Thursday, December 18, 2014


Photogallery Czech Press Photo Winners 2014

  • Czech Press Photo Photograph of the Year: A man wounded in clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine, walks past a religious painting. (epa/Filip Singer) 
  • First Prize, Spot News: Riot police gather on Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on November 29, 2013. (epa/Filip Singer)
  • Second Prize, Spot News: A burned-out building's broken windows open onto Kyiv's Independence Square. (Petr Shelomovskiy)
  • Third Prize, Spot News: Emergency workers carry the bodies of passengers on Flight MH17, which crashed near the village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine. (Petr Shelomovskiy)
  • First Prize, General News: Anas Abduldayem, a Syrian, sits with his daughter on the day he left his family in Cairo in an attempt to emigrate to Italy by boat. (Stanislav Krupar)
  • Second Prize, General News: Protesters on the barricades in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Juraj Mravec)
  • Honorable Mention, General News: A man dressed in a World War II-era U.S. uniform pays his respects to those who died in the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion. (Denik/Martin Divisek)   
  • Third Prize, General News: A couple celebrates their engagement at a facility for mentally disabled people in Hvozdy, Czech Republic. (Stepan Hon)
  • First Prize, Sport: Skiers compete in the Men's Ski Cross event at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (CTK/Roman Vondrous)
  • Second Prize, Sport: An 81-year-old former Soviet athlete shows an old picture of himself at the Kachalka outdoor fitness center in Kyiv, Ukraine. (epa/Filip Singer)
  • Second Prize, Everyday Life: A child with autism. ("Respekt"/Milan Jaros)
  • Everyday Life: Children at an institution for the blind. (Jan Sibik)
  • First Prize, Portrait: From a series titled "Many Faces of the Ukrainian Revolution" (Cesky Rozhlas/Filip Jandourek)
  • Second Prize, Portraits: Luboš Miko is serving a prison sentence for killing a taxi driver. (Mafra/Radek Kalhous)
  • First Prize, People in the News: Andrej Kiska campaigns for the presidency of Slovakia. (mono.sk/Tomas Halasz)
  • First Prize, Nature and Environment: A dog receives aquatherapy at a veterinarian's office. ("Respekt"/Matej Stransky)
  • First Prize, Art: A senior citizens' dance party. (Michael Hanke)
Photos of the crisis in Ukraine dominate this year's Czech Press Photo contest. The competition, based on the World Press Photo awards, highlights the best journalistic work of photographers living in the Czech Republic and Slovakia during the previous year.

Video Kerry Praises Afghan Unity Government Accord

Kerry Praises Afghan Unity Government Accordi
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August 08, 2014
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the August 8 agreement between rival Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to form a national unity government as a "major step" for the country's future. Speaking alongside Abdullah and Ghani in Kabul, Kerry said both candidates are now "focused on Afghanistan, not on themselves." (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
Kerry Praises Afghan Unity Government Accord
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the August 8 agreement between rival Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to form a national unity government as a "major step" for the country's future. Speaking alongside Abdullah and Ghani in Kabul, Kerry said both candidates are now "focused on Afghanistan, not on themselves." (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Afghan Election Audit Marred By Disagreements, Delays

The auditors review ballots from the presidential election runoff at the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul on July 18.

Frud Bezhan

Walkouts, verbal disputes, and persistent delays -- these are the complications dogging the audit of every vote cast in Afghanistan's contentious presidential runoff.

For just more than a week, hundreds of national and international auditors have crammed into the Independent Election Commission (IEC) headquarters in Kabul to separate fraudulent ballots from clean votes. But with just a fraction of the 8.1 million ballots inspected, the process has attracted widespread criticism and is lagging behind schedule.

Only about 4 percent of the ballot boxes had been audited as of July 23, despite plans to have 100 teams working in two shifts inspecting around 1,000 ballot boxes a day.

