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High Rates of Violence and Uncertain Prospects for Peace - But Afghans Are Not Giving Up

Afghanistan, the world’s deadliest place according to the latest Global Terrorism Index, is currently preparing for its presidential elections in July. Another study conducted by BBC shows that the Taliban currently have full control of 14 districts (mostly in Helmand province) and have an active and open physical presence in 263 districts (66 percent) of Afghanistan.

In these areas of active and open presence, the Taliban carry out regular attacks against Afghan government installations. This includes large-scale attacks on military bases to strategic strikes on military convoys and police checkpoints.

In that context after years of delay, Afghanistan scheduled parliamentary elections for October 20, 2018. The Taliban made a series of public statements threatening Afghans participating in the parliamentary elections and polling centers, which indicates a deliberate campaign to disrupt and undermine the electoral process.

As a result, the parliamentary elections were marked as one of the most violent election cycles in the country’s history. According to a UN report, this election’s death toll was higher than the four previous elections with at least 56 people killed and 379 wounded on Election Day and subsequent days when delayed polling took place.

These incidents, which used tactics directly targeting civilian populations, included indirect mortar, grenade, rocket fire and improvised explosive devises. The deadliest attack occurred in Kabul city, when a suicide attacker detonated his explosive device outside of a polling center, killing 13 civilians and injuring 40.

Despite such discouraging statistics, the Afghan people remain resolute and hopeful. A recent survey conducted by the Asia Foundation reveals this trend, citing that Afghans’ satisfaction with democracy has actually increased over the past year—from 57 percent in 2017 to 61.4 percent in 2018. This increase in democratic confidence translated to an increase in voter turnout for the recent parliamentary elections, despite the widespread threat of election-related violence. Around four million of the 8.8 million who registered showed up on Election Day to vote; that’s 45.4 percent voter turnout, up from 38.9 percent turnout for the previous 2nd round presidential election and just 33.6 percent turnout in the 1st round presidential.

Citizens waiting in line during the 2018 parliamentary elections

In partnership with a local civil society organization, Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN), IRI is implementing a USAID voter education grant focused on training local election observers in districts with a history of high voter fraud. IRI has had the privilege to meet and work with Afghans in Kabul who travel all the way from Afghanistan’s rural districts (and at-risk for voter fraud) to be trained on election observation best practices.

At a recent training event, participants shared stories from Election Day—many of them explaining that their polling stations were attacked by small firearms and mortar shells. These acts of violence were common and successfully disrupted the vote, as voters were forced to run and seek shelter.

Once the attacks eventually subsided, Afghan voters returned to cast their ballots. There was one instance where explosions were heard and felt near a polling station in Kunar province, but since the attack did not directly hit the building, voters chose to stay in line in order to cast their ballots.

Looking ahead, there are many variables that will affect voter turnout for the July 2019 presidential elections, including the Taliban/Afghan Government Peace Process, results from the recent parliamentary elections and the critical belief that voters will be able to cast their ballots safely. The peace process between the Afghan Government and the Taliban keeps on being delayed because the Taliban do not recognize the government and the U.S. insist on the Afghan Government playing a principal role. Based on the election commission’s timeline, preliminary results were supposed to be announced on November 10 and the final results on December 11. The commission so far has announced the preliminary results for 30 out of 33 provinces.     

Given the mounting security challenges surrounding elections, it is critical that the Afghan government, local civil society and the international community continue working together to support a safe and credible elections process and fight voter fraud. Legitimate elections are a critical component to a stable Afghan government that needs to improve the security situation, law and order, economic development and curbing corruption.