Was There Fraud in Afghanistan’s Elections?

In my last post on Afghanistan’s Presidential election, I remarked that Abdullah was very likely to win the runoff, and then added in passing that Ghani would “need a miracle or massive vote fraud” to win. Perhaps I was too dismissive about the possibility of fraud, given the blatantly fixed 2009 Presidential election. In any case, the preliminary results have been released, and fraud certainly seems to have taken place on a massive scale. The fraud was blatant but largely confined to one area of the country, which should at least make it easier to combat, if anyone in Afghanistan actually tries. First, I’ll post the map of the preliminary results below. It simply shows the official winner of each province; the second map reflects whether the winner of the district won narrowly or in a landslide.

Preliminary Province winners


Afghanistan Runoff Preliminary Relative

If you look back at my original post  back in May, on the first round of the elections, the second round followed largely similar patterns, although a handful of provinces changed hands. Abdullah added Farah province, while Ghani took Kandahar from third-place finisher Zalmai Rassoul, and Kabul, Wardak, Kunduz, and Sar-e-Pul from Abdullah. The other 28 provinces stayed in the same hands, so it is unbelievable that Ghani managed to more than double his vote total between the first and second rounds (2,084,547 to 4,485,888). This wasn’t a rising tide lifting all boats; it was Ghani running up the score in a few provinces he already dominated in the first round. The seven provinces more or less opposite Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are the main suspects. These provinces are, roughly from north to south, Kunar, Nangarhar, Logar, Wardak, Paktia, Khost, and Paktika (see here for a map of Afghanistan’s provinces). Unsurprisingly, given their proximity to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, these provinces are some of the most war-torn in Afghanistan. TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah is believed to be based in Kunar, and Khost is the Haqqani Network’s home base. These seven provinces make up about 16.8% of Afghanistan’s population, and accounted for about 17% of the vote in the first round. In the first round, a hefty 31.9% of Ghani’s total vote came from these provinces. In the second round, 26.3% of the total vote, and 40.8% of Ghani’s vote came from the suspicious seven; 97.6% of the turnout increase between the first and second rounds came from these seven provinces. I couldn’t find the number of registered voters by province, so I used the percentage of the total population that turned out to vote as a proxy. Since children can’t vote and many eligible voters don’t cast a ballot, the turnout should rarely exceed about 40% of the population. I would estimate that any number above 50% of the total population voting is approaching 100% turnout of eligible voters. Below is the map of Afghan provinces by percentage of total citizens who voted in the first round.

First Round Turnout

And next is the map showing the same variable from the second round:

Turnout Second Round

While turnout in the East increased in general, three provinces, Paktika, Paktia, and Khost stand way out (I imagine even someone who doesn’t know Afghanistan’s provinces could identify these three on the map above). These provinces form the core area of operation for the Haqqani Network and are among the most violent in Afghanistan. The idea that these areas would have “normal” high turnout is a stretch, but what we see here is preposterous. Paktia province had about 64% of its population vote. To give a bit of context, in 2012, about 54% of high-turnout Minnesota’s population voted in the American Presidential election (that would be 76% of eligible voters). Khost province saw turnout reach 73.2% of the population, and Paktika clocked in at a positively inspiring 97.8%. Since over half of Afghanistan’s population is under 18, I doubt that more than 60% of any province is eligible to vote, and that is generous. That means that turnout of eligible voters in Paktika approached 200%, and the other two were almost certainly over 100%. These three provinces netted Ghani about 970,000 votes, or 94.4% of his winning margin.

