Success of Afghan Election Hinges on Credibility Among Afghans

a young woman with a voter in...
a young woman with a voter in...

The final results of the Afghan presidential election were announced last week, over a month after voters went to the polls. But Afghanistan's first democratic transition of power is still far from finished. With no one having earned an outright majority, the top two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, will take another lap around the track for a runoff round on June 14.

Two-term President Hamid Karzai's departure from office and the NATO coalition's pullout in December mark the end of a seminal chapter in Afghan history, and much uncertainty clouds the next. Many are afraid the economy will collapse; others fear the same for the Afghan security forces. But there can be no doubt that any hope for the next few years starts with a smooth political transition this year. And a smooth political transition cannot happen without credibility.

In 2009, the Afghan presidential election was so marred by voter fraud and ballot box stuffing that then candidate Abdullah Abdullah -- who won this year's first round with 45 percent -- actually boycotted the runoff and conceded the presidency. Experts linked the swell in public support for the Taliban that year directly back to the election fiasco. With more followers on Twitter than President Karzai, an impressive website and pull throughout rural Afghanistan, the Taliban propaganda machine is strong, but debacles like the 2009 election make it stronger.

So far, things have gone better this year. Despite a wave of violence leading up to April's vote, over 7 million ballots were safely cast. Since then, even as evidence of fraud has mounted and the fighting season begun, many Afghans seem optimistic about the way things are going and still proud about the way they went.

But all of that has the potential to change during the runoff. What's more, despite the Taliban's low approval numbers, even a small turnaround in public support for them, or loss in government favor, could have far greater implications now, with coalition troops withdrawing, than it did in 2009, before the surge began.

With that in mind, it is important to consider who has the power to influence public perception, and how they can make or break the way the election is seen.

First, there are the commissions, whose legitimacy has been called into question since they admitted some 3,000 employees were involved in fraud during the first round. Yet downplaying the inevitable improprieties of the runoff should not be an option they entertain. Instead, managing public perception of the runoff should start with election officials better communicating delays and ballot shortages on Election Day, and extend to affording observers greater access to vote counting and fraud investigations afterward. Publicizing the punishment of employees involved in fraud could also help combat rumors of bias.

Then there are the candidates, who have even more power to shape public opinion, especially among their respective supporters. Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik and a top Northern Alliance leader for many years, had a huge impact on the way Afghans viewed the 2009 election when he refused to enter the runoff. For this year's transition to go well, the candidates must show respect for the election process, and not claim victory prematurely as they did in the first round. As the IEC and others have said, the danger is that such claims could bias the public's reception of official results, causing controversy if things don't go as predicted.

Most importantly, the candidates must accept the final results of the runoff, and remain open to working together in the next government. If the loser feeds a frenzy of public opposition, it could lay the groundwork for something like the civil war that tore the country apart and opened the door to Taliban rule in the 1990s. Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah's runoff rival, is an ethnic Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group and the Taliban's foremost recruiting pool. The ethnic overtone of the contest has already begun to rear its ugly head. Last week, Ashraf Ghani released a statement claiming Abdullah's team had promised a "river of blood" if things don't go their way. That the six candidates who didn't make the runoff have begun joining forces with the two men only raises the stakes of the next month, as a once atomized field of leaders becomes factionalized.

Afghan media, in the end, have perhaps the greatest potential to shape public opinion. The media and telecommunications renaissance in Afghanistan has been recognized as one of the biggest success stories of the post-Taliban era, contributing immensely to what democratic growth the country has seen. This year, even more than in 2009, media and technology have helped Afghans stay engaged with the election process. Afghanistan's 150 private FM radio stations, 50 private TV channels and hundreds of newspapers can cast a much larger net than the commissions or candidates.

There have been mild criticisms of Afghan media for choosing to deemphasize violence and fraud to promote a positive message of participation. In a somewhat precarious balancing act, Afghan media must meet the journalistic obligation to neutrality and transparency while also helping safeguard the election's credibility.

Yet one thing has become abundantly clear: Social media has begun to play a larger role in shaping the public narrative in Afghanistan. Facebook and Twitter campaigns were praised for helping get out millions of young voters in April. On Election Day, news of large lines at the polls first spread across Twitter and citizen journalists took to it for reporting cases of electoral fraud. Since then, social media has continued to play a critical part in facilitating public engagement. Regardless of where mainstream Afghan media stands, it would seem, social media will be a force to be reckoned with moving forward.

The commissions, the candidates and media will face hard choices over how they want to impact the public's outlook on the election during the runoff. While they may have some differing interests, they all have a common adversary in the Taliban. Without question, building public faith in a credible election should be their shared priority.