KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans risked their lives to vote in an election supposed to mark the country’s first democratic transfer of power. More than 50 people were killed during the run-off ballot alone.
Yet the outcome of the second round more than three months ago has been kept a secret, and power between the two candidates was carved up behind closed doors and announced at the weekend.
Many of the millions who braved the threat of attack by Taliban insurgents during two rounds of voting are wondering why they bothered.
“I didn’t vote in the run-off but I’m very disappointed for those who did,” said Aimal Azim, a Kabul bookseller.
“Their votes went into a black hole. I’ll never participate in elections in the future and won’t let my family either.”
Others in the capital were more optimistic, while recognizing the fragility of the new unity government.
“We have already complained (about long delays in the election outcome) and created problems, so we should be positive about this,” said Rafihullah Faizi, a shopkeeper. “We have to accept the announcement and pray for a better Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan and its foreign partners had been hoping for so much more.
The first round of voting in April narrowed the field to ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. They went head-to-head in a second round in June, and that is when the problems began.
When preliminary results put Ghani ahead, Abdullah claimed widespread vote rigging, throwing Afghanistan’s exercise in democracy into turmoil.
The United States intervened to thrash out a compromise, and the United Nations oversaw a $10 million audit that painstakingly recounted every ballot cast, with hundreds of observers flown in to help.
If that was designed to bring transparency to the process, it failed. Ghani has been declared the winner, but only after signing a power-sharing deal and agreeing that the outcome of the vote should remain a secret.
From the start of the audit process, many said it was deeply flawed and that it would be difficult to accurately ascertain how many votes were fraudulent.
Despite efforts to keep secret the outcome of an election that cost some $130 million to stage, Reuters has obtained two documents that show the audit results.
One was an eight-page summary provided by an ex-government official, while the second was a spreadsheet provided by a member of the election commission.
Both documents showed that about 7.1 million votes were included in the final tally, indicating that nearly a million votes were either thrown out or failed to reach Kabul for inspection.
The figure was verified by both camps, while the election commission has declined to comment on the results, saying that the audit failed to identify all the fraud committed.
As for the breakdown, both documents showed that declared president Ghani won with 55.27 percent of the vote, ahead of Abdullah with 44.73 percent.
Ghani’s team confirmed the authenticity of both documents, while Abdullah’s camp verified the figures but declined to elaborate further, sharply criticizing their circulation on the grounds it violated an agreement made with the commission.
“We strongly condemn the release of the percentages on election results. It is against everything the election commission has promised us,” Fazel Rahman Orya, a senior member of Abdullah’s team, told Reuters.
Western officials shared the mixture of hope and cynicism voiced by Afghans.
At one gathering, a senior Western official proposed a toast not to the first “democratically” elected leader, but “the first Afghan leader to ... emerge from a democratic process”.
Others described the election as a “joke” and cautioned that it could usher in a new phase of political patronage that dogged outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s administration, which critics blamed for corruption and inefficiency over the last 13 years.
Whether the government will survive the challenges of fending off the Taliban insurgency, while struggling to pay bills as foreign aid declines and the economy plummets, remains to be seen.
But for some the election was an opportunity missed.
“This political transition ... cannot be called democratic,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network after the winner was declared.
“Despite the huge numbers of voters turning out, in the end, the deal to form a successor administration to Karzai’s was done behind closed doors and with huge amounts of foreign help.”
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Mike Collett-White