Kunduz, with its eponymous capital as the centre of one of the seven multi-province regions in Afghanistan (the northeast), had the lowest turnout of all Afghan provinces in the 28 September 2019 presidential election. This applies to absolute and relative numbers – the latter a meagre 6.4 per cent. Baghlan had the second-lowest numbers. Bad security was the main reason for this situation in both provinces. Samangan fared much better. AAN’s Obaid Ali, who had been unable to travel to Kunduz on election day and had watched the election there (and in Baghlan and Samangan) from neighbouring Takhar province, looks back at how election day and the election aftermath unfolded in those three north-eastern provinces. Local journalists and civil society activists provided further insight (with input from Thomas Ruttig).
The two north-eastern provinces of Baghlan and Samangan are situated at the northern stretch of the national ring road; also known as Highway 1. This road connects the capital Kabul via the Salang Pass with the north-eastern region and beyond to the northern region, with its capital Mazar-e Sharif. At Pul-e Khumri, Baghlan’s capital, the road forks, the eastern road leading to Kunduz, the regional capital of the north-east, and further on to Tajikistan, via the river port of Sher Khan Bandar.
Kunduz and Baghlan, in particular, have experienced growing insecurity for almost a decade. This happened somewhat later and to a lesser degree in Baghlan than in Kunduz, The Taleban established themselves at various locations near Highway 1 and its north-eastern fork to Kunduz, creating an ability to interrupt its use during larger attack operations. The last case of such an attack occurred in early September 2019, less than a month before the presidential election.
During that attack, Taleban fighters penetrated deep into both cities holding out in both for several days; the first time in Pul-e Khumri’s case. Since the Taleban more or less control most districts in both provinces, particularly in Kunduz, the population had no strong incentives, nor possibilities, to cast their votes on 28 September. In fact, for Kunduz, no election took place in Dasht-e Archi, Qala-ye Zal, Aqtash, Gulbad, and Gultepa districts, and similarly in Dahna-ye Ghori district of Baghlan province.
Samangan, in comparison, has been much more secure. But the province started reporting more terrorist attacks, Taleban incursions and incidents of fighting from early 2016 onwards.
By now, the Taleban have established a foothold in Dara-ye Suf-e Payan, with its district centre changing hands between government troops and the Taleban several times over the past years, and for the last time – claimed by the Taleban – one day before the election. The conflict is exacerbated by the incentive of control the district’s coal mines.
On election day, 12,320 people turned out in Kunduz (6.4% of the registered voters) and 28,634 in Baghlan (6.6%), according to the latest biometric voter data publicised by the Independent Election Commission (IEC). These are actually the lowest relative turnout figures of all 34 Afghan provinces. Samangan’s percentage, with 26 per cent, was four times higher.
Kunduz: Presidential election campaign
The election campaign was far less colourful compared to any election campaign in the past. Wahedullah Rahmani, a civil society activist in Kunduz, said there was no public awareness about the election in the province. “I have seen only few election campaign advertisements in the local TV and radio stations.” According to Zabihullah Majidi, head of the Kunduz journalist association, the presidential election campaign started only in the last few weeks before the election. Speaking to AAN, he said that, because of widespread disbelief whether the election would be held at all, few presidential candidates opened campaign offices in the province.
In Kunduz city, only two of the total of 15 presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Muhammad Ashraf Ghani, had campaign offices. Furthermore, these offices only started their work almost at the end of the campaign period. According to Majidi, this was largely because of the US and Taleban peace talks and a possible agreement between them that might have postponed the presidential election.
