Afghan Presidential Poll Draws Lowest Turnout Since U.S. Invaded

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday drew the lowest turnout since the nation first held a democratic vote in 2004, with an independent watchdog blaming Taliban violence and concerns about fraud for demoralizing voters.

The poll is largely seen as a race between incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who has uneasily shared power as the government’s chief executive. Ghani praised Afghan forces and the election commission for holding a “successful” vote.

Afghan Presidential Poll Draws Lowest Turnout Since U.S. Invaded

While votes continue to be counted, Mohammad Rafi Rafiq Sediqqi, a spokesman for the country’s independent election commission, said by phone that predictions show between 2 million and 2.5 million people voted -- a maximum of less than 30% of the 9.6 million registered electors. That prediction is more than the range estimated by election watchdog Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, or FEFA, which says that between 1.5 million and 2 million people voted.

“Lack of faith in a legitimate election, possible fraud and irregularities on voting day, Taliban threats and a lack of election awareness in rural areas make up the top reasons for the lower turnout,” said FEFA spokeswoman Sameera Rasa. The low number of voters could “undermine or question the legitimacy of the political process,” she said.

Taliban Advance

Turnout was partly higher in previous elections because the Taliban controlled less territory. The fundamentalist military group controls or contests half the country, the most since its ouster from power in 2001.

On voting day, Afghan forces were able to repel 68 attacks from the Taliban alone. At least 32 people were killed and more than 120 others wounded in another 113 violent attacks, which included bombings and rocket strikes throughout the country, according to local Afghan news agency Pajhwok, which cited local officials it didn’t identify.

The election commission is scheduled to announce provisional results on Oct. 19, followed by a final result on Nov. 7 after any possible fraudulent votes are invalidated. A run-off will be held on Nov. 23 if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.

2004 Record

There are 12 other candidates in the fray besides Ghani and Abdullah, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a conservative and former warlord, who was known as the “butcher of Kabul” during the 1990s civil war. Hekmatyar warned that he would return to the battlefield if the vote was marred by fraud.

The government deployed a third of the 272,000-strong Afghan army to secure the polls. FEFA, which monitors elections with a mandate to crack down on fraud, dispatched 4,000 observers to 5,373 polling centers.

The low turnout is a far cry from previous elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014, all votes that were also marred by allegations of ballot-stuffing and deadly violence. In the 2014 election, more than 7 million people cast a ballot, two-thirds of those registered. In 2004, three years after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban regime, saw turnout reach 75%, with 9 million people casting ballots, a record that still stands.

FEFA reported irregularities at some polling stations. Biometric machines used to fight fraud failed to work, and thousands of people weren’t able to cast ballots because their names weren’t on registration lists, the organization said.

The election’s winner will inherit a country devastated by decades of war, and will have to manage a resurgent Taliban at a time when the U.S. seeks to end an engagement that’s killed more than 2,400 of its soldiers and cost about $900 billion.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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