What I find curious about the fraud is how blatant it is. Even Kim Jong-un only managed 99.97% turnout in his recent “election” victory in North Korea. 200% turnout is hilariously blatant, and was therefore almost certain to be uncovered. Why didn’t Ghani’s people just stuff ballot boxes throughout the country to give him a 10% boost? Abdullah seems to be alleging that Ghani did that as well as the blatant fraud in the east, seeing as he wants 2 million ballots thrown out. It is hard for me to evaluate that claim based on the data I have, though Ghani did do better in the second round across the board. Either there was wider fraud or Ghani experienced a surge in support. Whatever the case is with the potential for wider fraud, I think it is indisputable that massive ballot stuffing in Paktia, Paktika, and Khost occurred in Ghani’s favor. The fact that the massive fraud was concentrated there is interesting. Ghani was already very successful in these provinces in the first round, so the fraud didn’t overturn the will of the voters there; it amplified it. This may explain why there was so little fuss kicked up by local officials. Abdullah cried foul of course, but I haven’t seen anyone from these provinces comment on the fraud. They want Ghani to win. I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility that local leaders stuffed the ballot boxes in an attempt to curry favor with Ghani.

The real question though is whether Abdullah actually won the election or if Ghani won anyway and was just gilding the lily. I don’t know the answer, but I suspect the actual election was very close. If we use the percentages from the second round but the turnout from the first, Ghani wins 51.8% to 48.2%. If we use the second round results but replace the results for seven provinces mentioned above with the first round results, Abdullah would win very narrowly. The other question is whether someone who engaged in blatant fraud on a massive scale should be allowed to ascend to power, even if he won the election legitimately. The fraud shows that Ghani has little respect for democracy and is willing to do anything to gain the Presidency. People like that should be kept far away from power. Imagine if President Obama, having legitimately won the 2012 Presidential election decided, just in case, to fake a few million votes in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Denver. It is very hard to imagine anyone in a functioning democracy surviving that politically.

A few other thoughts in closing: Last time I wrote about this topic, I discussed how the Persian-speaking part of Afghanistan has the demographic power to dominate the Pashto-speaking parts, and that an Abdullah victory has the potential to tear Afghanistan apart if it is built entirely on Persian voters. The reverse is true for Ghani. If he builds a coalition of Pashtuns and Uzbeks, and adds a million or so fraudulent votes, he could cut the Tajiks and the other Persian speakers out of power permanently. The ethnically-based voting patterns we have seen in Afghanistan are characteristic of dysfunctional democracies. Many voters in third-world countries treat democracy as a way to capture more power for their ethnic or religious group. This has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan. Last time, I wrote that the Pashtuns would not take kindly to being disempowered, and that they might not accept the results. The fraud in the heavily Pashtun east essentially reflects the Pashtuns not accepting the first round results. Now, the Tajiks are the ones who have been marginalized, and the exact scenario I laid out last time of increased ethnic tension and a north-south civil war could play out, but with the roles reversed.

Anyone who looks at Afghanistan today has to wonder whether this mess was worth a nearly fifteen-year occupation for the United States. All that blood and treasure was spent for what exactly? Ghani, if he ends up becoming President, will have won in part by stuffing ballot boxes in areas of Afghanistan dominated by the Haqqani Network, one of America’s bitterest enemies in the region. If the Haqqani Network didn’t like Ghani, they wouldn’t have allowed their home turf to become a vote factory for him. How can the U.S. maintain a relationship with someone like that? It is a cruel coincidence that, at almost the exact same time that Iraq descends into chaos, and the American adventure there is revealed to be a total failure, Afghanistan too has fallen apart. In this case, the collapse came even before American troops left, which should silence the people who wanted to keep American troops in Iraq (but it probably won’t). In Iraq, the failure of the democracy came because the two main religious groups weren’t able to play nice. In Afghanistan, it has been an ethnic divide. The really worrisome fact for the U.S. is that the failure of Iraq’s democracy presaged the collapse of its security apparatus. In Afghanistan the same thing is likely. At this point, it is hard to imagine Tajiks accepting Ghani as President, or Pashtuns accepting Abdullah. There is some possibility that the two will hash out some kind of compromise power-sharing agreement, but even if they do, Afghanistan’s democracy is dead. Let’s hope the Afghan state isn’t soon to follow.