During the 60 days of election campaigning that had started on 28 July, presidential candidates held only one political rally in Kunduz city and just a few gatherings in their offices. The only rally was held by Abdullah’s Stability and Convergence team on 23 September in chaman-e sharwali (municipalty’slawn) in Kunduz city and brought out around thousand people. Only people from Kunduz city attended. Shokrullah Watandost, a school teacher in Kunduz who attended the rally, said that he was told by Abdullah’s campaigners that Abdullah, or one of his vice presidential candidates, would join the rally. There were also rumours that General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of Abdullah’s main supporters, also might have been present. According to Watandost, the organisers offered food, transportation and some cash to some of the participants. However, due to the insecurity situation, neither of them turned up. Only provincial officials from Abdullah’s team and his main campaigners for Kunduz, such as Abdullah Qarluq, a member of the upper house of parliament; Muhammadullah Batash, a member of the lower house; Amruddin Wali, a member of the Kunduz provincial council; and a few others attended and delivered. Watandost added that when people found that out they left the rally before it ended.
Only indoor gatherings were held for Muhammad Ashraf Ghani’s State Builder team. These were organised mainly by his key campaigners for Kunduz province, such as Muhammad Yusuf Ayubi, the speaker for the Kunduz provincial council, Abdul Latif Ibrahimi, a member of the lower house of the parliament, along with some other local influential figures. These gatherings were held in their main office in Kunduz city. Neither Ghani, nor his vice presidential candidates, travelled to Kunduz.
It was the case also that both main contenders’ social media campaigns were limited. The Stability and Convergence team’s official Facebook page for Kunduz contained just nine campaign photos from Kunduz taken during the 60 days of the campaign period. Ashraf Ghani’s State Builder’s team official Facebook page for Kunduz also had only a few photos from the gatherings held inside the team’s campaign office.
The journalist Majidi said that there were no election campaign offices in most of the province’s districts. According to him, Abdullah and Ghani had campaign offices only in Imam Saheb and Aliabad districts. Rahmani told AAN that each campaign office had such tight security procedures that people were put off visiting as they had to undergo a body search and answer many questions before being allowed in. According to him, most of the provincial campaign managers preferred to stay in safe places instead of appearing in public or campaigning in an open area.
Election day in Kunduz
In terms of security, the 2019 election day in Kunduz was similar to the 2018 parliamentary election when the Taleban also targeted the city of Kunduz with mortar shelling, blocked the main roads and issued warnings to people to avoid participating in the election.
In 2019, similar issues prevented many people from casting their votes. Out of a total of 27 polling centres in Kunduz city, five remained closed because of the rocket shelling directed against them, the Taleban’s threats and clashes between Taleban and security forces inside the city. Many Taleban attacks harmed civilians who had not taken part in the election but had became indirect targets because they lived in areas near to election facilities.
Speaking to AAN, provincial security officials confirmed the Taleban attacks, but added that they failed to prevent the election in Kunduz. Inhamuddin Rahmani, the Kunduz police chief spokesman, said that around 200 rocket were fired at Kunduz city during the election day. He said that one rocket landed inside the Kunduz police chief compound and three others hit nearby. The casualty figure on election day, he said, were two Afghan National Army (ANA) service members killed and three other ANA, along with two police, wounded.
At least four polling centres (in what could be considered the safest place inside the city) were targeted by the Taleban during the election day, according to Nuruddin Fetrat, head of the provincial IEC for Kunduz. Fetrat told AAN that rockets hit all four. He said that the polling centres in Sher Khan and Fatma Zahra high schools were closed for a couple of hours because of the shelling. He added that five IEC workers were seriously wounded in another polling centre. Zakhel Khomdan, one local journalist, said that most shelling hit residential places and caused civilian casualties. They said a large number of casualties were recorded in the Saidarak area in the city’s police district 1, around two kilometres to the south of the main chawk (roundabout),where people were caught up in fighting between Taleban and security forces. According to the provincial health department, the figure of civilian casualties reached 54 people. Hasan Fazli, head of the Kunduz hospital, speaking to AAN, said that three were killed and 51 others wounded that day. Fetrat said “We had a terrible election in Kunduz province.”
