Political Landscape

Elections (34): The tug-of-war over the Hazara vote, round II


Lower turnout, double as much votes for Ghani, a few more for Abdullah, but Abdullah still leads - summary of the second round vote in Bamyan. Photo: Qayoom Suroush

How did the large Afghan Hazara minority – that surprised everyone in the first round with its nearly unanimous backing for Dr Abdullah – vote in the second round of the presidential elections? Partial results from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) are not yet available, but in one of the key provinces for Hazaras, Bamyan, both campaign teams told AAN that Ashraf Ghani had doubled his vote there (gaining about 20,000 votes), while Abdullah had gained only about nine per cent (adding about ten thousand votes). The IEC thought turnout was about the same as the first round, but both teams thought it was lower. Qayoom Suroush, has researched both election days in Bamyan and Kabul and says it appears that Dr Abdullah appears to still have gained the overwhelming majority of Hazara voter. He also looks at how Hazaras feel about Abdullah’s ‘anti-fraud’ protests, the latest of which is called for tomorrow.

Two days before the second round presidential election, on 14 June, Bamyan city looked as quiet as if the election was already over; only a few new posters and billboards showing presidential candidates had been put up, most of them by the Ghani camp. However, away from the provincial capital, in the districts and villages, the campaigning had been going on energetically, with the Ghani team being particularly active and trying to make up for its unexpected weak showing in the first round of the presidential election on 5 April.

In April, Abdullah had dominated Bamyan’s election, winning 67.93 per cent of the vote with the help of his running mate Muhammad Mohaqeq, a Hazara heavyweight and ex-mujahedin commander. Ashraf Ghani got 11.05 per cent, despite having picked a prominent Hazara – Sarwar Danesh from the wing of the Hezb-e Wahdat party headed by current Second Vice President Muhammad Karim Khalili – as his running mate. The Ghani team was disappointed – it had expected more votes – and also angry (see also previous AAN dispatch here). Ghani described the Abdullah team’s electioneering among Hazaras as “one of most vicious campaigns in history”. Members of Ghani’s team in Bamyan also complained about the “unfair campaigning”, accusing Abdullah’s team of influencing  local mullahs and elders by saying it was haram (religiously forbidden) to vote for Ashraf Ghani since he was “secular and pro-west” and that his wife was not Muslim. They also said their rivals had been distributing “disturbing” anti-Ghani video clips, exaggerating, for example, the land conflict between Hazaras and Kuchis (Ghani has a Kuchi background). In another video clip distributed, some Ghani supporters known to be Pashtun nationalists were seen saying that all ethnicities in Afghanistan, except the Pashtuns, were “bastards” (harami).

The Ghani team hits back

Declaring the Hazara vote one central target for its second round campaigning (see AAN interview here), the Ghani team changed its approach of campaigning in Bamyan in many aspects: in the first round, it had had two separate campaign offices, one exclusively for administrative purposes, which also included the coordination of the observers, the other for the coordination of meetings and organisation of rallies. Officials from the campaign lamented about the different, sometimes contradictory approaches to work in the two offices and the lack of coordination. For the second round of the election, the Ghani camp closed the administration office and made the provincial office of Hezb-e Wahdat its only focal point for all campaign related issues. It also decided not to hold any more big rallies. A high-ranking official in the Ghani campaign office in Bamyan told AAN before the second round, “We have learnt that not all of those who eat our food and join our rallies necessarily vote for us.” Instead, according to local journalists, they put together small teams of influential local people and government officials who visited villagers to encourage them to vote for Ghani, a tactic, the Abdullah campaign had pursued successfully before the first round.

Members of the Ghani campaign office in Bamyan also approached religious leaders, many of whom had thus far been supporting Abdullah. According to locals and journalists and confirmed by scenes AAN witnessed, ahead of the first round, religious leaders had contributed to influencing Bamyan’s population to vote against Ghani. AAN was told by a Ghani team member that they had reached “a deal with some of these clerics, agreeing that if they did not want to campaign for Ghani, they at least would not issue propaganda against him.”

