Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

High-Stakes Afghan Vote Paves Way For Next Hurdle: 2019 Election

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has another year before he commits to seeking reelection but the weekend parliamentary polls will set the tone for any potential bid to stay in power.

High-Stakes Afghan Vote Paves Way For Next Hurdle: 2019 Election

Since the Taliban were ousted in a U.S. invasion in 2001, Afghan elections have been tainted by violence, ballot-stuffing and delays. A discredited poll could spill over into a fresh crisis at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking to negotiate an accord with the Taliban -- with Afghan forces and the 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country unable to bring an end to the violence.

“For Afghanistan, for the broader region, and for the U.S. and its NATO partners, it’s critical to have a credible and democratically elected government for the sake of stability and for potential peace talks with the Taliban,” said Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

“This election marks the first step of a major political transition that will culminate with a new president next year,” Kugelman said.

Potential Boycott

Of the country’s 8.8 million registered voters, about four million Afghans cast ballots to elect 250 lawmakers, according to the country’s Independent Election Commission. The turnout excludes two provinces -- Kandahar and Ghazni –- where security issues prevented the commission from opening polling stations. The IEC will hold polls in Kandahar on Oct 27 and is considering to hold another vote in Ghazni by next year. The election was already delayed by three years.

High-Stakes Afghan Vote Paves Way For Next Hurdle: 2019 Election

“The turnout was relatively good in cities but low in rural areas where security is not good,” said Ali Yawar Adili, an analyst and researcher with Kabul-based Afghan Analyst Network independent think tank.

The election commission is planning to release the final results next month, yet political parties may boycott the outcome. Many are already criticizing the government for being too weak to pull off the election without serious problems.

More than 400 polling centers weren’t able to accept voters due to Taliban threats, malfunctioning biometric devices, a lack of election materials and staff shortages. The commission extended voting for an extra day, but 148 polling centers remained closed.

If the political parties or stakeholders won’t accept the results, it may delay the presidential election, Adili said.

‘Sham Turnout’

Many of the voters “found disorganized and chaotic polling stations, not to mention the rampant reports of attacks on voting sites, is a reminder of the flawed nature of the democratic process in Afghanistan,” Kugelman said.

The elections were hit by over 407 Taliban attacks and the group vowed to stop the upcoming presidential elections, its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said. The commission provides reporters with “sham turnout figures,” he added.

Attaullah Nang, the deputy director general of the Afghan central bank’s procurement department in eastern Nangarhar province was killed in one of those attacks on Saturday, the bank said in a statement.

Over 5,000 complaints were lodged to Electoral Complaints Commission about fraud, misconduct and technical issues, spokesman Ali Reza Rouhani said, while Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak told state TV that 442 attacks that killed or wounded more than 150 were reported.

‘Historic Success’

In an Oct. 21 televised address to the nation, Ghani called the turnout as “historic success for Afghanistan’s democracy,” noting that by casting ballots, Afghans showed they wouldn’t surrender to the Taliban threats and warnings.

High-Stakes Afghan Vote Paves Way For Next Hurdle: 2019 Election

“The institutions in the country will be able to learn from the outcomes of this, in order to implement a smoother voting process in the presidential elections in April next year,” said Viraj Solanki, a research analyst for South Asia at International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“They will need to overcome the logistical troubles, in particular the difficulties faced with the biometric devices used during the election,” Solanki said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.