WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Afghans head to the polls Thursday to choose their next president, insecurity and mounting fears of fraud threaten to undermine the credibility of elections in the young democracy. A Gallup Poll conducted in early and mid-June reveals that voting-age Afghans' faith in this election is already low. Fewer than one in four (24%) say they are confident this election will be fair and transparent and the rest either lack confidence (40%) or are uncertain (36%).
The anemic confidence observed in Afghanistan in June is not a positive sign, particularly if rising violence, reports of voter registration fraud, and the Taliban's efforts to intimidate voters in the last two months have exacerbated existing doubts. Despite intense efforts to secure the polls and safeguard against fraud, observers remain concerned that some Afghans may not accept the results if turnout is low and serious questions about fairness arise.
The Taliban's threat Sunday to directly attack polling stations is the most recent example of its attempt to exploit Afghans' fears in what already has been a violent year so far. Reflecting conditions in the first half of 2009, a slim majority of voting-age Afghans (51%) told Gallup in June that the security situation in their neighborhoods has worsened in the past six months, up from 43% who said so in December.
The security situation at the time of the survey appears to have had some bearing on confidence in the fairness and transparency of the presidential election. Those who say the security situation has become better are nearly twice as likely as those who say it has become worse to express confidence that the election will be fair and transparent.
Little Difference in Confidence Among Ethnicities
Ethnic and tribal loyalties divide Afghanistan and dominate its politics, but voting-age Afghans who self-identify themselves with major ethnic groups share similarly low confidence in the fairness and transparency of this election. Two in 10 or more Hazaras, Pashtuns, and Tajiks express confidence in this election. Sample sizes among other ethnicities, such as Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaks, and Balochs, are too small to report results. Uncertainty about the security situation in southern Afghanistan, as it relates to Taliban threats, could be an important factor in the greater proportion of Pashtuns saying they don't know.
Afghans Still Believe in Elections
Voting-age Afghans' lack of faith in the fairness of this election does not mean they lack faith in elections in general. Half of those surveyed say they think voting is an effective way for people to effect positive change, while a third (33%) say they feel elections do not make much of a difference.
Security also appears to have an effect on Afghans' likelihood to say voting is an effective way to bring about change. Seventy percent of voting-age Afghans who say the security situation in their neighborhoods has become better in the last six months believe voting is effective, compared with 48% of those who say the situation has become worse.
Among Afghanistan's major ethnic groups, those who identify themselves as Tajiks are more likely than Pashtuns or Hazaras to say voting is an effective way to positive change. Sixty-one percent of Tajiks, compared with 43% of Pashtuns and 48% of Hazaras, say voting is effective.
Low Intended Participation
Shortly before the campaign period kicked off in June, Gallup asked Afghans to name whom they would vote for if the election took place then. While Afghans' choices may have changed since the survey was conducted, election front-runner President Hamid Karzai clearly topped the list at that time. Tied for second place and representing one-third of the voting-age Afghans are "no one" (17%) and "don't know/refused" (16%).
Although there have been recent reports that the race may be narrowing, no more than 6% of voting-age Afghans at the time of the survey mentioned other candidates, including Karzai's two main challengers, Abdullah Abdullah (3% of mentions) and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (2% of mentions). Altogether, respondents mentioned 26 individuals' names.
The stakes are high Thursday, with the legitimacy of the Afghanistan's second presidential election potentially at stake. Serious fraud, security problems, and low voter participation on Election Day have the potential to further undermine the shaky trust evident among voting-age Afghans even before the election campaign officially started.
With more than 30 candidates contesting the election, it's highly likely that if Karzai does not win outright, he will at least survive to battle another candidate head-to-head in a runoff election. Some observers say that if voter turnout is low among Pashtuns in the south, where Karzai gets much of his support, the likelihood of a runoff will be even greater.
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Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 900 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted in June 2009 in Afghanistan. For results based on the sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.