Voter turnout in the presidential election is reportedly lower than expected despite the Taliban's failure to pull off large-scale attacks. DW examines the reasons behind the low participation rate and its implications.
Less than just a month ago, very few people believed a presidential election would take place in Afghanistan. US-Taliban talks in Doha, growing insecurity and intensifying political divisions had created an uncertain environment in the war-ravaged country. On top of all that, the Afghan Taliban had declared an all-out war against the vote, threatening civilians, electoral staff and government forces with attacks during the polls.
But against all the odds, the election took place on Saturday and in a relatively successful manner, at least considering the number of attacks carried out by the Taliban.
The insurgent group claimed to have launched 531 attacks, while the Interior Ministry said "the enemy" had carried out 68 assaults. The official death toll on the election day was five security forces, although authorities have a record of suppressing casualty figures on such occasions, only to reveal the real numbers later.
In any case, the current numbers of casualties on the election day are lower than previously expected, particularly for a conflict-torn country that sees dozens of lives lost to insurgency-related violence every week.
"It was a relative success for Afghan security forces," Tamim Asi, a former deputy defense minister of Afghanistan, told DW. "It was a partial success because the actual casualty numbers can be higher than what is being reported by officials," he added.
Observers say the fact that the Taliban failed to disrupt the voting in provincial centers by launching suicide attacks is an achievement for Afghan government troops. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a front-runner in the election, other presidential hopefuls and the election commission have praised the security forces for preventing major incidents.
Were the Taliban just bluffing?
The Afghan Taliban had issued several threats before the election, warning people to stay away from polling stations. The group had instructed its fighters to use every means at their disposal to disrupt the vote.
Such threats are not new. The insurgents have opposed all previous elections in Afghanistan, claiming people could not choose their leaders in a free and fair manner as long as foreign forces were present in the country.
Despite their warnings, Afghan voters have time and again braved the threats to cast their ballots. This time around, the circumstances were a little different, as the election came weeks after the collapse of the talks between the Taliban and the US early in September.
The insurgent group had been negotiating for months with US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmai Khalilzad, in Doha, where the Taliban maintain a political office. Both sides were seeking an agreement that would facilitate the withdrawal of American and other foreign troops from Afghanistan, in exchange for assurances that the Taliban side would not allow Afghan soil to be used by terror outfits planning attacks against the US and its allies.
A US-Taliban deal would have been followed by intra-Afghan talks, meaning the presidential election could have been further delayed.
Just when it looked like the US and Taliban delegations were closing in on a deal, US President Donald Trump called off the negotiations in early September.
Observers were of the view that the Afghan Taliban would disrupt the elections by launching violent attacks on the polling day, in order to demonstrate strength and push for the resumption of talks with the US. But the expected large-scale attacks failed to materialize.
"As a guerrilla group, the Taliban lack the strength to pull off simultaneous attacks across Afghanistan and disrupt a big process such as the election," Asi stressed. A series of military operations by Afghan security forces in recent months have also helped prevent major Taliban assaults, Asi pointed out. "These operations have killed many mid-level Taliban commanders across Afghanistan."
Voter turnout implications
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) claims to have held the most transparent of the four presidential elections in the country since 2001. It remains to be seen whether there is any merit to this claim, as the commission has yet to receive full information on the voting from all the provinces. The process has been slowed by a communication shutdown.
"In comparison to the 2014 presidential election, this time the vote was held in a better manner," Yousuf Rasheed, whose organization Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) provides oversight of the electoral process, told DW.
While a number of complaints about fraud, irregularities and electoral crimes have been registered with the Electoral Complaints Commission, officials say the number and severity of fraud cases is lower than that during the previous presidential elections.
Nevertheless, voter participation on Saturday was lower than that in previous years, with turnout hit by the threat of attacks, a muted campaign and concerns of fraud.
Though the Afghan Taliban failed to carry out large-scale attacks, the group was able to discourage many Afghans from going to the polling stations. "I did not cast my vote due to insecurity," Kabul resident Nilofar Jabari told DW.
More than 9.6 million Afghans in the country — with an estimated population of 35 million — had registered for the election, according to the IEC.
The partial tally released by the commission showed that the turnout could be fewer than 3 million, or about 20%, of the registered voters.
Besides Taliban threats, other factors have contributed to the low turnout. Female participation in the election, for instance, was especially low due to a decision by the IEC.
"Based on a decision by the IEC, a picture of all the voters — including women — had to be taken in the polling stations," Rasheed said, adding that this was unacceptable for some women in Afghanistan's ultraconservative society.
It will take days or even weeks for the IEC to put out exact figures on the voting and announce the result, but both electoral officials and observer organizations say that a low turnout does not undermine the credibility of the election in legal terms.
"But a very low voter participation figure could undermine the winner of the elections politically, because he would have not won the votes of a larger number of Afghans," Rasheed stated.
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. The preliminary results should be ready by October 17, nearly three weeks after the election. The final tally is expected to be announced on November 7.