Afghanistan: Background

Brief history of the 2009 Afghanistan election

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghanistan held its second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Though 44 candidates registered to run, several revoked their registration, taking their names off the ballot. By election day there was only one main challenger to incumbent President Hamid Karzai: former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Bruce Beattie / Daytona Beach News-Journal

In the months prior to the election, more than 4.5 million Afghans had registered to vote out of a total population of 33.6 million. The country’s election commission tried to include women; about 40 percent of registered voters were female. But the IEC failed to recruit enough female staff to cover the women-only polling stations for the election itself, leaving 650 stations closed.

Out of fear that reports of violence would affect the outcome of the vote, the Afghan government imposed an election day media blackout, but terror tactics by Taliban forces did still disrupt the election. Scattered rocket attacks killed dozens of voters and local intimidation suppressed turnout especially in the south of the country where very few women managed to vote, many fearful of the Taliban’s threats to cut off fingers stained with the indelible ink used by election monitors.

The election was also troubled by other impediments. Although 99 percent of the Afghan population is Muslim (80 percent Sunni Muslim, 19 percent Shia Muslim) there are few other cohesive elements. Afghanistan has a largely illiterate electorate, an overwhelmingly rural population, and is split by deep ethnic divisions. Only slightly over a quarter of the country is literate, and the literacy rate for women is less than half that. Three-quarters of the country live in rural areas—often in very remote territories. And there are four major ethnic groups—the politically powerful Pashtuns, generally Sunni Muslims who make up over 40 percent of the country and are mostly located in a cresent along the Pakistan border; the Tajiks, who are also mostly Sunni and who make up over a quarter of the country, and who live mainly in the north; the Hazara, Shia Muslims who make up not quite 10 percent of the population and who live in the central mountains, and the Uzbeks, who also are about 10 percent of the country and who live in the north, alongside—but not typically intermarried with—the Tajiks.

Initial vote tallies for the first voting round on Aug. 20 appeared to give President Karzai, a Pashtun leader, an outright win in the election, but the UN-backed electoral complaints authority invalidated nearly a million of Karzai’s votes. Finally on Oct. 20, after two months of political unrest, Afghanistan’s election commission ordered a runoff election for Nov. 7.

In advance of the run-off, Karzi’s chief opponent and the second-place candidate Abdullah Abdullah called for an investigation of ballot-rigging and the replacement of compromised election officials. Then, on Nov. 1, with only days before the scheduled vote, Abdullah withdrew from the race, claiming not enough had been done to prevent further fraud.

The day after Abdullah’s withdrawal, the Independent Election Commission canceled the runoff and announced President Karzai would serve for another five-year term.

Resources on the Afghanistan election