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Afghanistan In a Holding Pattern: Abdullah Protests

Thursday’s voting in Afghanistan has so far provided no solid results, as the preliminary results have been delayed from Saturday until later this week. Initial reports indicate that turnout was around 50% and many ballots have not yet reached the Kabul headquarters of the Independent Election Committee. Major news outlets, such as the New York Times, BBC, the Guardian and others continue to report incidents of fraud and intimidation. Observers have alternatively called the elections, “credible”, “better than we feared,” and highly flawed.

One surprise was that electoral violence on the day of voting was actually significantly less than expected. While the months and days ahead of election were marked by rapidly escalating political, ethnic and anti-international violence, the day itself was marred by 26 official electoral-related deaths*.

Four main irregularities have been reported:

1. Tampering: Votes being stuffed, removed, changed, etc.
2. Ethnic violence in North: Clashes between groups stopped some voting from occurring in the west and northern parts of the country
3. Poor security and violence in South: Due to the Taliban, a number of polling stations in the south were kept from opening, and a few in the eastern border regions along the instable parts of Pakistan (including reported influence by some Al Qaeda-linked elements). In some cases, voters were abducted or punished by Taliban elements.
4. Women’s votes were impacted: As largely expected, the impact of intimidation and violence was particularly strong on women’s voting station.

With regard to the outcome, it is notable that the main Hamid Karzai rival, Dr. Abdullah, is claiming fraud, while Karzai — along with the international forces, including the Obama administration — has praised the electoral process. Claims of fraud are a staple response from the candidate who expects to lose in elections of this sort, a circumstantial indication that Karzai will be declared the winner. When all candidates know the process is flawed, the losers are naturally the ones who are the most upset about it.

Several things are still not clear, along with uncertainty about the vote totals that will be released this week. In the case that Karzai does win without forcing a run-off, for example, how far would Abdullah and his supporters be willing to go to challenge the results – given that Abdullah has pledged to stick to legal efforts? And, if some sort of protest goes forward, beyond the official complaints to the electoral commission, would other candidates and/or their supporters join in?

As well, if a run-off does ensue, how will the Asraf Ghani, Ramazan Barshadost, and small minority candidate blocs respond? In polling of a head-to-head situation between Karzai and Abdullah, the three polls discussed on Wednesday indicated an approximate 60%-30% advantage for Karzai.

Finally, given that the political situation in neighboring Iran has largely stabilized, it will be important to pay attention to how the Iran-Afghanistan relationship continues to evolve, as well as the response of Obama administration and NATO allies.

The results are slated for release in the coming days, and when they are we will take a look at the numbers for interesting trends, plausibility, and perhaps some scenario analysis.

*Update: For all the claims of violence on election day being “less than expected,” the BBC now reports that NATO is putting the number of attacks at more 400 – which actually makes it one of the most violent days.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at