After the first round, Ghani told AAN he would hit back, although his promise not to engage in ‘dirty campaigning’ appears scarcely to have been honoured:

We’re not going to remain silent. And if negative campaigning is pushed, I will not engage in it, but some hard questions are going to be put to the team that brought us the tragedies of 1992-1996 in Kabul. If they want to own the past, then they own the responsibility of that past.

The Ghani campaign team copied Abdullah’s ‘video campaigning’ approach and produced and widely distributed videos that upset the rival team. The CDs named “Think!” (in the sense of ‘think before you vote’ – boyad biandishim) turned up in the west of Kabul, particularly in Hazara-inhabited areas like Dasht-e Barchi, Kart-e Se and Kart-e Sakhi and also in Bamyan and Daikundi, both provinces with a Hazara majority. The material alleged the involvement of Abdullah in the mass killing of Hazara civilians in Afshar in west Kabul in 1992. The video and voice-overs on the CDs were edited so that it can be understood as if Abdullah himself had ordered the killings. At the time, he was the spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, then controlled by Shura-ye Nazar (one of the factions which carried out the massacre, along with Ittihad-e Islami). The material claimed that the Afshar killing had been far worse than the massacres Amir Abdul Rahman ordered in the Hazarajat during when he forcibly took over the region and incorporated it into the state in the late 1800s (a long time ago, but a time still very much alive in people’s folk memories). The CD concluded that voting for Abdullah was “against Hazaras interests.”

In addition, two nights before the election, a ‘night letter’ was distributed in Bamyan city which also sought to discourage people from voting for Abdullah. The letter, as seen by AAN, argued that since the Ittihad leader Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf had joined Abdullah’s team, Hazaras should not vote for Abdullah. As well as being involved in the Afshar killings, Sayyaf’s Ittihad forces had also been pitted against Wahdat forces in west Kabul during the civil war, with both perpetrating nasty tit-for-tat abuses against ‘each other’s’ civilians and fighters. One day before the election, a fake Facebook page purportedly belonging to Muhammad Mohaqeq, also released a statement claiming that due to “Sayyaf now being part of the Abdullah campaign,” Mohaqeq had decided to “withdraw” from the Abdullah ticket. Hours later, on his official Facebook page, Mohaqeq rejected the allegation and added that the tactic indicated Ashraf Ghani’s defeat in the coming election because he felt he had to resort to spreading such propaganda.

A change in the voting pattern

So how successful was Ashraf Ghani’s counter-campaign for the Hazaras’ votes in the second round? According to result forms that AAN has reviewed from both teams in Bamyan after the vote (both teams compiled summaries of the figures their observers had reported from the polling centres), voters in the province did indeed vote slightly differently this time. Ghani seems to have doubled his votes compared to the first round, from 11.05 per cent to around 24 per cent, according to both camps’ local offices, but Abdullah also increased his share in the vote by about nine per cent, from 67 to 76 per cent of all votes. This means, it was mostly Ashraf Ghani who benefitted from the votes that had been ‘freed up’ for the second round by the other presidential candidates dropping out of the race.

Speaking in absolute numbers – as far as this is possible (see a previous AAN dispatch about Afghanistan’s confusing electoral maths here) – Abdullah Abdullah’s votes, according to his office in Bamyan, increased by 12,394, to a total of 125,718, while Ashraf Ghani’s office counted only 5,489 votes more for Abdullah (the Ghani office says Abdullah has 118,813). Both offices agreed, though, that Ashraf Ghani had gained around 20,000 votes, to a total of, according to Ghani, 39,103, and according to Abdullah (even more) to 39,806. (Calculated from the Abdullah figures, the concrete increase for Ghani is at 21,379; calculated from the Ghani figures, it is at 20,676 votes). It is not really clear how the difference in the figures from the two camps came about as observers of both camps were supposed to have worked with the same result sheets in polling centres and stations. It might just have been due to human error, if observers, for example, had forgotten some centres’ results.

Nevertheless, even accounting for a margin of error, it seems that Ghani’s way of campaigning, including the use of the emotions over the Afshar massacre, did have an effect on people’s perception of the two candidates and that this, consequently, contributed to Abdullah not succeeding in securing the majority of the votes from the first round which became ‘available’ in the run-off.