Elections, Elections! (Afghanistan Election Results Map)

South Asia is currently in the midst of two momentous elections. Afghanistan wrapped up its first round of voting in early April, and the preliminary results were released a couple of days ago (update: official first round results here). India’s elections are in progress, with Punjab, Gujarat, the part of Andhra Pradesh that will become Telangana, plus parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Kashmir voting today. Because we don’t yet know the results of India’s elections, I’m mainly focusing on Afghanistan in this post, but I have some thoughts about the Indian election at the end. The first round of the Afghan election failed to produce a winner, as no candidate exceeded 50% of the vote. This means that the top two vote-getters, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, will face each other in a runoff in late May or early June. Before we get into any analysis, here are some maps of the election results. This first map shows the winner of each province:

Afghanistan 2014 Winners by Province

For a more detailed look, the next map shows the colors in proportion to the percentage of the vote each candidate won, to distinguish between a landslide and a narrow win:

Afghanistan Election Relative Vote

Notice for example that while Ghani won the south and the east, he dominated in the east, but eked out most of his wins in the south. To me, this map yields several interesting pieces of information:

1. Karzai’s Clout- President Hamid Karzai was widely seen as supporting Zalmai Rassoul, a southern Pashtun. Karzai’s brother Quayum withdrew from the race and supported Rassoul, making Rassoul the likely proxy for Karzai. Rassoul never really had a chance to make the runoff, but how well he did could indicate how much clout Karzai has left, and how much influence he will retain when he leaves office.

With the results in, things don’t look good for Karzai. Rassoul netted about 11.5% of the total vote, finishing a distant third, behind Abdullah (44.9%) and Ghani (31.5%). He did win Karzai’s home base of Kandahar, but he was shut out everywhere else. Rassoul only surpassed 20% of the vote in a few southern provinces: Urozgan, Zabul, Helmand, and Nimroz. He received 8.4% of the vote in Kabul. This would seem to indicate that outside of Kandahar, Karzai’s support and influence have largely eroded, even in the south. I wonder if these ugly results for Rassoul will change Karzai’s thinking on whether to leave Afghanistan when his term is over or even seize power by declaring a state of emergency.

2. A Tajik President?- If Abdullah wins the second round, he would be one of the very few non-Pashtuns to lead Afghanistan. Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, consisting of roughly 40% of the population. Abdullah is half Pashtun and half Tajik, but he is identified mainly as a Tajik and he was a member of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance in the 1990s. Afghanistan has been led by Pashtuns for almost all of its history, with one notable exception being Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was president in the 1990s between the fall of the Soviet puppet government and the arrival of the Taliban. The question about an Abdullah win is whether the Pashtuns would accept a northerner, especially one with close ties to Ahmed Shah Massoud, as President. Ethnic tension in Afghanistan has been relatively low since the American intervention, but if Abdullah fails to convince the Pashtuns of his legitimacy, the stage could be set for a north vs. south civil war to reignite.

3. Where were the Uzbeks?– One of the more mysterious results of the election was Ghani’s relative weakness with Uzbeks, who make up about 9% of the population. His top Vice President (they get two in Afghanistan) is Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who fought the Taliban in the 1990s, sometimes as part of the Northern Alliance. He was selected to ensure that Ghani had at least one ethnic group other than the Pashtuns in his corner. Ghani won two northern provinces, Juzjan and Faryab, but failed to win several other provinces– such as Samangan and Kunduz– that are thought to have large Uzbek populations. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that there was vote fraud in those provinces, and Abdullah didn’t really win them. Two is that Dostum only influences the western Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Three is that many Uzbeks didn’t show up to vote. Four is that there aren’t as many Uzbeks as is usually assumed.

