There is a sense of optimism waking up in Afghanistan this morning. The election monitors at the table next to me at breakfast who are flying out today were cheering the high turnout and the relative lack of security incidents. Not to undermine too much of the deserved optimism generated from yesterday’s vote (and Afghan voters, election officials and security forces certainly have a right to feel good about how fairly smoothly yesterday’s voting went), but there are many ways to undermine an election even after it is over. And this election may be far from over.
The question for candidates is: How do you manipulate a vote after it’s already happened? With the voting over it’s difficult to stuff ballot boxes, but the next three weeks before the final results are announced are still crucial to the final outcome.
The most obvious way to do this of course is to bribe officials who are involved in either the counting or the complaints process. This will be difficult however, since these officials, of course, will be closely scrutinized by monitors especially considering the allegation of corruption at this level in 2009 and 2010. For candidates afraid of losing the election, a much simpler option is to just complain about fraud. In many ways complaints of fraud are almost as effective as fraud itself. By claiming that an opponent’s votes are fraudulent and undermining the integrity of the voting process, it is easy for those candidates behind in the polls to undermine the outcome of the vote – unlike most Western cases, in the Afghanistan counting takes place over a couple weeks and preliminary results leak out. (I’ve already seen some on Facebook from some insecure areas. Results from such areas where security was poor are going to be even more crucial and the results will be fiercely contested by candidates.) This drawn out counting period gives candidates plenty of time to react to the polls and developing competing narratives about what really happened.
What is worrying is that this began literally within hours of the polls closing. Front runners Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both gave press conferences where they praised Afghan voters for their participation, but they also mentioned concerns that certain polling stations ran out of ballots. (We found this in only two polling stations, but heard rumors of it elsewhere. At this point it has been reported in almost half of the provinces, but it’s hard to tell how legitimate these reports are at this point.) Their statements about this were fairly ambiguous, leaving it a question who they were blaming for this. Was it election officials? The Karzai government? Their opponent? If either falls behind in the polls, this gives them the opportunity to essentially say: “See, I told you these elections were corrupt from the beginning.” The problem is that by making such claims without serious investigation, they are undermining the poll in the eyes of many of those that stood out in the rain for hours yesterday. These accusations and attacks, however, are likely only to increase over the next few weeks.
Was there corruption and fraud? Absolutely. Does it need to be taken seriously? Also, yes. But if either Afghan voters or international diplomats get too caught up in the figure pointing and unsubstantiated allegations that are likely to come out in the next couple of weeks, a fairly successful election day could be undermined.