 19 % to 41.53 %. This could have been possible because Ghazni is a mixed province with approximately 49 % Pashtun, 45 % Hazara and 4 % Tajik population with 1 % others.13 Like in the previous cases, Ghani seems to have secured the support of the Pashtuns while Abdullah may have received Tajik and Hazara votes. In Ghazni, 98 polling booths were closed in the runoff due to security related issues.14 Number of votes even decreased marginally from the first to the runoff round. But it had only 5701 (1.4 % of total) ballots invalidated in the first round though there were reports of large scale fraud in Andar district.15

    Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman

    Ghani retained all the Pashtun-dominated eastern provinces in the runoff with huge margins. In fact, in Laghman, Ghani increased his vote share from 49.82 % to 85.79 %. It appears that he took Hilal’s vote (19.87%), who backed him but also took the votes of Sayyaf (9.92%)’s and Rassoul (9.35 %) who personally backed Abdullah. He also took most of the 37,000 new votes cast in this province in the runoff.

    There was an increase in voting in all these provinces. In Kunar, Paktika and Khost, votes increased by more than 1, 2 and 3 lakh respectively. In Paktika and Khost, the number of votes tripled in the runoff. Khost, Paktia, Paktika were also the provinces where Abdullah had the most concerns about fraud after runoff.

    Large swathes of these provinces are under Taliban control, which means that such a high turnout cannot happen without Taliban’s concurrence or there could be massive rigging. There has been a history of fraud committed in these provinces. But Ghani has attributed this increase in eastern provinces to tribal and religious mobilisation. Both because of the Taliban support and proactive mobilisation by Ghani, which has been confirmed by some on-the-ground reports, in Paktia, Paktika and Khost, Ghani could possibly sweep these provinces.16 It is also reported that, some governors of eastern provinces such as Juma Khan Hamdard of Paktia, were very vocal in their support for Ghani. In fact, some reports suggest that the governors of Kunar, Paktika and Khost supported Ghani.17

    There could have been some fraud in Nangarhar as it had the most number of polling stations, at least 102, closed during the first round, due to security reasons.18 On the runoff day, 80 polling stations were closed due to security concerns.19 There were multiple incidents of violence in Nangarhar just a few days before the election. Yet it saw 75,000 new votes cast, an increase of about 22 % from the first round. Nangarhar also had 8349 (2.4 % of total) ballots that were declared invalid in the first round.20 However, other eastern provinces had only 2000 to 3000 ballots invalidated.

    Kunar had also witnessed attacks days before the election, but the insurgents mostly targeted the army. This province also borders Pakistan’s restive tribal region. There was an increase of over 1 lakh votes during runoff.

    Nooristan and Badakhshan

    Abdullah retained both these northeastern provinces, which saw an increase of about 17,000 and 19,000 ballots compared to the first round.

    There were some indications that fraud could have occurred in Badakhshan, judging by the fact that about 7200 or 2.3 % of its total valid ballots were declared invalid in the first round.21 Forty seven polling stations in Badakhshan were closed during run-off because of violence and access issues.22 There were reports that Maulvi Abdul Aziz a member of Wolesi Jirga member and also a member of Hezb-i-Islami and his supporters forced people at a polling centre in Kohistan district to vote for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

    Kunduz, Takhar, Baghlan

    Surprisingly, Abdullah lost his lead to Ghani in the northern province of Kunduz, and was faced with a tough contest with Ghani in other northern provinces such as Takhar and Baghlan. In Kunduz, Ghani got 57.6 % of votes while Abdullah received 42.3 %. In Takhar, Abdullah led by 52.21% as compared to Ghani’s 47.79 %, and in Baghlan, too Abdullah led by 55.19 % to Ghani’s 44.81 %. In fact, in Baghlan, Ghani increased his vote share from around 50,000 in the first round to about 1,70,000 in the runoff.

    This could be explained by the fact that Kunduz is a mixed province, with 33 % Pashtun population, 27% Uzbek, 22 % Tajik, 6% Hazara, 11 % Turkmen and 1 % Pashai.23 With Ghani choosing the Uzbek warlord Dostum as one of his vice presidential nominees, it may have become easy for him to enhance his position in this province in the runoff. Similarly, Takhar and Baghlan also have mixed populations. Takhar has both Uzbek and Tajik populations while Baghlan, although largely Tajik, has significant Pashtuns, Hazaras and Uzbeks.24

    It must be remembered nevertheless that Baghlan also had a very significant increase in the number of votes from first round—by about 1.3 lakh. In fact, Baghlan had around 8600 or 2.3 % of total valid ballots which were invalidated in the first round.25

    Kunduz and Takhar, on the other hand, had a drop in the number of votes compared to the first round. But one significant thing is that Kunduz had about 10,000 votes disallowed in the first round due to fraud/irregularities.26

    Samangan and Balkh

    Abdullah retained both these largely Tajik Northern provinces with a comfortable margin, gaining 15-20,000 votes over the first round.

