KABUL — The campaign for Afghanistan’s second round of presidential elections kicked off Thursday with many concerned that this winner-take-all phase could raise tensions in a country poised for its first ever democratic transition of power.
At opening day campaign rallies Thursday for the remaining two candidates — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — supporters expressed concerns about an unfair result and showed a willingness to take to the streets if there were fraud.
“All the people of the country should convince the candidates that if one wins, the other should accept the result without causing tension,” Abdullah supporter Arbab Mirwais Sarfaraz said. “But if someone wins through corruption, we will resist.”
Roughly 7 million voters turned out in the first round of voting on April 5. That poll was hailed by both Afghans and the international community for its high turnout and relative lack of violence in major urban centers — although rural areas saw a spate of attacks and 400,000 votes were thrown out due to irregularities. Because no one received a majority, Abdullah and Ghani will square off as the top two vote-getters in a second round scheduled for June 14.
With President Hamid Karzai — the only leader Afghanistan has known since the U.S. ousted the ruling Taliban in 2001 — constitutionally barred from running for another term, the next president will be crucial both to stabilizing a country still at war and to mending a strained relationship with Washington, with whose leaders Karzai frequently clashed.
Both candidates have said they will sign a crucial security agreement with the U.S. that would pave the way for a small U.S. and allied military force to stay for training and counter-terrorism missions past Dec. 31, the deadline for all international combat troops to leave the country.
During the first round of voting, no one was close to the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off, despite complaints of fraud and biased election bodies.
The two top vote-getters were so far ahead of their rivals, there was little impetus to mobilize supporters for the kind of protests that analysts fear could divide the country and cause unrest. This next ballot, though, will be decisive and the most important outcome may not be who wins, but if the loser accepts the results.
Both Abdullah and Ghani had hoped to win an outright majority in the first round to avoid a run-off, but their main focus was on at least qualifying for the second round of voting, said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
She said the winner-take-all run-off promises to be a “much fiercer competition,” and a disputed result could raise tensions in the country, making the conduct and credibility of Afghanistan’s much-criticized election commissions crucial to an accepted outcome.
“If it’s a close election, it could become a contest over quite small numbers of disqualifications,” van Bijlert said. “Then it becomes extremely important that everyone trusts the decisions of the election bodies, which hasn’t been the case in the first round.”
The Independent Election Commission, responsible for administering the election, and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, which investigates voting irregularities, were roundly criticized by candidates, voters, and election observers for a variety of problems in the first round of voting, including ballot shortages, lack of transparency, and delays in announcing results.
Many experts worry the commissions haven’t done enough to fix the problems. Jandand Spinghar, director of the independent election monitoring group, Election Watch Afghanistan, said the issue of polling stations running out of ballots particularly incensed both voters and candidates and that it could happen again.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any strong mechanism from the (Independent Election) Commission’s side to make sure in the second round similar shortages don’t occur,” he said.
Spinghar said he is cautiously optimistic the second-round vote will go smoothly, but with the stakes so much higher this time, he worries missteps by the commissions could make people question the legitimacy of the election, which could lead to protests, prompting a crisis.
Younus Fakor, an independent political analyst in Kabul, would like to see Abdullah and Ghani publicly agree to respect the results of the election and step aside after the vote if they lose.
“If they sign an agreement, it will decrease tensions in the future,” he said.
But after more than 30 years of war, many Afghans have little appetite for further strife and are pinning their hopes on the election to preserve what fragile gains have been made in the country since the U.S. Taliban were ousted.
For Shafiqa Shuja Qaderi, a 50-year-old Kabul school teacher, a smooth transition of power is crucial to continuing to improve the rights of women, who were brutally repressed under the Taliban and still face widespread abuses, despite new laws aimed at protecting them from violence and discrimination.
“The last 10 years, a lot has been done for women in this country,” she said. “We need those achievements maintained and continued.”
For many, a democratic transition also holds the key to finally escaping the spiral of war that has enveloped the country since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
“The election is crucial,” Juma Khan, a 62-year-old Kabul shopkeeper, said. “We want to live in peace, and through elections we can achieve that.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.