It took exactly one week for the Afghan elections to lose their luster.
When the Independent Election Commission (IEC) released partial voting results to a waiting press corps on Sunday, they were greeted with sharp questions and skepticism. Delays in reporting, news of violence and fraud had all contributed to a more critical assessment of the process than the general euphoria that followed the vote.
With 10 percent of the votes counted, the race, as expected, has become a duel between Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, with 41.9 percent of the vote, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, with 37.6 percent.
Analysts cautioned that it was too early to make any sweeping conclusions, given the small sample and narrow margins. In coming days, the lead may go back and forth.
Since neither candidate has cleared the 50 percent barrier needed to win outright, a runoff will likely take place in late May or early June. But a lot could happen between now and then, and, in Afghanistan’s rough-and-tumble political arena, it probably will.
The IEC’s announcement came a day late: The entire press corps and many observers had been told to expect the results on Saturday.
As reporters waited in vain for a promised release of partial results by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission Saturday, rumors began to circulate that all was not well within the body tasked with overseeing the ballot.
Twitter was abuzz with speculation. A former Afghan ambassador to the US, Said Tayeb Jawad, tweeted that there may be some problems with the count.
— Ambassador Jawad (@AmbassadorJawad) April 12, 2014
The nature of the possible disagreement is unclear, but most likely revolves around the reports of fraud coming in. After a ballot widely hailed as a great success, the snag in reporting the results did not sit well with an anxious public.
As one Afghan election observer tweeted:
So much for transparent elections... Seems all the excitement we shared last week has turned into frustration! #AfghanElections
— Ajmal Hamdard (@Ajmal_Hamdard) April 13, 2014
The elections were held on April 5, in what was hailed as a great victory for Afghan democracy. The high turnout — estimated at close to 60 percent of eligible voters, was seen as a solid defeat for the Taliban, which had threatened to disrupt the poll.
“It was a civics love fest,” said Peter Bergen, author and national security commentator for CNN, speaking at Washington’s New America Foundation on Thursday.
The poll was also deemed to be “better and cleaner” than past efforts, although, as Kate Clark, an expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) pointed out somewhat acerbically, that is a pretty low threshold.
But within days cracks were starting to appear in the joyful narrative. The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) said that it had received more than 3,000 allegations of fraud, which could lead to the invalidation of thousands of votes.
Violence on election day was far greater than had previously been reported. Given Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure and the remote location of many polling centers, it took days for news to trickle in. While initial assessments pegged the level of violence as low, by week’s end analysts were saying that the 2014 ballot was, in fact, more violent than previous ballots.
Candidates had also contributed to the feeling of uncertainty, with the two presumed frontrunners, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, each claiming victory and posting their own tallies on websites.
It got so bad that the IEC finally released a statement saying that any private polls should be disregarded.
Now that some results have been officially tallied, the drama can begin in earnest.
Afghanistan is a country where secret negotiations and good old-fashioned horse-trading are often more comfortable processes than what passes for democracy in other countries, and the 2014 elections were no exception.
Former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, who was thought to be the preferred candidate of President Hamid Karzai, came in a distant third with just 9.8 percent of the vote. He is now said to be exploring the possibility of a coalition government with Abdullah Abdullah.
Rumors were flying that Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani were in a backroom deal to avoid a runoff, with one of them agreeing to take the as yet non-existent post of prime minister.
As the battle continues, fraud will most likely become the central issue.
Official figures say that some 7 million Afghans cast votes, out of a possible 12 million eligible voters. It is impossible to peg the turnout with any certainty, however since there are no reliable population figures. There has not been a valid census in Afghanistan since the 1970s.
The voter registration process is also fairly chaotic, with no voter rolls and no computer program to track votes. Nearly twice as many voter cards were issued than the estimated number of voters, so the possibility of multiple voting certainly existed.
There were few observers at polling stations due to the fear of violence, and it was difficult to gather reliable information.
On election day, many media outlets pointed to the reported ballot shortages as evidence of high voter turnout; attention is now focused on those same ballot shortages as evidence of fraud.
Some 6,500 polling centers opened on April 5, each containing multiple polling stations. Each polling station was issued 600 ballots — and rough calculations showed that it would take seven to 10 hours to run out of ballots.
But some stations were reporting shortages within a few hours of the polls opening.
According to AAN analyst Martine van Bijlert, this could suggest “early voting” — another way of saying that poll officials stuffed the ballot boxes with votes for the candidate of their choice.
The IECC has promised that it will disallow any votes found to be fraudulent, but the adjudication of complaints could be a long and tortuous process, and frustration is starting to mount.
It seems that Afghanistan, ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations, has no need of the Taliban to torpedo elections.