The runoff election of June 14 was unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan. Security arrangements were thorough and voter turnout was high. According to the Independent Election Commission’s (IEC) initial estimation, 62% male and 38% female voters cast their ballots. People waited in long queues under the hot sun to vote for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. The international community hailed the election as historic and a great step forward in the democracy of Afghanistan.
However, only a day after the runoff election when ballot tally results were being called and emailed in by observers, Abdullah Abdullah levelled allegations against the IEC for its involvement in fraud. Two days later, he boycotted the whole election and demanded an end to vote-counting. All these allegations and the boycott came after initial numbers were in Ashraf Ghani’s favor.
Abdullah believes that Ashraf Ghani got the 1 million vote lead through fraud. Was it really fraud or clever and strategic mobilization of voters? Careful analysis of the situation with particular attention to the details taking place on the ground shows that there was no major fraud as Abdullah has alleged. Rather, Ghani and his team had a game changing strategy that was able to win over votes.
So far, six strategic tactics have become obvious that Ghani and his team used to mobilize more votes in his favor.
1-Debates: Ashraf Ghani realized after the first round that he had not gotten his messages out to the masses adequately. Therefore, he work harder in the second round to express his plans and policies related to unemployment, security, peace, economy, social and religious issues in simple language for the public to clearly understand. In the second round, he appeared on television almost every other day and talked one-on-one with the people (young and old, men and women), explaining to them what he will do if he is to become the next president. Dr. Ghani invited his opponent, Dr. Abdullah, on many occasions to come and debate with him on issues of proven importance to Afghans and the future of Afghanistan, but Abdullah refused each time. Therefore, we observed a surge of people who became more involved and engaged with Ashraf Ghani and his campaign team through these debates.
2-Manifesto: Besides televised debates, Ashraf Ghani published a 234 page manifesto in Pashto and Dari languages for people to read and judge his objectives, values and policies for themselves. Thousands of copies of his manifesto were distributed across the country. Such a strategy was unprecedented and impressive, especially to the newly literate Afghan youth who proved to be a crucial vote bank in the election of 2014 and Ghani was able to win them over.
3-Religious Scholars: One of the most important things Ashraf Ghani did during the second campaign period was to gain the support of more than 3,000 religious scholars. He gathered them at the big historic hall of the Loya Jirga and other important places around the country to explain to them his view of the relationship between Islam and state. He made them part of the campaign process and gave them logical and religious reasons regarding the important role of religious scholars in a society. The support of these religious scholars was vital for Ashraf Ghani because through them he was able to send his message to the Taliban and other hardline religious scholars in the rural areas of Afghanistan who have great influence in the most populated provinces of Afghanistan, especially in southern and eastern provinces. Eventually, the Taliban not only allowed people to vote, but also encouraged them to do so in provinces where it was unexpected that public would participate in the election. That is one reason why Ashraf Ghani has secured massive numbers of votes from southern and eastern provinces, which was not the case in first round of elections.
4-Observers: The election commission allowed both candidates to employ 50,000 observers to look after their votes and ensure the process is more transparent and acceptable to both candidates. Experts say one of the reasons why Ashraf Ghani didn’t secure a lot of votes in the first round was because he didn’t have proper management and enough observers in polling stations to prevent people from conducting fraud. Mr. Ghani’s team learned these lessons from the first round and gave a lot of time and focus to employing more observers and training them effectively.
Besides that, they recruited 10,000 intelligent young boys and girls stationed at call centers to get in touch with their observers on the ground and support them in their job. Through this mechanism, complaints or problems were reported right away to call centers by observers on the ground. Then, the employees at the call centers transferred those complaints and concerns to relevant authorities and organs. In this way, the observation process of Ashraf Ghani was more organized and efficient in the runoff election than the first round of elections. The contribution of these observers meant that they secured Ashraf Ghani’s votes by preventing fraud from happening.
5-Transport: Poverty in Afghanistan is a big problem. People can’t afford to travel long distances. They were keen to take part in rallies and gatherings, but high transportation costs hindered people from participating. Therefore, Ashraf Ghani’s team decided to provide vehicles for transportation. By doing so, he was able to galvanize massive support from every corner of the country. People who were left out in remote areas could also participate in campaign rallies. So, once people attended the rallies in large numbers, Ashraf Ghani was able to spread his message and plans to thousands of people in fewer rallies over a short period of time. It was a highly effective strategy.
6-Undecided: One of Ashraf Ghani’s strategies in the campaign of the second round was to reach out to undecided voters. There were two types of undecided voters: those who didn’t vote in the first round and those who voted for candidates who didn’t make it to the second round. Ashraf Ghani sent all his influential team members out of Kabul, to other provinces and districts to garner the support of undecided voters. He also sent campaigners across villages, districts and cities to get the support of young, old and most importantly, women. Female voter turnout in southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan was low in the first round of elections. Female campaign teams worked in these regions to convince women to come out and vote and convinced men to allow their female members of the family to participate in the runoff election. This tactic has proven significant for Ashraf Ghani; it brought him a lot of votes from the most populous provinces in south and east, with both the Taliban opening up the region and the undecided voters mobilized to vote for him.
Ashraf Ghani used these 6 major strategies in the second round that helped him gain the lead in addition to many more minor tactical maneuvers mentioned here. It’s worth mentioning that Abdullah got 45% votes in the first round of elections (held on 05 April 2014) and Ashraf Ghani got 31.6%. Therefore, Ghani’s leading the second round has become a bitter pill for Abdullah to swallow. As a result, Abdullah has provoked his supporters to go out to the streets and support him in his boycott of the election.
In short, Ashraf Ghani re-evaluated his campaign of the first round before entering the runoff election. He analyzed his strengths and weaknesses and learned from the mistakes of the first round. He campaigned harder to reach out to a wider audience. Abdullah took a complacent path because he was leading in the first round. Even though Abdullah has now boycotted the election, Ashraf Ghani’s team stresses they are against stopping the vote-counting because it would be against the agreement signed between the two candidates and the IEC, and most importantly it would be disrespect to the votes of people.