This has raised concerns that the original three-week estimate for completing the process is insufficient, and that the recount could take until late August to complete. That would further push back the already delayed inauguration of the new president, which in kind leaves Afghans in limbo about their future and pushes back decisions on the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

Rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani agreed to the audit following a last-minute deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul earlier this month. Abdullah had claimed massive fraud and disputed preliminary results that gave Ghani a 1 million-vote lead, plunging Afghanistan into a deepening crisis and raising fears of violence.

Independent Afghan election observers say the audit has been painstakingly slow. There has been a shortage of auditors and disagreement between Abdullah and Ghani over how to disqualify fraudulent ballots. Moreover, only about 80 percent of the ballot boxes from around the country had been transported to Kabul as of July 24.

Disagreement Over Invalidation

On July 23, the audit was halted for a second time in a week so that the campaign teams, the IEC, and the United Nations could agree on the rules under which the audit is conducted -- particularly those outlining what to do when irregularities are detected.

The UN said in a statement on July 24 that it had been unable to get both sides to agree on a common text for scrutinizing votes, which would allow for a recount once fraudulent votes are thrown out. For now, auditors have only been physically inspecting each ballot box using a 16-point checklist.

Independent Election Commission workers, overseen by Italian troops, unload ballot boxes flown in on a UN aircraft from Farah Province to be sent onward to Kabul, at Herat airport on July 24.
Independent Election Commission workers, overseen by Italian troops, unload ballot boxes flown in on a UN aircraft from Farah Province to be sent onward to Kabul, at Herat airport on July 24.

Naim Ayubzada, the head of Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), an independent Afghan election observer group that has 112 people overseeing the audit in Kabul, says there are still "deep differences" over the invalidation criteria. Despite the ongoing disputes, the audit resumed on July 24.

"There's no procedure for the audit process," Ayubzada says. "It's still not final, so they have to make it final and give everyone a copy of the rules, especially to observers and monitors."

Ayubzada says the lack of clarity has led to numerous disputes and walkouts by the rival campaign teams. "Candidates' representatives have engaged in verbal conflicts and disputes that have challenged and stopped the process," he says. "The candidates are also somehow taking the leadership role in the process and its implementation."

Ayubzada adds that the IEC, which he says is only playing a facilitating role, needs to take the lead in the process.

There is a dispute between the Abdullah and Ghani camps over how big a role the IEC should play in adjudicating fraud complaints. Ghani wants a prominent role for Afghanistan's electoral bodies while Abdullah wants a larger role for the international community.

Abdullah has repeatedly accused the IEC of bias. The IEC's chief secretary, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, resigned last month after the release of an audio recording that implicated him in alleged ballot-box stuffing.

Shortage Of Observers

The auditing at IEC headquarters is being watched by hundreds of national and international auditors, including the candidates' own representatives, local election monitors, UN and EU observers, and the media.

But the audit has been hampered by the lack of trained local auditors.

The IEC said it would have 100 teams working in two shifts auditing around 1,000 ballot boxes a day. But when the audit began on July 17 only 30 teams were available, although that number had reached 80 late this week, according to the IEC.

Fahim Naimi, the spokesman for Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), an independent Afghan election-observer group that has 110 people monitoring the audit, says the sheer scale of the effort caught the Afghan electoral bodies off-guard.

"The number of auditors was very low at the onset but they have been growing," says Naimi, who adds that auditors are being recruited and others trained. "We need to increase the number of auditors as soon as possible so that the review runs quicker and the process will be completed."

The EU, which has taken a prominent role in the audit, is also training and accrediting its own observers and auditors.

Naimi says at the current pace, the audit will not be completed for "another three or four weeks." TEFA head Ayubzada, however, says it could take "months."

Logistical Challenges

The process is not helped by the fact that many of the ballot boxes have yet to arrive at IEC headquarters in Kabul. According to the IEC late this week, only around 19,000 of a total of 23,000 ballot boxes had arrived.

The ballot boxes are being transported by NATO-led forces. The transport of ballots is providing a logistical challenge, with thousands of ballot boxes waiting at airfields for pick-up.


