The vast majority of voters have now cast their votes and the hard-headed front-runners in the presidential race are in no mood to consider defeat. The victor of Afghanistan's hotly-contested election will probably need a second round and might never get to hear his opponents’ concession speeches: this is winner takes all.
Two arguments support the notion that the result of the April 5 vote election may not be widely accepted. Firstly, these presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls have been waiting a long time to take their place in the epicenter of the Afghan political establishment, with Hamid Karzai and his family having dominated Kabul's politics since shortly after the US invasion of the country in 2001. Secondly, the expectations of entire groups voting along ethnic and clan lines rest on the victory of specific candidates: any new president will have to move quickly to convince a diverse electorate that he can be the face of the nation.
The candidates have been nothing but bullish in the run up to the vote, leading many to fear post-vote fallout. Ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice presidential candidate for Ashraf Ghani announced boldly:
In two days everything will be clear that who is the national hero… [اینه دو روز بعد معلوم میشه گپ. که کیها شخصیت ملی استند…]
Presumably Dostum was not referring to Abdullah Abdullah who believed he was unfairly defeated in the 2009 ballot by then-incumbent Hamid Karzai and now says that “he has no rival” with only vote-rigging standing between him and the presidency. The charismatic former foreign minister is identified by most voters as a Tajik and is popular among non-Pashtun groups.
Loftullah Najafizada, who heads the popular media outlet TOLONewsTV tweeted April 2:
Abdullah Abdullah warns that he would not accept the results of the elections if it was fraudulent.
— Lotfullah Najafizada (@LNajafizada) April 2, 2014
To which @Waheed36427179 responded:
@LNajafizada @FazilRafi He already knows that he will not win that's why.
— Waheed (@Waheed36427179) April 2, 2014
@Waheed36427179's comment reflects the belief that Abdullah, despite having a good shot at receiving a plurality will not have enough votes to claim an overall majority in a first round of voting, and will likely be defeated by one of the two major Pashtun candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul in any second round.
“I have no rival: my rival is election fraud!”, this emphatic assertion by Abdullah draws my attention to possible post-election shocks.
— Ali Reza Yasa (@yasa_reza) April 4, 2014
Afghanistan's ethnic electoral politics is usually driven by a ‘patron-client’ system, wherein political leaders (patrons) claim to represent their ethnic groups’ interests and focus on concerns traditional to those groups in their campaigns. In this election tri-ethnic presidential tickets like the Pashtun-Uzbek-Hazara (Ghani-Dostum-Danish) ticket have given candidates the ability to appeal to voters beyond their usual base. But many observers view these alliances as cynical and fleeting:
@vali_nasr Ashraf Ghani is Smart & Seasoned politician. That's why he chose Abdul Rashid Dostum for junior role. No chance of coup unless ..
— IndoPacificInstitute (@IPacInstitute) April 5, 2014
Tajiks are uncertain, however, whether Abdullah Abdullah winning would be a good thing for them. Despite being a favorite among a number of the country's smaller ethnic groups, his victory could nevertheless risk a backlash from the more populous and politically privileged Pashtuns. A win for Zalmai Rassoul could be the most appealing outcome for Tajiks voting along ethnic lines since one of Rassoul's running mates is the ethnic Tajik Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of the Panjshir” who gained legendary status as a guerrilla leader during the Soviet Union's invasion of the country over three decades ago.
The view from the Neighbors
Afghans are not the only ones interested in the outcome of the vote, of course. Pakistan has long faced accusations from its neighbor of massive political interference. Writing on the Pashtun Women Viewpoint blog N. Yousufzai-Mona Naseer notes:
Given the tenuous Pak-Afghan relations and the Pakistani interference in Afghanistan, no presidential candidates gauging the mood of Afghans risk voter’s support by showing a soft corner towards Pakistan in their campaign, regardless of how they would deal with Pakistan after elected as president.
The candidates tough talks against Pakistan, makes it harder for Pakistani establishment too to endorse the suitable candidate in the election. The disputed Durand Line border between the two countries remains top of the Pakistani agenda when devising any sort of bilateral relations.
But despite a long-running political rivalry, many ordinary Pakistanis have shown their support for the Afghan vote on twitter:
Salute to brave Afghans who came out in large numbers for a democratic #Afghanistan defying the threats by #Pakistan‘s strategic depth.
— Ali Salman Alvi (@alisalmanalvi) April 5, 2014
Over at the Bug Pit blog meanwhile, Joshua Kucera reports that members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (particularly Russia and Uzbekistan) are making positive noises about the creation of “buffer states” in northern Afghanistan, to shield the broader Central Asian region from instability in the country. That might suit Dostum if his running partner Ghani falls flat in the popular vote – the warlord's former stronghold was the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and as Global Voices reported in 2012 he has previously spoken in favour of a more de-centralized Afghanistan.
But in the end the outcome of the vote will be decided in Afghanistan, not Pakistan, Russia or Uzbekistan. While all votes are expected to be cast before midnight, high turnout has forced electoral officials to allow voters to continue casting their votes after the official closure of polling stations at 4pm.