    However, Balkh had a large number of votes, around 18,000 or 4.2 % of total valid votes which was invalidated in the first round,27 indicating possibility of fraud/irregularities. According to media reports Atta Mohammad Noor, who is the Governor of Balkh, supported Abdullah and may have stuffed ballot boxes in Abdullah’s favour.

    Juzjan and Faryab

    Ghani retained both these provinces, getting almost the same number of votes in Juzjan as the first round but adding around 40,000 to his earlier Faryab tally. Both Ghani and Abdullah increased their vote share in Faryab.

    Although Juzjan (also written as Jowzan) saw a drop in votes in the runoff, Faryab increased its share by about 66,000 votes, which seem to have gone in almost equal share to both Ghani and Abdullah. Faryab had about 64 polling stations closed during the runoff, due to security and other concerns.28 It had a violent attack by armed opposition in which some civilians died, only three days before the election.29


    Abdullah could not retain his lead in Sar-i-Pul, the province bordering Faryab, and conceded it to Ghani in the run off., . It is possible that Ghani might have taken the votes of Rassoul (6.15 %), Sayyaf (2.34%) and Sherzai(1.3 %). It is also a province with mixed population: 27 % Uzbek, 22 % Tajik and 6 % Hazaras as well as some Pashtuns, Arab and Turkmen populations.30 Thus, Ghani may have won on account of large number of Uzbek votes courtesy his poll understanding with Dostum, some shift in Hazara votes and consolidation of the Pashtun ethnic votes in these provinces.

    Herat, Badghis

    There also seems to be some significant changes taking place in the western provinces that were Abdullah’s traditional strongholds. Even though Abdullah retained Herat and Badghis, Ghani made significant improvement in his performance in both these provinces— especially in Herat, where he bagged almost 1.3 lakh votes more than in the first round. In fact, Abdullah polled almost the same number of votes in both the rounds in these two provinces, but it was Ghani who increased his vote share.

    This could be explained by the fact that although Herat is a largely Tajik and Hazara dominated province, it does have a significant Pashtun population, especially in Shindand and Kohsan.31 Ghani may have got Rassoul (11.41%), Sayyaf(13.78 %) and Sherzai’s (1.24 %) share of the vote. Although Badghis is 62 % Tajik, it has a 28 % Pashtun population and the rest are Uzbek , Baluch and Turkmen. 32

    However, there are possibilities of fraud in Herat because 80 polling stations were closed due to security and other issues on the runoff day33 despite which it saw an increase in votes, of about 20,000, from the first round. Also, it had 17,313 (3.1 % of its total valid) ballots invalidated in the first round.34


    This is the only province that Ghani had led in the first round but Abdullah snatched from him in the runoff. This is significant because it is a province dominated by Pashtuns for the most part but also has some Tajiks and Hazaras.35 This makes the result interesting. Also, Farah had only about 50,000 votes cast in the first round but it still had an increase of about 18,000 votes in the runoff.

    Nimroz, Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan

    Ghani also did well in the Pashtun-dominated southern provinces. He retained his lead in Nimroz, Helmand and Uruzgan but increased his share by only around 5000, 6000 and 7000 votes respectively from the first round.

    It is in Kandahar and Zabul that he took away Abdullah’s votes, leading over Abdullah by big margins. In Kandahar, he received around 2 lakh votes more in the runoff than he did in the first round. In Zabul , he got around 50,000 more votes than in the first round.

    His big win in Kandahar could be explained by one of three things: either he got Rassoul’s share of the vote, or he was helped by some rigging because the number of votes cast in Kandahar increased in the runoff. The third possibility is that there might have been an understanding between Taliban and Ghani’s team to allow people in these provinces to vote for Ghani. However, it is also likely that Rassoul’s supporters voted en bloc for him. Hypothetically, rigging of 70,000 new votes doesn’t completely explain his performance. Explaining Ghani’s win, Hashmat Karzai, President Karzai’s brother said, "Once the tribes or the elders decide (to support Ghani), it would make a big impact on the election".36

    Ghor, Bamyan, Panjshir, Daikondi

    Abdullah retained all these central provinces, where Hazara or Tajik population constitute the majority. He also increased his vote share in these provinces.

