Afghanistan Goes To The Presidential Polls: A Primer Afghanistan's second presidential election takes place Thursday amid threats of violence and voter intimidation by the Taliban. Voters will choose from incumbent Hamid Karzai and 36 other candidates, including two women.
NPR logo Afghanistan Goes To The Presidential Polls: A Primer

Afghanistan Goes To The Presidential Polls: A Primer

A boy and his donkey carry unused ballots across a stream en route to the remote village of Quali Kuana. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gilkey/NPR

A boy and his donkey carry unused ballots across a stream en route to the remote village of Quali Kuana.

David Gilkey/NPR

Bombs rocked Kabul on the eve of Afghanistan's presidential election as millions of voters prepare to cast ballots on the future of their troubled country — a choice between incumbent Hamid Karzai or one of 36 other candidates. The vote takes place amid war, allegations of election fraud and insurgent threats to intimidate voters — by cutting off any fingers stained with indelible ink from polling places. View the presidential ballot (PDF).

Voting begins at 7 a.m. local time Thursday (10:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday) and Karzai appears to hold a solid lead in pre-election polling. But there is a possibility that he may not get the more than 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round. That could trigger an Oct. 3 runoff and an opening for one of Karzai's main rivals.

About The Election

What: A national election to choose a president and members of provincial assemblies.

When: Thursday. If any candidate fails to gain more than 50 percent of the vote in the first balloting, a runoff between the top two candidates would be scheduled for Oct. 3.

Where: Throughout Afghanistan's 34 provinces, although ongoing violence in some provinces, such as Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz, Logar and Paktia may prevent many polling stations from opening.

Who's running: There are 37 candidates for president, including two women. Four candidates have withdrawn.

The front-runner is incumbent President Hamid Karzai. His nearest rival appears to be former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, followed by ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and parliament member Ramazan Bashardost.

Who's voting: Election officials say more than 17 million people have registered to vote. If accurate, that figure represents an increase of about 4.4 million from the last election in 2004.

Critics say there are serious concerns about voter registration. No one can be sure how many people there are in Afghanistan, because there hasn't been a census since 1979. But the CIA estimates Afghanistan's population at 33.6 million, with about half the population under the voting age of 18.

That would mean that virtually every eligible adult has registered, which seems unlikely, given that officials haven't even been able to visit large areas of the country that the Taliban control.

The European Union Election Observation Mission, which will help monitor the voting, says it is concerned that the number of women registered to vote seems suspiciously high in a country where women are dominated by husbands and fathers. The mission is concerned that male heads of households may try to vote on behalf of all the women in their families, which would violate election rules.

How: The election is being conducted by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, which is trying to set up more than 26,000 polling stations, some of them in places so remote they can only be reached by donkey.

Why: Afghanistan's 2004 Constitution mandated that elections be held 30 to 60 days before the end of the president's five-year term. Karzai's term officially ended on May 22 this year, but the vote was delayed until August due to security concerns.

How this election compares with the last: Afghanistan's first direct presidential election took place on Oct. 9, 2004. United Nations officials said they registered nearly 11 million people, and they estimated that more than 7 million actually cast ballots. About 40 percent of the voters were reported to be women.

Hamid Karzai garnered more than 55 percent of the vote to win a five-year term. His nearest rival, Yunus Qanuni, received just over 16 percent.

The Candidates

Hamid Karzai

Hamid Karzai, the 51-year-old incumbent, is from Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan. He is a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic Afghan group. He was an activist who lived in exile working against the Soviet occupation — and later, the Taliban — before returning in 2001 during the U.S.-led invasion.

Karzai won Afghanistan's first presidential election in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote and enjoyed widespread international support early in his term.

But the growing Taliban insurgency and rampant government corruption have eroded Karzai's popularity. He has tried to regain support in the past year with sharp criticism of the West over the growing number of Afghan civilians dying at the hands of U.S.- and NATO-led forces.

Karzai has also made no official campaign appearances and has not said what his plans for governance would be if re-elected. His opponents and critics charge that he is using official ceremonies as well as government workers to promote his candidacy, something his administration and campaign deny.

Abdullah Abdullah

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister under Karzai, was a close ally of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and is considered a national hero to many in Afghanistan.

Abdullah, 50, is an ophthalmologist. Born in Kabul, he is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik, the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. But Abdullah's affiliation with Massoud, who was a Tajik, makes him suspect to many Pashtuns.

Abdullah says he wants to help the families of Afghans maimed or killed in the country's long history of war and insurgent attacks. He says he wants to decentralize Afghanistan's government and make it more accountable to the people. He also wants to make the country's 34 provincial governors stand for elections rather than be appointed by the president, as they are now.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a professor and former World Bank official from Logar province, served as finance minister under Karzai. He is 60 years old and is a Pashtun, although he is criticized by his opponents for being too "American."

Ahmadzai says he would test civil servants to ensure they are qualified to work in their posts. He seeks to simplify laws and coordinate Afghanistan's security forces under a commander in chief. He says he would designate a group of 20,000 religious, tribal, business and youth leaders who, by phone, would provide a daily report card on how they view security across the country.

Ahmadzai also wants to improve economic and political relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors, as well as with the West.

Other Candidates

Ramazan Bashardost And Other Candidates

Among the nearly 40 candidates are medical workers, engineers, lawmakers, clerics, professors, retired generals and a former Taliban commander. Two of the candidates are women: One is a doctor who is the widow of a slain aviation minister; and the other, a psychologist who serves in Afghanistan's parliament.

Candidates rely heavily on ethnic and tribal connections, as well as their links to popular and powerful leaders — dead or alive — to entice voters.

But one candidate has distinguished himself as a maverick, and according to some observers, has vaulted into the select group of leading contenders.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament and a former planning minister, is a populist who appears to enjoy support across ethnic lines. Playing up the excess of the political classes in Afghanistan, Bashardost lives in a tent near the parliament building and travels in a simple car. An ethnic Hazara in his early 40s, he gained attention in the closing week of the campaign for his performance in a televised debate again Karzai and other candidates.

Voting Along Ethnic Lines?

Electoral maps from the 2004 election show that although President Karzai benefited from a strong crossover vote, Afghans in general tended to vote for candidates from their own ethnic groups.

The lack of recent census data makes it hard to be precise, but most estimates of Afghanistan's ethnic composition come close to this breakdown, compiled by The Associated Press:

Afghan tribal breakdown

Pashtuns have dominated the country's governments since Afghanistan emerged as a nation-state in the mid-18th century. They occupy a broad swath of land that extends across the south and east of Afghanistan, and deep into northwestern Pakistan. They speak the Pashto language, and most are Sunni Muslims. President Karzai is a Pashtun, as is his challenger Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Tajiks reside in large sections of northern Afghanistan, stretching north into Tajikistan. They speak Dari, a dialect of Persian, the main language of Iran. Most follow Sunni Islam, but members of two important Tajik sub-groups, the Farsiwan and Qizilbash, are Shiites. Candidate Abdullah Abdullah has a strong identification among Tajiks. His mother was a Tajik, although his father was Pashtun.

Hazaras are found mainly in the central part of Afghanistan. They speak Dari, and most are Shiite Muslims. Because of religious and cultural differences, Hazaras have long faced persecution by the Pashtun majority. Presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost is a Hazara.

Uzbeks are a Turkic people who live mainly in northern Afghanistan. They speak Dari and are mostly Sunni Muslims. Karzai recently made Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum his senior military adviser, despite allegations of massacres and other brutality by Dostum's troops in 2001.