The Question of Turn Out in the Afghan Run Off

With five days left before voting, one of the crucial questions is over whether the turnout for the second round will be higher or lower than it was during the last round.

Why turn out matters:

Turn out is the key to the legitimacy of the next government.  A low turn out will suggest that the new government does not have the support of the people and will make major reforms and movement away from of the practices of the Karzai regime much more difficult.  This will be even more of an issue if the race is close and/or particularly fraudulent (something that will be considered in another post).  Image that one candidate gets 4 million and the other gets 3 million (there were approximately 660,000 votes cast in the last round of voting).  In this scenario if the ECC finds that 500,000 votes are fraudulent, it will be easy to argue that the fraud is inconsequential since the gap between the candidates is more than twice that.  Now envision that that turn out is 2 million votes lower and that one candidate gets 2.7 million and the other gets 2.3 million, but 500,000 votes are still suspect.  All of a sudden, in this result, there is real reason to question the legitimacy of whoever wins.  So, officials need to worry not just about transparency and security on election day, but they really want to make sure voters come to the stations.  Below are some arguments both for an increased and a decreased turn out from last round.

 

Reasons why turn out might be higher (or at least as high):

  • Afghan voters decide that they want to first what they started in the first round (we heard this from several voters) so vote to complete the process.
  • Relatedly, many voters we spoke to after the last round were determined to see a transition through electoral means away from the Karzai era, so they come out to support this.
  • Other voters see that security was not a major concern in the last round (something that is actually debatable depending upon the figures that you use) and come out to vote after not voting in the last round.
  • The weather during the last round was not great.  Warmer temperatures could make standing in line more bearable.

 

Reasons why turn out may be lower:

  • Will voters for other candidates return to the stations?   Abdullah and Ghani only received 76% of the vote last round.  The other 24% went to candidates that have now been eliminated.  In many instances, these eliminated candidates have come out in favor of the two remaining candidates, but it’s still not clear whether supports of candidates like Rassuol and Sherzai will wait in long lines to vote for a candidate who is not their top choice.  (We’ll write more on some of these voting blocs later in the week…)
  • General disinterest: One of the things we’ve heard from several voters, particularly young ones, is that they are fed up with the election process which has now been going on for months.  Particularly dispiriting for some has been the past month where rather public horse trading has gone on with key political leaders pledging their support for candidates ostensibly in return for political favors.  Some younger voters are asking: what’s the point of voting if the real decisions have already been made behind closed doors.
  • Security concerns: While the first round of voting may have been fairly secure, there were still a fair number of attacks and with the beginning of the spring fighting season there are increased concerns about security.  This round might have had fewer high profile attacks on internationals, but in the provinces there has actually been an increase in violence recently.
  • Security concern II: In addition to concerns about their own safety, some voters told us that they voted in the first round in part because of the Taliban attack on the Serena in which several young militants killed Afghan reporter Sardar Ahmad and his family.  This particularly brutal killing may have been in part responsible for some of the uptick in votes in the first round and now that that story is two months old, it may hold less immediate sway.
  • Perhaps the least discussed, but something that could have a major impact is the fact that in this round of voting there are no Provincial Council elections.  In the last round, PC candidates helped presidential campaigns (often in exchange for funds) to “get out the vote” both literally and figuratively, often times providing actual transport from more remote areas to the polling stations.  This time around such transportation won’t be available and in fewer cases probably, voters who came out last time primarily to support a PC candidate, may simply stay home.

 

Conclusion? 

With so many reasons for Afghans not to vote this time around (security, corruption, disinterest), it seems unlikely that we will see turn out as high as it was last round (though keep in mind we’ve been wrong in our predictions before!).  That being said, there are still compelling reasons for voters to vote and most of the people we have spoke with have said that they are going to go to the polls on Saturday.  Taking that into consideration a drop of a million votes seems likely, but would still probably give the process a fair amount of legitimacy (that may be questioned depending upon how close the election results are).  It’s possible that the turn out could fall by more like 1.5 or 2 million.  If this happens there’s a real danger that the second round could undermine the legitimacy of the process thus far.  Much seems to hang in the balance as we wait to see not just who people vote for, but whether they vote at all.

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