Interruption of public lives in Kunduz
Public life had already been seriously disrupted before the election by Taleban threats and attacks. The Taleban had cut off the electricity supply from Tajikistan by blowing up pylons in Dukolola, an area around five kilometres to the north of the provincial governor’s office of Kunduz, on 26 September and left the city in darkness. No one was allowed to repair it until a few days after the election. The electricity cuts also affected the water supply pumps that remained out of service leaving Kunduz city without drinking water for more than a week. Telecommunication networks were also switched off when the Taleban warned they would set any network transmitter tower on fire if they were to operate from 26 September and until further notice. Telecommunication networks remained out of service until 1 October.
These disturbances were not new for Kunduzis. Previously, in early September, the Taleban had attacked Kunduz city having already blown up an electricity pylon, the telecommunication networks went down and water pumps were out of service.
On 27 September, a day before the election, all major roads leading to Kunduz city and the district centres had been blocked when Taleban attacks against police checkpoints aimed to prevent the delivery of election supply materials to district centres. The insecurity and threats ahead of and during the election also closed down markets, shops and the supply of goods into and out of the province.
Generally, people avoided having candidates posters put up outside their shops or around their private business centres. A business market owner, who wished to remain anonymous, said that he did not allow campaigners to post candidate posters around his market. He told AAN that he did not want to see his business destroyed because of posters provoking a Taleban attack. Sayed Fazel Qasemi, the manager of large wedding hall in Kunduz often used for other types of gatherings, told AAN that his boss told him to not allow any campaign events there. He said the main reason was the Taleban threat to target people who attended election campaign events and areas where such campaigning would take place. This was in a stark contrast to previous elections monitored by AAN in the province when many private houses had been rented out as campaign offices, private vehicles hired for the campaigning, and most wedding halls and restaurants booked up for campaigners.
According to Zabihullah Majedi, many people who live around the polling centres left their homes ahead of election day in fear of Taleban attacks or rocket shelling. For example, Nur Muhammad, a local resident of Kunduz city, told AAN that two days before the election he evacuated his family to outside of the city. “I don’t want to suffer because of the election so I moved my family to a safe place.” Military vehicles were seen in every street and on main roads inside the provincial centres on election day.
The election did not take place at all in five of Kunduz province’s nine districts: in Dasht-e Archi, Qala-ye Zal and the relatively newly established districts of Aqtash, Gultepa and Gulbad. In Chahrdara district, the Afghan security forces only managed to provide security measure for one polling centre in the district centre, where only local government officials and IEC workers cast their votes. Most locals stayed away from the election because of the Taleban threats. Khanabad’s district centre had similar issues, but a few more polling centres were open there (AAN was unable to confirm how many exactly). In Imam Saheb district security was good and election day peaceful. According to Zabihullah Majedi, most of the votes in Kunduz emanated from people from Imam Saheb district because of the good security there that allowed people to participate in the election.
As a result, only 12,320 people in Kunduz (6.4% of the registered voters), equivalent to 23 per cent of the 2018 parliamentary election turnout of 52,251 cast their votes on 28 September 2019.
Baghlan: a short overview
Like Kunduz, the presidential election campaign in Baghlan has also been muted. Apart from Abdullah, Ghani and Hekmatyar’s teams none of the other candidates organised gatherings or held campaign events. According to Nezamuddin Sabawun, a local journalist in Baghlan, apart from Hekmatyar, none of the other candidates attended gatherings in Baghlan province. He told AAN that Abdullah and Ghani’s teams’ local supporters organised gatherings and they delivered speeches on behalf of their respective candidates.
Baghlan also faced serious security issues on election day. Taleban hit Pul-e Khumri city with rockets and disrupted election in most parts of it. The Taleban blocked the main roads that connect Baghlan to Kabul, Mazar and Kunduz.
In one of Baghlan’s 14 districts (Dahna-ye Ghori), no election took place because the Taleban had been in entire control of it for almost four years. Starting on 18 October, the Afghan security forces carried out what it called a clearance operation and managed to push back the Taleban from most parts of the district after six days of consecutive fighting.