To me, the fourth explanation is the most logical. Afghanistan has never done a full Census, with the most serious attempt in 1979 interrupted by a coup, civil war, and the Soviet invasion. The most common map of Afghanistan’s ethnic makeup, seen here, is of unknown providence (to me at least), but it very well could be decades old. This map, which is not the usual map shown for Afghan ethnic groups, seems to dovetail better with the election results, and it shows the Uzbek area as much more limited in size. My other reason for leaning towards a smaller Uzbek population is that there is no explanation that makes sense for why one of the first three options is right. I have seen no indication that Dostum only holds sway of part of the Uzbek population, that voter fraud was particularly bad in the north, or that half of the Uzbeks didn’t vote while the other half did. If indeed the Uzbeks are fewer than previously thought, or live in a more concentrated area, then the ethnic makeup of the north needs to be reevaluated, and the strength of the Tajiks may be greater than everyone has assumed for years.

Who will win?– A lot depends on who the also-ran candidates endorse, but Rassoul or fourth place finisher Pashtun warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf could put Abdullah over the top if they swing their votes to him. Unless Ghani manages to rally all of the non-Abdullah candidates to his side, he will have a very tough time making up the lost ground. Even if he does, Abdullah could win on his own, especially if the Uzbeks are less influential than Ghani calculated and turnout is low in the Pashtun south. So I think that Abdullah is the likely winner. The real question is how close the runoff will be and how much trouble the Taliban causes. Neither one of these is knowable right now, but a very close result would open the door to claims of fraud from the loser, and Taliban attacks could de-legitimize the results or even goad Karzai into calling a State of Emergency and holding on to power.

A few thoughts on India’s elections– India’s elections are still ongoing, so it is hard to come to any conclusions yet, but some trends seem to be emerging. One is that turnout is fairly high, about 5-10% higher than in 2009. This is typically reported to favor the BJP, and Narendra Modi and the BJP seem to be doing very well. Polls have shown the BJP-led NDA getting about 100 more seats than Congress’s coalition the UPA, but the most recent polls have indicated that the BJP’s margin of victory could be even greater than that. There is even some possibility that the BJP won’t need to expand its current coalition at all to form a government.

There also appear to be some big shifts coming at the statewide level. The statewide polls show that Congress, which won 33 out of 42 seats in Andhra Pradesh in 2009, will essentially get wiped out in the state (or states, as Andhra is set to be bifurcated soon). The breakaway YSR Congress and the Telangana-based TRS are set to win 5-10 seats, and the BJP’s partner in the state is polling in the high teens, leaving Congress with around 5 seats in what had been one of its most important states. In Bihar, Congress and its coalition partners could actually gain seats, with the Janata Dal (U) looking like the BJP’s main victim. The JD(U) won half of Bihar’s 40 seats in 2009, but it could win as few as two or three this time. The BJP is also poised to nearly sweep two huge states, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh that it won narrowly in 2009. It also seems possible that Congress will lose all seven of Delhi’s seats, which it swept in 2009. Congress won 20 of Rajasthan’s 25 seats in 2009 and may only hold on to two or three this year.

The biggest shift appears to be coming in the massive northern state of Uttar Pradesh (population about 200 million). In 2009 Congress won 21 of UP’s 80 seats, with the BJP winning 10. The two main regional parties, the Dalit-focused BSP and the Samajwadi Party have typically been very powerful. In 2009, the BSP won 20 seats and the SP won 23. The BJP may be on the verge of establishing itself as the biggest party in the state. Congress is heading towards the low single digits, and the BSP and SP are in the low teens. That means that the BJP could win 40 or even 50 seats in Uttar Pradesh, which would be an incredible achievement in India’s fractured electoral landscape.

Of these results, the worst for Congress, in my opinion, is the wipe out in Andhra Pradesh. Congress has lost the state only twice in its history, and fought hard to create the new state of Telangana as a way to hold on to some support there. Only winning a handful of seats would be very bad. But really, none of the individual states are deadly for Congress, as Indian elections are notoriously swingy, and states often move against the prevailing political winds. The real problem is that all of these debacles are occuring at the same time, with precious few bright spots in other parts of the country. In other words, things look very very bad for Congress and very very good for the BJP.

Update: See my updated posts on Afghanistan’s elections here and India’s elections here.

Update 2: See my post on the preliminary results of the runoff here.