Lower turnout?

Sunny Bamyan city saw the first vote cast at seven in the morning at the Boys High School in the centre of town where voters were waiting in long queues to cast their votes. However, within one hour, the queues had become shorter. As AAN already reported in its election-day snapshots from the provinces, this was partly due to the faster voting process – with only two candidates to vote for and no provincial council elections, the ’paperwork’ was easier to deal with. There was another rush in the afternoon that saw voters coming who had waited for long hours in the first round, for example due to ballot shortages, and who had decided the afternoon might bear better chances. With these and other circumstances having changed voting patterns, it requires a close look to determine the voter turnout in Bamyan.

According to the officials of the Bamyan IEC, the second round turnout was as high as the first round. The head of the provincial IEC, Azizullah Rassuli confirmed to AAN last week that in the second round, the turnout had been around 170,000. In the first round, the turnout in Bamyan was given as 176,323. However, initial observations by AAN and reports from districts and including the result forms compiled by the Bamyan offices of both candidates indicate that turnout may have fallen. A copy of the result sheet from Abdullah’s office suggested the turnout for the second vote had been 165,874 (calculated by AAN from Abdullah’s turnout figures for himself, for Ghani, plus the votes already invalidated in the polling centres on the night of the count). The result sheet from Ghani’s office had the total figure already calculated – even lower, at 157,916 votes cast in the province.

AAN did see some evidence of lower turnout in some polling stations. For instance, in the centre of Bamyan, in the Sumaara polling centre (PC#1001010), according to the IEC website, in the first round, there had been 887 voters. This time, according to independent observers’ notes seen on the day after the election, there had been 433 voters. In the polling centre, Aqrubat, about 30 kilometres to the north of Bamyan city (PC#1001003), the IEC website announced 832 votes cast in the first round; in the second, according to independent observers, it was 622 votes. In the women’s polling centre of the Sayedabad Girls High School, (PC#1001002), 2546 votes had been cast in the first round while the second turned out 1499 votes. At the same time, the number of voters did increase in some polling centres. For instance, in the already mentioned Bamyan city Boys High School, the IEC website gives 4009 voters for the first round, while AAN saw 5300 in the second on the centre’s results sheets. This might have been due to the students and professors of Bamyan university participating in the election in the city. On 5 April, the university had still been closed; they may well have voted elsewhere.

The lower turnout had been predicted, locally, in the days before the election. Locals had explained to AAN that, firstly, there would be no provincial council election, so there would be fewer candidates encouraging local people to vote; secondly and consequently, there would be fewer free vehicles available for those living far from the polling centres. And thirdly, the farming season had started and people might not be inclined to leave their fields for hours or, depending on where they lived, days, to go and vote. One farmer told AAN, “It will take a long time to go to the polling centre and then there might be ballot shortages again, so we don’t even get to vote – I won’t even try.” Others did not participate in the election because they said they believed their votes would not decide who would become president. For instance, a taxi driver said, “If votes counted, Abdullah would become president anyway since he had enough votes already in the first round. So why should we vote again?”

Ghani: very organised – Abdullah: counting on his victory prematurely?

After massive ballot shortages had been reported in the first round, the IEC seemed well prepared this time, at least in Bamyan city. Ballot shortages did occur in some polling stations; for instance, in the Kart-e Solah Girls High School, the polling station for women ran out of ballot papers at 11.20 am. The IEC established new polling stations there within half an hour. There were also ballot shortages in the Boys High School; there, the IEC established a new polling station, too. Ballot shortages were also reported in the Band-e Kusa polling centre (PC#1007131) in Waras district and in the Bargelej polling centre (PC#1002024) in Shibar district – however, none of them received extra-polling stations, according to the local District Field Coordinators of the IEC (DFCs). The IEC admitted that some polling centres were too far away from Bamyan city to provide extra ballots on time during election day.

