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Dismal turnout in Afghan election could leave government in even weaker position

A security worker stood guard as Independent Election Commission workers unloaded ballot boxes from a truck to be taken to a counting center in Kabul Sunday, a day after Afghanistan held presidential elections.
A security worker stood guard as Independent Election Commission workers unloaded ballot boxes from a truck to be taken to a counting center in Kabul Sunday, a day after Afghanistan held presidential elections.Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

KABUL — The extent of the low turnout in Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election was becoming clear Sunday as officials began to tally the votes.

With just over half of all votes counted, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission said Sunday that only 2.2 million out of 9 million registered voters are estimated to have cast ballots. Those numbers put turnout at less than half of what it was in 2014, the last presidential election.

The diminished showing at the polls could put Afghanistan’s government in an even weaker position no matter who is declared winner.

‘‘The turnout was the lowest than any other election in the past 18 years,’’ said Sughra Saadat, program manager of Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent watchdog group. ‘‘The turnout was low even in secure areas where more people voted in the past.’’

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A combination of security concerns, fear of fraud, and voting irregularities kept many people away, according to officials monitoring the electoral process. The two front-runners in the race are President Ashraf Ghani, who is a seeking a second term, and Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive.

‘‘The low turnout underscores two of Afghanistan’s greatest challenges, which have haunted Afghanistan for years: the relentless threat of violence and popular mistrust of political leaders,’’ said Michael Kugelman, a researcher with the Wilson Center.

Low levels of voter participation were especially glaring among women. Saadat said the low female turnout can be partly attributed to the new requirement that all voters be photographed at the polling sites, including women.

Female voters in some conservative rural areas, as well as their male relatives, objected to this provision, which was added recently as a way to prevent identity fraud. Tribal and religious customs in such areas, especially among ethnic Pashtuns, forbid exposing women to unrelated men or to the public, and they may leave home only if covered in full-face burqas.

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‘‘Based on our preliminary findings, women voters can’t be more than 20 percent, whereas they made up 38 percent of the voters in 2014 election,’’ Saadat said.

Scott Worden, a visiting specialist from the US Institute for Peace, said the low turnout showed that ‘‘while the day was not as violent as people feared and there were few casualties, the Taliban were successful in suppressing the vote through threats and restricting access to the polls.’’

Five people were killed on election day on Saturday and 76 wounded in attacks across the country, according to the Defense Ministry.

Worden described the low turnout as a ‘‘mixed blessing.’’ On one hand, it means that ‘‘only a small number of Afghans will have a say in who the next president is,’’ but on the other, ‘‘there was not the massive chance for fraud’’ that has ruined previous elections here.

‘‘There was a smaller total but a potentially more legitimate result,’’ he said.

The top priority for whoever is pronounced the winner will be to secure a peace deal with the Taliban, but the low turnout could undercut the next president’s claim to a seat at the table. As Ghani pushed elections forward, he argued that the vote was necessary to give the government a mandate to negotiate directly with the Taliban, which has long dismissed officials in Kabul as American puppets.

Instead, the Taliban has insisted on negotiating with the United States, and the latest round of talks appeared to be inching toward a peace deal before collapsing suddenly earlier this month.

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‘‘Assuming there are no credible complaints about fraud and a clear winner comes through either on the first or the second round, it would be good if the new president understood that his mandate is partial,’’ said Kate Clark, a researcher with the Afghan Analysts Network, noting that a large number of Afghans did not vote either because they live in Taliban-controlled areas or because they were apathetic about the candidates running.

The head of the Afghan Independent Election Commission, Hawa Alam Nuristani, said Saturday night that this had been ‘‘the healthiest and fairest election in comparison to the previous elections.’’ Afghanistan has held four presidential elections and two for parliament since civilian rule was restored in 2001.

With the voting complete, many in Afghanistan fear a drawn-out political wrangling. After the 2014 presidential election, in which Ghani and Abdullah were the front-runners, the country was thrown into a months-long political crisis amid allegations of fraud. A European Union report later raised fraud concerns related to about a quarter of all votes cast in that election.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Abdullah said that his supporters would not be willing to ‘‘sacrifice’’ victory this time and that a fraud-marred result ‘‘will be contested.’’

According to the Afghan constitution, a presidential candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to be declared the winner. If no candidate meets that threshold, the constitution mandates that a second round of voting be held within two weeks of the release of the official results.

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