    A National Unity Government?

    The option of national unity Government is not new in Afghanistan’s history. In the past, both the Peshawar and Islamabad Accords tried to form a national government representing all the Mujaheedin factions after the Soviet withdrawal. The process failed due to incessant fighting to takeover power among the mujahideen factions. The geo-political situation in Afghanistan has undergone a sea change since. The international community is deeply engaged in the political transition in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, given the faultlines between different ethnic groups due to the civil war, national unity government is seen as a solution. Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have agreed to Kerry’s formula of a national unity government.

    However, it is not yet clear what the national unity government would portend. Would it be a power sharing arrangement? Will it satisfy the powerful supporters of the two candidates in both the camps? It has been agreed that the winner would become the President and he would create a post of Chief executive or Prime Minister on the basis of a Presidential decree and the losing candidate will suggest a nominee for this post.37 Ahmed Zia Massoud, the former Vice President is of the view that “We have to understand that a government of national unity doesn’t mean share of the power in the government”38 An effort to form national unity government also undermines the aspirations of the people, who, in spite of threat of violence, ventured out to vote. Absence of opposition will also not help the process of democratization which is often challenged by the Taliban.

    According to the agreement, the national unity government would also include, “the establishment of an opposition seat on the order of the president; the designation of chief executive and leader of the opposition by the losing candidate; equal power sharing between winning candidate and opposition leader; the holding of constitution amendment, Loya Jirga within two years of the election; and the implementation of reforms in election management bodies.”39 In the absence of a clear power sharing formula, the national unity government would be a non-starter, and rather than addressing ethnic diversity and regional disparity, it has the potential to deepen these cleavages.

    Broad reasons for Ghani’s Success

    In spite of the prediction of large-scale violence on the day of the election, both the first round and runoff passed off smoothly, which implies that even though there were sporadic attacks, such acts of violence did not deter the voters from coming out and voting in large numbers. According to some reports there were 286 attacks on Election Day during the first round, with majority in eastern province. Of the 286 insurgent attacks during this election, the vast majority (226) occurred in eastern Afghanistan, followed by 21 in the Kandahar area of southern Afghanistan, 17 in the west, 14 in the north, seven in the Helmand region and just one in Kabul. Some of the supporters of Ghani say that they had negotiated with insurgents and Taliban to allow people to vote.

    In addition, there could have been a tacit understanding between Ghani and sections of Hizb-e-Islami to let Ghani win. The Taliban appears to be gaining strength in Logar, Wardak and Nangarhar provinces. Northern Helmand province also witnessed heavy fighting. With the military operation in progress in Pakistan in North Waziristan, the flushed out Taliban fighters belonging to Haqqani group, along with foreign militants fighting with them, are likely to shift their base to southern and eastern part of Afghanistan and would like to have a leader in Kabul better disposed towards them to consolidate their hold in these areas in future.

    Thus, indirect support from the Taliban, ethnic consolidation of Pashtun votes and possible electoral fraud may have contributed to Ghani turning the tables on Abdullah in the run-off election.


    The silver lining in the cloud is the willingness of both the leaders to abide by the terms of the agreement brokered by Kerry. However, the differences between the two may derail the process. The procedure of audit is yet to be mutually agreed upon. There is a temptation on the part of both the leaders to interpret the terms of the agreement to their advantage. Therefore, it may not be easy to have a non-controversial exit out of the present controversy of electoral manipulation. In case Abdullah loses in the end, which looks quite certain at the moment, Ghani would still require his support to run a hassle-free consensus government in Kabul, so critical for sustaining the process of transition, and avert inter-ethnic strife. Any miscalculation would lead to chaos which would affect other countries of the region that have their interests and stakes in Afghanistan’s stability.

    An early resolution of the issues associated with the Afghan presidential election to the satisfaction of both the candidates is crucial both for Afghanistan and the international community. For Afghanistan, a peaceful and non-controversial transition would ensure the legitimacy of the upcoming government and push the twin processes of reconciliation and democratization forward. The new government, succeeding Karzai’s, has tremendous challenges to cope with. It has to take a call on the bilateral security agreement to allow US troops to station its troops beyond 2014; pursue reconciliation with the Taliban and find a way of integrating them in the ongoing process of transition; bring about inter-ethnic harmony; convince the international community of the need for continued assistance; manage spoiler-effects of some of the neighbouring states; bolster Afghan economy; strengthen the national army, and evolve a consensual system of government for Afghanistan. None of these issues is easy to handle. It would require visionary leadership for Afghanistan to sustain the process of transition and bring peace and prosperity to the Afghan people.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.