Did over seven million Afghans really vote for their next president? (+video)

Two candidates faced off Saturday in Afghanistan's first presidential runoff. The election commission claimed a higher turnout than in April's poll, but doubts remain. 

Millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats and intimidation to vote this weekend in a presidential runoff, the first held in Afghanistan. But despite the relatively peaceful campaign, questions remain over the actual turnout in the closely watched race.

Nearly seven million Afghans took part in the first round of voting in April. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah took 45 percent of the votes cast, while his runoff challenger Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister, secured 31.6 percent.

Both candidates have vowed to sign an agreement that would allow thousands of American troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, a proposal that has taken on added weight in Washington with the near-collapse of US-trained Iraqi forces over the past week.

Ahmad Yusef Nuristani, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, said shortly after polls closed that “more than seven million” Afghans participated in Saturday’s runoff vote, exceeding turnout in the first round. "Public participation was high in the runoff, just like the previous round. People proved their commitment to democracy and elections," he told a press conference.

However, this claim of a higher participation rate was at odds with reports of lower turnout in many of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In Ghor province, seven polling stations were shut due to low turnout and security threats. In four other eastern and southern provinces, where Taliban forces are strongest, the number of stations was also reduced for the runoff vote.

The Ministry of Defense said 50 civilians and 29 security officers had died Saturday in election-related violence, and many more were injured. In one incident, a roadside bomb in Samangan province killed 11 people, including four election workers.

In Kabul, election workers at some polling stations said it had been a slow day. “Last round we filled two ballot boxes just for presidential votes, this time we barely filled half of one box”, said an election worker at a female-only polling station in the Lycée Zarghuna.

Some Afghans are skeptical of the election commission’s claim of a higher turnout. Analysts cited the slow transport of ballot boxes from more rural districts as a reason to be cautious about a snap judgment and accused the commission of trying to spin the vote as a success.

Simpler ballot, shorter lines?

Greg Minjack, the head of Democracy International’s Election Observation Mission, played down the apparent discrepancy, saying impressions and actual turnout often diverge. His monitoring group deployed 16 two-person teams in Jalalabad, Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Panjshir.

“There were more polling centers this time around. In areas where one polling center was overcrowded with voters additional sites were added to compensate,” he says.

Moreover, a runoff vote meant a simpler ballot and quicker turnover. Eight candidates ran in the first round. “With only two names to choose from, people were in-and-out much more quickly,” he says.

Manafsha, who cast her first-ever ballot in Kabul in April, said she voted for the same candidate, whom she didn’t name, in both rounds. “I want someone who is good, someone who will work for peace and improve our education standards in the country. Someone who isn’t a traitor,” she says.

The two campaigns both reported ballot shortages in up to 17 provinces, including Kabul, Kandahar, Khost Samangan, and Badakhshan. Similar accusations marred the first round of voting.  

On Saturday, the Electoral Complaints Commission received 118 written complaints. An additional 144 were lodged by telephone. Both camps have 48 hours to file further complaints. Final official results from the runoff vote are due on July 22. 

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