Video Ghani Supporters Celebrate Preliminary Afghan Election Results

Ghani Supporters Celebrate Preliminary Afghan Election Resultsi
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July 08, 2014
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani celebrated on the streets of Kabul late July 7 following the announcement of the preliminary results of the June 14 runoff election. Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced that Ghani had won with 56.44 percent of the vote. (Reuters)
Ghani Supporters Celebrate Preliminary Afghan Election Results
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani celebrated on the streets of Kabul late July 7 following the announcement of the preliminary results of the June 14 runoff election. Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced that Ghani had won with 56.44 percent of the vote. (Reuters)

Possible Scenarios In Afghanistan's Presidential Election

Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai interested in undermining his successor, or in burnishing his legacy with the first democratic handover of power?

Frud Bezhan

Even before the final results were in, the legitimacy of Afghanistan's presidential election was being questioned.

The June 14 runoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani was marred by allegations of widespread fraud, with each candidate claiming victory and neither appearing willing to accept defeat.

Abdullah boycotted the election process over what he called "blatant fraud" committed in favor of Ghani, whom he accused of benefitting from 2 million fake votes. Ghani countered by arguing that the election was relatively clean, and that he won by more than 1 million votes.

As Afghans awaited the release of preliminary results expected on July 6 or 7 to be followed by a lengthy complaints period, a number of possible scenarios were shaping up.

Compromise Is Struck

In public, Abdullah and Ghani have expressed little desire to hash out a deal that could resolve the deadlock. 

But privately, each candidate has held UN-mediated talks with the Independent Election Commission (IEC). And outgoing President Hamid Karzai and his two vice presidents -- Yunus Qanuni and Karim Khalili -- have also held talks with the respective candidates.

The meetings have yielded little so far, but observers say a possible power-sharing agreement is a possibility, regardless of which candidate comes out on top.

Nasrullah Stanikzai, a political-science lecturer at Kabul University, notes protests in Kabul and rising ethnic tensions and concludes: "Considering recent events, it seems likely that they will come to an agreement. Politically, it is the correct way, although it is also unlawful."

Unofficial results indicate that Ghani, who finished 13 percentage points behind Abdullah in the first round in April, appears to be heading for a second-round victory that would give him the upper hand in any talks.

In that event, Abdullah could concede defeat, at least privately, to Ghani. In return, Abdullah could be offered a prime-ministerial role and/or the promise of cabinet positions in the future government for his political allies.

It is worth remembering that Abdullah and Karzai cut some sort of deal during the fraud-tainted 2009 presidential election, although it has never been revealed what Abdullah received in exchange for pulling out of the race before his second-round runoff against Karzai. Abdullah, under immense local and international pressure, said he did not think the vote would be fair. But many believe he was given incentives for conceding defeat.

Civil War

As ethnic tensions have escalated amid the election deadlock, fears have risen that the country could return to the type of interethnic violence seen in the 1990s. Rhetoric between rival candidates has sharpened and threats of violence have been traded. Pro-Abdullah protesters, meanwhile, have not discounted resorting to force if their demands are not met.

Abdullah, who is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun, has strong support among the Tajik community in the country's north. Ghani is a Pashtun whose main support base lies in the Pashtun heartland, in Afghanistan's south and east.

This has helped fuel predictions that the situation could turn violent.

But Zubair Shafiqi, a Kabul-based political commentator, is doubtful of such an outcome. "The people are tired of war," he says. "War is being imposed on them but the people will not accept it. The country will not fight a civil war because of either Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah."

On the other hand, Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says if there is no agreement tensions could rise in the country's relatively peaceful north.

READ MORE: Antisocial Networking Prompts Calls For Twitter, Facebook Ban

 

Ghani's second vice-presidential running mate, former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, and one of Abdullah's main backers, Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, are sworn enemies. It is not a stretch to imagine their struggle for control of the north spilling over into violence. "I think the concern is that the war could get a new northern dimension if northern groups start fighting in the same way that southern groups are already fighting," Smith says.