Compared to the first round, there were fewer technical problems in the IEC warehouse which received and stored the ballots and boxes on the evening of the vote and the days after and saw the initial checking of the boxes and result sheet packages before the results were sent on to Kabul. There are still some interesting cases that will need further watching. In one of them, local IEC staff had mistakenly written down Abdullah votes (around 400) for Ghani, and by the time they noticed, they had already sealed the result forms packet. So they wrote on the back that “these votes belong to Abdullah not Ghani” and took the signature of of one Abdullah’s observers. While during the first round, there had been several cases of ballot boxes which were broken or insufficiently closed, there were only two cases this time.

The altogether smoother handling of the elections could have been due to different reasons. The IEC of Bamyan confirmed they had fired some of their first round staff due to misconduct, among them, for example, the staff of the Ash Pushta polling centre (PC#1004064) in Kahmard district where, after the first round, complainants had said IEC staff had filled boxes the night before the vote (the IECC invalidated these votes). It is not known how many IEC officials had to leave. It might also have been due to the better trained candidates’ agents present at polling centres or the independent observers having become more experienced by the second round.

The Bamyan IECC has registered seven complaints, all from the Ghani team, mostly about observers not having been allowed into polling centres, and against Abdullah, alleging his team had stuffed ballots (the Abdullah team had not registered any complaint on election day). It had clearly stepped up efforts for registering complaints, but also for election observation. It had hired a legal adviser whose job it was to register complaints and provide legal advice to the team in Bamyan. In addition, before the second round vote, three senior observers from every Bamyan district had been sent to Kabul for training; back in Bamyan, they trained all their polling station observers and all were equipped with a camera-phone to enable them to better document fraud.

Possibly having counted too much on the province as a safe vote bank after their first round success, the Abdullah team, on the other hand, seemed unorganised. AAN tried to visit the main campaign office twice before election day but only met the chowkidar; the head of office, MP Abdurrahman Shaidani, who had been running a tight ship before the first round, was said to be in Kabul and other staff members were at home. This also applied to Abdullah’s supporters. Although many campaigners for first round candidate Zalmai Rassul had pledged their support for Abdullah, there was no apparent cooperation with them and Rassul’s office in Bamyan was closed; the house is now a restaurant.

The aftermath of the election: ‘anti-fraud’ protests

It seems that, although Ashraf Ghani managed to draw more Bamyanis to his side in the second round, Abdullah Abdullah will still lead in Bamyan and among Hazara voters in general, and by a large margin. However, when Abdullah’s running mate Mohaqeq called for protests (see here) on Saturday 21 June, against the “dependent [sic] Election Commission that organised widespread fraud” (allegedly on behalf of Ashraf Ghani), very few Hazaras showed up. Around 500 people from west Kabul participated in the protest. By way of contrast, in 2008 when Mohaqeq called for protests against ‘Kuchi attacks’ on Behsud district in Wardak, tens of thousands of people came (see video here) and AAN reporting here.

This was telling in several ways: for one, it indicates that, although Hazaras might have voted for Abdullah because they preferred his running mate, Mohaqeq, over Ghani’s Hazara running mate, Danesh, (see more here), coming out to demonstrate is another matter entirely. Members of the Hazara communities in Bamyan and Kabul told AAN said that, since there was a Hazara on both tickets, they would anyway have a second vice president. Therefore it was not worth going onto the streets and risking violence or ethnic tensions. That Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf had joined forces with Abdullah Abdullah also seems to have had an impact on the support for his ticket and people’s willingness to demonstrate for him.

Muhammad Mohaqeq was, as a source close to him told AAN, angered by the weak outcome of the calls for street protests. The Central Office for Reform and Partnership – Abdullah’s campaign office – has now called for a second demonstration, this time on Friday (26 June 2014) and Mohaqeq seems to have stepped up efforts to get people on the street. AAN has seen supporters distributing flyers in west Kabul since Wednesday and heard the songs of Daud Sarkhosh being played; his music was used in the civil war to encourage people to join the fight and defend the Hazara community. The source close to Mohaqeq told AAN  the Abdullah camp was sure that, this time, more people would show up. It remains to be seen if the call to come onto the streets can overcome the community’s fear of violence.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape