By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Parliamentary Elections were conducted across 32 out of 34 Provinces on October 20 and October 21, 2018. The Parliamentary Elections were earlier scheduled for October 20 only. However, it were extended into a second day on October 21, after hundreds of polling stations were closed on the first day of voting due to technical issues.
Elections in Kandhar Province were postponed due to an attack by Taliban terrorists on October 18, 2018, which left the Provincial Police Chief General Abdul Raziq and Provincial Intelligence Chief General Abdul Momin dead. Elections in the Province were subsequently held on October 27. The attackers had also targeted the Commander of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, who escaped unhurt.
According to reports, Elections in Ghazni Province were postponed over disagreements around constituencies as well as security issues. Significantly, Ghazni Province had briefly fallen to the Taliban in August 2018. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) clarified on October 27, 2018, that Parliamentary Elections in Ghazni Province could possibly be held at the same time as Presidential Elections in April 2019.
In the evening of October 21, 2018, Abdul Badi Sayad, head of IEC, stated that the voter turnout was “impressive”, at 45 per cent across 32 Provinces. These Provinces have a total of 8,292,548 registered voters. The voting percentage in Kandhar Province, with a total of 567,608 registered voters, was not known at the time of writing. Ghazni Province, which is yet to go to the polls, has 57,951 registered voters. The total number of registered voters in the country is 8,918,107.
The Elections were marred by significant violence. Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Wais Barmak confirmed on October 20, 2018, that 192 ‘security incidents’ had occurred across the nation on the day of parliamentary polling. According to varying media reports, at least 67 people — 27 civilians, nine security force (SF) personnel, and 31 terrorists — were killed and 126 were injured in 192 attacks by militants on October 20, the first day of Elections. Reports indicate that there were more than 50 incidents reported on October 21 as well, the second day of Elections.
Partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) identified at least 26 election-related incidents of violence across Afghanistan after voter-registration began (data till October 28, 2018). These incidents resulted in 181 deaths [149 civilians, 18 SF personnel, and 14 militants] and 303 injured. Voter registration for the Parliamentary Elections began on April 14, 2018. Significantly, on April 1, 2018, IEC Chairman Abdul Badi Sayat had confirmed that the long-delayed Afghan Parliamentary Elections would be held on October 20. No election-related incident of violence was reported across Afghanistan between April 1, 2018, and April 13, 2018.
Preliminary results will not be released before mid-November and final results are expected in December.
Before the October 2018 Elections, Afghanistan had held two Parliamentary elections since the end of Taliban rule, the first in 2005 and the second in 2010. The third election – which was due in April-May 2015, as the five-year term of the present Parliament was set to expire on June 22, 2015 –were repeatedly postponed both because of security fears as well as disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after the bitterly contested Presidential Election of 2014. In the meantime, President Ashraf Ghani extended the Parliament’s mandate until a vote could be held, through a decree issued on June 19, 2015. The current Parliament is operating under this decree.
A comparative analysis of the 2018 and 2010 elections clearly demonstrates that the present exercise has been more successful – in terms of voter participation and providing security on Election Day. According to IEC, the voting percentage rose from 40 to 45 per cent. However, during the 2005 Parliamentary Elections, a 49 per cent voter turnout was recorded.
Moreover, the level of violence (in terms of incidents on election day) also declined in 2018 as compared to 2010. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 488 incidents were recorded on election day, September 18, 2010, as against 192 confirmed by the Afghan Government for October 21, 2018. Fatalities, however, have gone up. Figures from the Afghan Ministry of Defense revealed that 24 individuals were killed on election day in 2010 (13 police officers and 11 civilians). 67 fatalities have been confirmed by the Government on October 21, 2018.
Crucially, 58 and 60 per cent of voters risked their lives to cast their votes in the two phases of the Presidential election in April and June 2014, despite Taliban threats and escalating violence, suggesting a tremendous surge in popular support to the democratic process. 382 violent incidents on Election Day in April 2014 failed to deter voters. The 2009 Presidential elections had recorded a turnout of 38.7 per cent.
The present Election, amidst rising violence and doomsday predictions in Afghanistan, are a major achievement for the Government and Security Forces. An UNAMA release on October 20 observed,
These elections were the first completely run by Afghan authorities since 2001 and are an important milestone in Afghanistan’s transition to self-reliance…
Again, on October 24, 2018, UNAMA stressed that
…the elections, which have been carried out under difficult security conditions under full Afghan ownership, constitute an important moment in the democratic development in Afghanistan.”
The achievement is greater in view of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. According to the UNAMA Mid-Year Report released on July 15, 2018, the number of civilians killed in the country hit a record high in the first half of the year, with 1,692 civilian fatalities – the highest recorded in the same time period in any year over the decade since the agency began documenting civilian casualties in 2009. There were 1,672 civilian deaths in 2017, 1644 in 2016 and 1615 in 2015, over the same time period.
The Taliban have sustained their capacities for tremendous disruption. According to the 40th Quarterly Report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of May 15, 2018, there were 229 Districts under Afghan Government control (74) or influence (155), only 56.3 per cent of the total number of Districts in the country. This represented no change in District control since the preceding quarter, but was a slight improvement over the 57 per cent reported in May 2017. The number of contested Districts – controlled by neither the Afghan Government nor the insurgents –however, increased by three in the quarter under review, to 122 Districts, with 30 per cent of Afghanistan’s Districts now in the ‘contested’ category. 14 per cent of all Afghan Districts were under Taliban control according to SIGAR’S 39th Quarterly Report, and this remained unchanged in the 40th Quarterly Report.
Afghan Presidential Elections are now due in April 2019. Kabul will struggle to ensure a more peaceful election and one that is seen to be transparent and fair. The latter challenge is there tremendous, with bitter accusations marring the Presidential elections of 2014, and widespread allegations of rigging and malpractices against the Government in the present Parliamentary polls as well. On October 21, 2018, Independent Electoral Complaint Commission (IECC) disclosed that it had already received 5,547 complaints, even as the process was ongoing. According to a report dated October 25, 2018, at least 7,000 complaints had been received by the IECC. The report also claimed that another 5,000 complaints were received by TOLO News, an Afghan New Agency, and further 1,300 complaints by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, an independent agency.
Significantly, in the 2004 Presidential Elections, fatalities during the campaign period (September 7 to October 7) totaled 196. The Presidential elections of October 9, 2004, were widely seen as fair. As a result, post-election violence was relatively low. On the other hand, the 2009 Presidential Elections saw a total of 1,173 persons killed during the campaign period (June 16 to August 18). The elections, which were held on August 20, 2009, were themselves marred by bitter controversy, so much so that a runoff election was declared on November 7, 2009, though this finally called off on November 2, after the runner up, Abdullah Abdullah decided, on November 1, not to contest, citing the “inappropriate actions of the Government and the election commission.” The level of violence surged. Acrimonious Presidential elections followed in 2014. However, both the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former Finance Minister, decided to form a National Unity Government (NUG). Nevertheless, internal discord within the Government continues, even as violence has increased since 2014.
Free, fair and peaceful Presidential Elections in April 2019 will go a long way in consolidating the culture of democracy in Afghanistan, further delegitimizing the Taliban and paving the way towards a resolution of the bloody confrontations that have crippled the country for decades now.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management