The Taliban have warned Afghanistan’s 9.6 million eligible voters to stay away from polling stations during Saturday’s presidential election. It’s unclear how many will heed those warnings, but turnout is expected to be depressed as a result.
The last presidential election in 2014 was a bloody affair, and some say attacks may increase this time around as well, with many factions having armed supporters.
President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah — who shared power for five years in a so-called unity government — are the leading contenders in the election.
The ballot will feature all 18 candidates running for the office, but the majority have not campaigned. Most weren’t even sure the election would take place until a few weeks ago. That’s because the recently scuttled U.S.-Taliban peace talks would have probably cancelled the vote. A few candidates have dropped out of the race and announced their support for Ghani, while others may end up as spoilers for one candidate or another.
Security issues and the confusion of trying to hold an election in a country at war create a delicate situation that could easily explode.
A look at the key factors in Afghanistan’s upcoming election:
Ghani is the front-runner, although he’s facing accusations of corruption and abuse of power. Abdullah is Ghani’s partner in the unity government but his biggest rival on election day. Among the second-tier candidates is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a deeply conservative former warlord. Like Ghani, he’s also an ethnic Pashtun. That means he, along with other minor Pashtun candidates, could take votes away from the incumbent’s base and force a second round of voting.
A HURRIED CAMPAIGN
The U.S. abruptly ended yearlong peace talks with the Taliban on Sept. 7, three weeks before the scheduled election. A peace deal might have meant an interim government was formed instead, so a number of candidates didn’t hold any campaign events. Abdullah and Ghani, who are the favorites to win, have crisscrossed the country, sometimes addressing two and three rallies in a single day in different parts of Afghanistan. Campaigning ended Wednesday.
According to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, there are more than 9.6 million eligible voters. It’s unclear how many will come out to vote on Saturday, given security worries and voter apathy due to the country’s history of electoral fraud.
To win the election outright, a candidate needs 51% of all votes. If no one gets a majority, the top two candidates will face off in a second vote. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. The preliminary results should be ready by Oct. 17, nearly three weeks after the vote. The final tally’s announcement is expected on Nov. 7.
If needed, a runoff election must be held within two weeks of the final tally’s announcement on Nov. 7. Holding a second election poses logistical problems in Afghanistan’s rough terrain. But it also compounds the likelihood of a repeat of the 2014 polls, where allegations of corruption and disputed results threatened chaos and violence.
Polling centers in places like schools or mosques often get snarled with long lines. Things get more complicated because of the need to maintain gender segregation while voting. That means the wait can be even longer. During parliamentary polls last year, Afghans in some areas waited four to five hours just to cast their vote. These long lines are also vulnerable to attack.
SECURITY AND POLLING CENTERS
Roughly 9% of polling centers won’t open due to insecurity. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission requested security for 5,373 polling centers, but security agencies said 410 polling centers were impossible to secure and would be closed on Saturday. All told, there will be will over 29,000 polling booths, or stations, in all 34 provinces.
A full one-third of the country’s estimated 300,000-strong Afghan National Security and Defense Forces will be deployed on election day. That includes both military and police. Around 72,000 are to be on active duty, with another 30,000 in reserve.
THE WIDER WAR
The Taliban now control roughly half of Afghanistan and are at their strongest since the U.S.-led invasion ousted them from power in 2001. Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest war in 2018, and civilians have suffered more than anyone. More civilians were killed by Afghan and international coalition forces in Afghanistan in the first half of 2019 than by the Taliban and other militants, the U.N. mission said in a report released July 30. The U.N. report said 403 civilians were killed by Afghan forces in the first six months of the year and another 314 by international forces, a total of 717. That’s compared to 531 killed by the Taliban, an Islamic State affiliate and other militants during the same period.
About 14,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan. In total, some 20,000 U.S. and NATO forces remain in Afghanistan after formally ending their combat role in 2014. They continue to train and support Afghan forces. Both the Taliban and U.S. and Afghan forces had increased their fighting in recent months to strengthen their position in the now-cancelled peace talks.
More than 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan over 18 years ago, America’s longest war.
ELECTION OBSERVERS, BY THE NUMBERS
Around 110,000 observers — including 115 national and international institutes, media outlets and observers for individual candidates — have been registered with the election commission to monitor and supervise voting day. Nine out of 18 candidates have registered their observers. Ghani will have 26,649 observers, only a few hundred less than Abdullah with 26,875 observers. The size of the remaining candidates’ pool of observers gives a rough snapshot of the size and strength of their campaign. They are: Rahmatullah Nabil: 4,466 observers; Ahmad Wali Massoud: 2,283 observers; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: 854 observers; Noorullah Jalili: 290 observers; Nur-ul-Haq Olumi has 583; Enayatullah Hafiz: 220 observers; Noor Rahman Liwal: 5 observers.