In three others districts (Baghlan-e Jadid, Burka, and Tala wa Barfak) the election took place in a few polling centres inside the district centres only and, sometimes, only inside the district governor’s compound itself. In Dushi district, according to local journalists, half of a total of 22 polling centres remained closed because of Taleban direct attacks or rocket shelling. In the remaining nine districts (Khenjan, Banu, Deh Salah, Pul-e Hesar, Jelga, Khost, Farang – the latter two had been one district until recently but are separated now –, Gozargah-e Nur and Nahrin) elections proceeded with relative calm.
However, the general turnout in the province was very low; with 28,634 votes (6.6 %), according to latest IEC figures. Apart from Kunduz, this is the lowest turnout percentage of any Afghan province. It is also below 25 per cent of the valid votes registered during the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Samangan: a short overview
In Samangan’s eponymous provincial centre (formerly known as Aibak), the Jombesh, Jamiat and Wahdat-e Islami parties – who largely dominate the province and support Abdullah’s ticket – held large campaign rallies. Ghani’s team also organised a large gathering, but most votes went to Abdullah. In contrast to Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, security in Samangan was relatively better. Of a total of six districts, one (Dara-ye Suf-e Payin) is mostly controlled by the Taleban. For the remainder (Khuram wa Sarbagh, Hazrat Sultan, Dara-ye Suf Bala, Rui Duab and Feroz Nakhchir), the government presence was higher than that of the Taleban.
Telecommunication networks and internet connection had been switched off a day before the election until 1 October, following Taleban threats to the companies operating them. A local elder from Hazrat Sultan district told AAN that the Taleban posted warning letters on many mosques calling on people to stay away from the election.
The Taleban posed serious threats to the election in some parts of the province. According to Nazar Muhammad Barat, a local journalist, insecurity in Dara-ye Suf-e Payin and some parts of Rui Duab, Khuram wa Sarbagh, and Hazrat Sultan, challenged IEC attempts to hold the election. Speaking to AAN, he said that in Dara-ye Suf-e Payin, where the IEC had planned to open 17 polling centres, the election was only held in two of them because of Taleban shelling on election day and their physical presence in most parts of the district. Local IEC workers told AAN that, because of the Taleban shelling, some polling centres in Hazrat Sultan and Khuram wa Sarbagh districts also remained closed.
The elder from Hazrat Sultan confirmed rocket shelling against some polling centres in Hazrat Sultan district, as well as in other parts of the province disrupted people from casting their votes. However, there was no large-scale attack against the security forces during the election day.
Nevertheless, turnout in Samangan; 37,298 (26%) was lower than expected. The province had more than double that number of valid votes in the 2018 parliamentary election. This year, it was around four times higher than in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces.
Conclusion: Kunduz and Baghlan at the national bottom
For most Kunduzis, this election turned into a nightmare again. Once more, they were strongly affected by shelling and experienced lengthy interruptions of basic services, such as the electricity and water supply. The attacks on the election process in Baghlan also caused serious problems for the local population. Many were harmed in both provinces, even though they did not take part in the election, but lived in areas nearby. This had a distinct effect on their trust in the government that had failed to protect them and to provide basic services. The failure of the candidates to attend rallies or other gatherings, even inside their own campaign offices, further undermined local interest in the election.
The Taleban’s image also suffered given their shelling that hit residential areas, their blowing up of electricity pylons, forcing telecommunication companies to switch off their networks, blocking major roads and causing fear during election day.
High election abstention, at least in the provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan, seemed to have been caused mainly by the bad security situation, which strongly overshadowed a motif reported from other provinces: dissatisfaction with the two main contenders’ performance as heads of the National Unity Government. The main question with most Kunduzi and Baghlani people remained: whether it is worth facing the election-related danger and casting their votes or not. The low turnout in both provinces – the lowest of all Afghan provinces, according to updated, but not final IEC figures – suggests that most registered voters there answered this question with ‘no’.
Samangan, with its strong pro-Abdullah vote bank, strongly represented parties that supported him and better security and proved that more mobilisation also results in a higher turnout.