The first round of elections to replace President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan took place on Saturday. Karzai has been the country’s sole leader since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002. Fifty-eight percent of Afghanistan’s 12 million eligible voters turned out to the polls, according to preliminary estimates from election commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, a marked improvement over the turnout in 2009’s presidential election. This vote marks the first time that Afghans have been able to take part in the democratic handover of power and it appears little was going to stand in the way of those who wanted to exercise their right. Here are three key takeaways from the vote and what to look for next:
1. Violence was much lower than many feared.
In the weeks and months ahead of the vote, it seemed that the Taliban was going to pull out all the stops to prevent a successful vote from taking place. Targeted assaults caused international polling observers to flee their posts and threatened the legitimacy of the vote. And last week’s attack that killed a veteran photographer and wounded a noted foreign journalist were seen as a promise of what was to come on Election Day. Instead, however, the day was more notable for its lack of the overwhelming violence that was feared. Despite the ongoing threat, of the more than 6,000 polling stations under the protection of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), only 211 were forced to remain closed due to security threats.
“The opposition groups planned 140 attacks in past 24 hours,” Interior Minister Umer Daudzai told reporters on Saturday night. “Nine police and six army soldiers were killed, but 89 insurgents were killed as a result of ANSF operations.” The “dozens of minor roadside bombs, and attacks on polling stations, police and voters” that took place were not nearly enough to deter Afghan voters. “I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks,” Haji Ramazan told Reuters as he stood in line in Kabul. “This is my right, and no one can stop me.”
2. A run-off seems imminent, which means security is still an issue.
Politically speaking, Afghanistan isn’t out of the woods just yet. Based on early projections, it appears that two men will be facing off head-to-head for the Afghan presidency: former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah first ran in the 2009 elections, challenging Karzai during his re-election bid, before pulling out during the run-off due to concerns of vote-rigging. Ghani is a former Finance Minister to President Karzai and ongoing advisor. Many reports from the ground indicate that the political players in the country are attempting to form coalitions between the other six candidates and the front-runners to prevent calls of fraud and a crisis where the election’s results are not accepted.
That also means that on the security side, the Afghan government won’t be able to rest on its laurels after a successful first round. More than 350,000 members of the ANSF were deployed to keep the peace during the election according to reports; given that this constitutes almost the entirety of the force it is unlikely that such a deployment can be kept up indefinitely. The possibility also remains that the Taliban was deliberately laying low during the vote to lull Afghans and NATO into a false sense of security.
3. Saturday’s vote has brought a great deal of hope to the country — but also highlights possible future problems.
Reports from the country during the vote this weekend were filled with quotes reflecting the sense of hope that many Afghans felt throughout the ballot-casting process. “The air was filled with enthusiasm, hope and a kind of energy that I had only felt on Nowruz 2002, the first Afghan New Year’s Day after the fall of the Taliban,” Afghan political analyst Helena Malikyar wrote. “Twelve years later, however, there was an added aura of determination and defiance.” Karzai himself recognized in his speech following the vote the feeling of euphoria that had taken over: “Today we proved to the world that this is a people driven country. … On behalf of the people, I thank the security forces, election commission and people who exercised democracy and … turned another page in the glorious history of Afghanistan.”
The successful vote also shows the need to monitor closely the ethnic divisions within the country as the political sphere continues to take shape. As the Washington Post points out, the top-tier candidates tended to do far better than their opponent in their respective ethnic strongholds: ethnic Tajik Abdullah easily won Tajik neighborhoods; Ghani, whose Pashtun ethnic group is thought to be the largest in Afghanistan, performed similarly in Pashtun areas. But both candidates were taking care to reach across ethnic lines throughout their campaign. Abudallah recruited a warlord from the Hazara minority to serve as his vice presidential candidate. Ghani meanwhile promoted his alliance with ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdurrashid Dostum. While this cognizance of ethnic issues is encouraging, it also shows that they can potentially be exploited in ways that could prove destabilizing to the fragile political institutions of Afghanistan.