Getting out the women’s vote: did it really make that much difference to Ashraf?

This blog post is also published on Development Progress (See here)

The preliminary results of Afghanistan’s contested presidential election indicate a win for former World Bank Social Development specialist and anthropologist, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, with a 13% lead on his rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. In response to Abdullah’s claims of ‘industrial-scale’ fraud, Ghani attributes his success to a strategic campaign to seize the vote between the first and second rounds and to the votes of women in Eastern Afghanistan.

On the face of it, this latter claim seems unlikely. First, patriarchal norms in many Eastern provinces prevent women from taking an active role in public life. While Ghani may have convinced local Ulema and other religious figures to defend the vote against Taliban rhetoric (and violent attacks), the likelihood of his convincing communities to bring out large numbers of women (and enough to propel Ghani into the lead) to cast ballots is slim. Second, women in Afghanistan are not required by law to have their photographs printed on their voter registration cards, making it difficult to verify whether a woman has voted herself or whether a male relative simply brought her card to the polling station for them – as happened in the 2009 elections, according to an ICG report, p.15). Third, although according to the IEC women’s overall turnout rose from 36% in the first round to 38% in the run-off, these figures do not include invalid votes.

This being said, Ghani has emphasised women’s issues throughout his campaign, appealing to educated urban women. It was significant for women’s rights activists in Afghanistan that his wife not only attended but addressed a rally on International Women’s Day in March, given that Zeenat Karzai never appeared in public with her husband during his eight years in power. In addition, when Ghani was Finance Minister he was the force behind the creation of Afghanistan’s flagship aid programme, the National Solidarity Programme or NSP. Launched in 2003, the NSP includes highlights the importance of women’s empowerment and focuses on community-level decision making on local, government-funded development projects. Ghani insisted on mandatory women’s participation in Community Development Councils in each village when international backers were uneasy about the move. For Ghani, this was about social and democratic as well as economic development.

Whether this brought more women to the polls, however, is debatable – especially in the remote, conservative areas cited in his recent claims. If Ghani’s progressive approach towards women’s role in society motivated women to vote, it would have been reflected in the first round as well the second, both in terms of higher votes for Ghani himself (who scored only 31.6%, trailing far behind Abdullah) and in terms of overall female turnout, which was not much higher than in previous elections. Instead, it is more likely that the first-round results, which placed the Tajik-affiliated Abdullah Abdullah firmly in the lead with 45% of the vote, worried Pashtun groups in the South and East so much that every effort was made to alter the final tally – whether by a temporary defiance of social norms to allow women to vote, voting on their behalf, outright ballot stuffing or a combination of all three. There is little doubt that the re-ethnicisation of the vote, highlighting the Pashtun/non-Pashtun divide in Afghanistan that surfaces at moments of political instability, was the biggest factor in the changes in the results between the first and second rounds.

Whatever the actual contribution of women voters to Ghani’s overall success within the ethnicity narrative, there is at least some consistency in his claims to support Afghan women in their struggle for equality, and if he is the final winner on 22 July, this bodes well for future commitments to their cause.

But perhaps more significant than whether women helped to ensure a Ghani win is the way in which he has credited their contribution. In a savvy manoeuvre that plays into current donor preoccupations with women’s plight across the globe, Ghani has helped re-legitimise his (potential) win in the face of significant international support for Abdullah and action against fraud (John Kerry’s recent brokering role has resulted in both candidates agreeing to a recount of all votes cast to prevent violent uprisings and break the electoral deadlock). And while sceptics may see this appearance of women’s concerns at the top of electoral politicking as part of a superficial game played by elite men who want to be president, the fact that women are on the agenda at this level should not be dismissed, given Ghani’s track record of attention to women’s concerns. While it will be critical to hold him to account for his campaign promises, there is at least some possibility that he has a personal interest in fulfilling them.

International actors and Afghan activists could play a role here – picking strategic moments to remind the new president of his electoral promises to women. Far beyond international efforts to promote women’s participation in elections and in the public sphere in Afghanistan more generally, this moment, more than any other, represents an actual window for change.

For all his early appeal, Karzai was never a champion for women. International chastisement did nothing to change this – and may have made things worse as the narrative he presented became increasingly anti-western. Afghanistan’s centralised presidential system – one reason why the stakes are so high in this election – means that nothing can be achieved without presidential backing, and consequently that the impact on women could be devastating  if the new president does not uphold their concerns. Ghani’s rhetoric may simply be part of his overall strategy to get elected, but it provides a basis, at least, for Afghan women’s groups and international actors alike to push for real political change.

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