Why Afghans felt their vote for president mattered in 2014


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Before leaving on assignment, Gwen sat down with Margaret earlier today for more on the election.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, looking at those lines of people lined up to vote, it’s amazing, the turnout. Why? Why so many people?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, there are a couple of theories about this.

One is that the Afghan national security forces actually did a very good job, 350,000 strong, much better than they did in 2009. And though the U.S. helped with the logistics and intelligence, they were standing by to come in, in emergencies, really, the Taliban didn’t mount, as we just said in the piece, any major attacks.

The other reason I have heard from people who know Afghanistan well is that this time voters felt it actually mattered. I covered the ’09 election, and even though Karzai thought the U.S. was out to kill him and get him out of office, most Afghans thought the fix was in for Karzai, that the U.S. had already anointed him.

And so there wasn’t the same, what was apparently really a kind of enthusiasm for getting out there and voting and thinking their vote mattered.

GWEN IFILL: We know there were lots of allegations of widespread fraud last time. Have — this may be too soon to say, but has there been any indication of that so far?

MARGARET WARNER: It is early to say. And U.S. officials are actually very cautious about this. They say vote went well, turnout was great, even though, you know, heavier in the cities than some rural Taliban-controlled areas.

But this fraud process of the complaints and the investigations are very dicey, period. So far, there haven’t been complaints of like blanket fraud, the kind of thing where Abdullah Abdullah said last time, this whole thing is illegal. I remember him saying this to me. And that is why he wasn’t going to a runoff.

But there are — every candidate says they have got cell phone videos of policeman stuffing ballot boxes or telling people whom to vote for. And so that process, really, the complaints started today, and there’s quite — as we lay out in the piece, quite a time for that to be investigated.

So you have to take the total vote, which is seven million people turning out. How many of those will get thrown out?

GWEN IFILL: There are so many questions, or there have been in the last couple of years, about Hamid Karzai and our fractured, fractious relationship with him.

Are either of these two likely runoff candidates, are they likely to have a different relationship with the U.S.?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the United States certainly hopes so, at least less mercurial, and just sort of a more — a more stable relationship.

But I have to say that even people in the administration who don’t care for Hamid Karzai and can hardly wait to have him gone do give him credit for apparently not meddling heavily in this election. He did have a favorite candidate, as we said. But he didn’t — if there wasn’t massive, massive fraud, it’s because Karzai didn’t feel the need to do it.

Last time, he thought Dick Holbrooke, who was running AfPak policy, and the U.S. were out to get him. This time, he is comfortable with any of the three front-runners, I’m told. And so he didn’t have a huge incentive to do it. And he has told a lot of people — and, again, we don’t know whether to believe this — that he sees it as part of his legacy, this first peaceful ever transition of power.

So I think that, yes, the U.S. is looking forward to Karzai’s successor. They are also pleasantly surprised that there has been less apparent manipulation by Karzai.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the other thing Karzai has done is repeatedly refused to sign the security agreement, which everybody has been kind of waiting for, and, in fact, which U.S. officials said should have been done before this election.

So now there has been an election. We assume there is going to be a new leader. What are the prospects for the bilateral security agreement?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, every single one of the, what, 12 or 13 candidates indicated they would sign it; they thought it was essential for Afghan security to have this sort of residual U.S. force, and, also, frankly, for a lot of the economic aid, which, if you don’t have any Western forces there, a lot of organizations and a lot of money will be pulled out of civilian projects.

So they take all these candidates at their word, particularly the top three, apparent top three finishers. That said, they have learned the hard way that in Afghanistan nothing is ever sure until it’s done, and sometimes not even then.

GWEN IFILL: Now, does this restore or — the U.S. faith in the Afghan transition, or does the U.S. just step farther and farther back as these elections play out?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the U.S. this time, instead of looking like they were favoring anyone, really just kept saying, let’s have the process be fair, because the U.S. interest is that this regime is credible by the Afghan people. And, you know, it’s a very fractious society. You have got all these different ethnic groups. There is a lot of sectarianism and distrust of one ethnic group wanting to dominate over another.

So that’s where the U.S. effort has been concentrated. If you get to a situation where there are, say, two top finishers, and it’s very, very close, and then there is a question do you want to do a runoff or do two leaders want to do a deal, I think the United States and the international community may be of assistance in that situation, in terms of helping them figure out how to resolve it, though they have a whole process for doing it, and they can go to a runoff.

But — and that Karzai may also play a role. That is so speculative now.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And it really depends. You know, is it — if it’s really close, you can imagine neither Ghani nor Abdullah — let’s say they’re the two leaders — would want to say, well, you become president, I will be prime minister. You know, so it’s like politics here.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there incentive to do a deal or not?  And…

GWEN IFILL: But is there any sense when we are going to have a vote count complete?

MARGARET WARNER: Sure.

There is one preliminary vote count, which, as I said at the end of the piece, is April 24. But that’s before you discount all the fraud and allegation investigations. Then you get a later vote count. And that’s not until something like May 14 or 15. So there is a lot of time here, a lot of potential instability.

And even that won’t be a resolution, right, because then you might have to have a runoff? And all that time, the Taliban is active. All that time, Karzai remains president.

GWEN IFILL: Afghanistan, it’s the story that never quite ends.

MARGARET WARNER: Never quite ends.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Pleasure, Gwen.

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