How to win an Afghan election

Afghan election in 2009

On 17 July 1973, a bloodless coup took place in Kabul, Afghanistan. While King Zahir Shah was traveling outside the country, Prime Minister Daoud seized control of the government, proclaiming a new Republic of Afghanistan. Daoud Khan himself would fall victim to a coup just a few years later, when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) -- Afghanistan's Soviet-backed communist party -- violently removed him from power in 1978.

Since then, there has not been a peaceful transition of power between leaders of Afghanistan, with the PDPA regime (1978-1992), the islamist Mujahedeen government (1992-1996) and the Taliban (1996-2001) each being forcibly ejected from Kabul. So it is with understandable trepidation that most observers consider the upcoming election to replace term-limited current President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan's previous Presidential elections have been marked with vigorous competition, widespread allegations of corruption and cheating, and a substantial amount of violence and intimidation. While the 2014 presidential election campaign period officially began just a short time ago on Sunday 2 February, the buildup to this vote has gone on for the last several years. No less than eleven candidates have launched official campaigns, while dozens of other prospective candidates initiated exploratory bids over the last 18 months.

The nation's diverse set of political, ethnic, religious, economic and geographic identities can be seen in sharp relief as the election campaign gets underway. Notables from major identity groups are closely involved in the Presidential campaign, whether raising money and promising favors, whipping votes in rural areas or working to change (or subvert) the electoral rules in their candidate's favor.

What is perhaps most fascinating, however, is though Afghanistan has a long track record of ballot stuffing, electoral fraud, and general impunity for well-connected and well-armed lawbreakers, there are limits to the lengths to which a candidate may go in seeking victory.

To win in an Afghan election, one must engage in large scale vote-buying, collusion, corruption and other activities that seemingly undermine the democratic process. At the same time, however, if one too thoroughly and visibly undermines the electoral process -- winning in a way that enough of the population considers to be illegitimate -- he can quickly find himself on the wrong end of a violent coup.

So, while Afghanistan officially has transitioned to a democratic system that is bound by the rule of law, it is only the very real threat of a violent coup or rebellion that keeps political actors within the bounds of "reasonable" behavior.

Setting the stage for 2014

While much has changed in Afghanistan in the past decade, including political allegiances and rivalries, many things are as they were. The basic distribution of support for key ethno-political leaders remains similar, as well as the relative areas of support for President Karzai. During the first round of the 2004 Presidential election in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai won nearly all the Pashtun provinces of the country, while contenders Mohamed Mohaqiq (a Hazara), Yunus Qanooni (Tajik) and Abdul Rashid Dostum (Uzbek), each won provinces where their respective co-ethnics represent a plurality. The following chart illustrates the geographic distribution of first round vote totals by province, with the colored labels indicating which candidate received the most votes in a province.[1]




While Karzai was able to win several northern provinces during the 2004 election, this was largely due to split votes among the contenders, rather than a strong level of support for Karzai himself. The following chart[2] shows the first round votes for Karzai by province. He was able to win Balkh and Kunduz provinces without winning a majority, but instead by winning a plurality of votes among many candidates.

Nonetheless, in Presidential elections in Afghanistan, the vote total that officially matters is simply the national popular vote. As such, an additional vote in Kandahar province (where Karzai won more than 90 percent of the vote) is worth exactly the same as an additional vote from Balkh. So why would Karzai, much like the Pashtun candidates currently in 2014, be concerned with winning over tougher voters in the North and Northeast?

This gets back to the question of legitimacy as it was discussed earlier. While many have noted the ethnic and religious fault lines in Afghan society, there is what longtime Afghanistan scholar Martine van Bijlert observer calls a deep "determination among many Afghans not to be violently fractured again."[3] For a candidate like Hamid Karzai, who is almost guaranteed to win, running up the vote totals through intimidation or ballot stuffing is actually less important that establishing a minimum base of support throughout the country that lends an basic level of legitimacy to his administration.

The 2009 election brought this dynamic into sharp relief, with a tightly contested election that tested the ability of the administration to deliver an electoral victory that won in terms of both technicalities and optics.

The international community, also keen for the elections in Afghanistan to be viewed internationally as legitimate and transparent, set up an Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which was led by a mixed group of international and national members. The foreigners held the majority of the ECC seats, and were set up to field reports of irregularities. The ECC was responsible for auditing and certifying the results of the election.

The following chart shows the number of ECC election irregularities complaints per 10,000 inhabitants, computed by province. While allegations of fraud were rife in the south of the country, the most concentrated areas of complaints were in the northeast of Afghanistan, with Baghlan, Panjsher and Nuristan provinces receiving the most on a per-capita basis.

It is hard to tell from the data against whom the alleged complaints were targeted, nor is it easy to characterize which candidate(s) benefited the most of the fraud. In the ECC audit, Karzai had the most votes removed, as compared to his chief rivals, namely Dr. Abdullah (who went to the second round of voting with Karzai). Most evidence indicates that most of the fraudulent activities during the voting period were organized by pro-government networks and benefited Karzai.[1]

In addition to fraud allegations, there was widespread violence on election day in 2009, as well as during the 2010 provincial council elections. The 2009 election day violence largely followed the "normal" trends of violence in the country, with attacks per capita highest in the east and south

Violence in an election context in Afghanistan has mostly been authored by Taliban, Haqqani network and other armed anti-government elements, rather than "mainstream" political elements in the Afghanistan political sphere. That is not to say that there have not been numerous cases of intimidation and threats of violence against voters and local leadership who deliver votes.[1] Most "routine" intimidation goes on long before election day, however, leaving mostly acts that are intended to undermine the legitimacy of the process to election day itself.

Winning the election

As a result of the challenging and changing security and political landscape, winning a presidential election in Afghanistan requires a carefully calibrated strategy that mixes traditional elements of democracy like voter turnout, old-fashioned horse-trading and deal-making, with with real evaluations about the power of armed groups, the real possibility of an armed coup, and the threat of resurgent rebellion that moves from extreme elements associated with the Taliban to more mainstream political actors.

Indeed, it is the threat of an elite coup or overwhelming populist rebellion -- along with a small but authentic risk of blowback from international donors -- that holds political elites to some level of accountability during election season. We will see how it plays out this time in April.



[1] Data from the IEC and the National Democratic Institute (NDI)

[2] Data from the Afghan IEC and UNAMA

[3] Martine van Bijlert , " Fear, Hope and Determination: Afghanistan and the 2014 Syndrome". Afghanistan Analysts Network (AA

[4] e.g. Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall (6 September 2009)  Fake Afghan Poll Sites Favored Karzai, Officials Assert. New York Times

[5] Democracy Now. (25 August 2009). Afghan Election Marred by Fraud, Intimidation, Violence, Low Turnout.