Some observers go so far as to warn that if an acceptable power-sharing agreement is not reached, the country could be partitioned. "If there is no deal, some people from the north will declare their independence from the central government," says Ahmad Saeedi, a Kabul-based political analyst. "They have already told the Americans of their intentions."

Karzai Stays On

Some Afghans hold the outgoing president responsible for the current crisis and say he has engineered the mess to extend his stay in power.

If Abdullah and Ghani cannot resolve their differences, Karzai could in theory be in a position to remain in power until a solution is found. Karzai's constitutional mandate expired in May, but he could continue on as an interim leader. And because he and his two vice presidents have become mediators in talks between Ghani and Abdullah, Karzai might be in a position to shape the outcome.

Abdullah has accused the outgoing president of using the government's administrative resources in favor of Ghani. Abdullah has also accused Karzai of rigging the vote so he can maintain control over the next government.

"This scenario was orchestrated by Karzai," says Saeedi, who adds that Karzai is setting the stage for a run for the presidency in five years' time. "Karzai wants the next government to be very weak, discredited, and considered unlawful."

Shafiqi, however, says it is in Karzai's interest to successfully oversee the country's first-ever democratic transition of power. "He wants to be remembered as the first Afghan leader to relinquish power and consolidate democracy in the country," he explains.


Video Prominent Abdullah Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversy

Prominent Abdullah Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversyi
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June 27, 2014
Amrullah Saleh, one of the highest-profile supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, said the current election crisis in Afghanistan can be resolved only if "the real vote is separated from the fraudulent vote." A former spy chief, Saleh told RFE/RL's Frud Bezhan in Kabul that election fraud was carried out at an "industrial level" and that an audio recording that led to the resignation of a senior electoral official was just the "tip of the iceberg." Saleh gave his views on calls for a UN role in the vote-counting process, and claimed Abdullah "has won the election." (Frud Bezhan, Wali Sabawoon, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
Prominent Abdullah Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversy
Amrullah Saleh, one of the highest-profile supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, said the current election crisis in Afghanistan can be resolved only if "the real vote is separated from the fraudulent vote." A former spy chief, Saleh told RFE/RL's Frud Bezhan in Kabul that election fraud was carried out at an "industrial level" and that an audio recording that led to the resignation of a senior electoral official was just the "tip of the iceberg." Saleh gave his views on calls for a UN role in the vote-counting process, and claimed Abdullah "has won the election." (Frud Bezhan, Wali Sabawoon, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Video Prominent Ghani Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversy

Prominent Ghani Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversyi
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June 24, 2014
Daud Sultanzoi, a former Afghan presidential candidate who endorsed Ashraf Ghani ahead of the June 14 runoff vote, said allegations of fraud that led to the resignation of the country's election chief must be thoroughly investigated. In an interview with RFE/RL's Frud Bezhan in Kabul, Sultanzoi said Ghani's campaign team would be open to a UN role in the vote-counting process as an observer, but insisted on the ultimate authority of the Afghan election authorities. He also said that early returns indicate that Ghani has a lead of more than 1 million votes over his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah -- a number that exceeds initial estimates by Abdullah's camp.
Prominent Ghani Supporter Speaks On Afghan Election Controversy
Daud Sultanzoi, a former Afghan presidential candidate who endorsed Ashraf Ghani ahead of the June 14 runoff vote, said allegations of fraud that led to the resignation of the country's election chief must be thoroughly investigated. In an interview with RFE/RL's Frud Bezhan in Kabul, Sultanzoi said Ghani's campaign team would be open to a UN role in the vote-counting process as an observer, but insisted on the ultimate authority of the Afghan election authorities. He also said that early returns indicate that Ghani has a lead of more than 1 million votes over his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah -- a number that exceeds initial estimates by Abdullah's camp.

Afghan Presidential Transition In Crisis Amid Election Fraud Allegations

Afghan women voters line up to cast their ballots in Jalalabad on June 14 in the second round of a presidential election that has been marred by fraud allegations.

Frud Bezhan
KABUL -- Although Afghan election officials were quick to declare Afghanistan's presidential runoff a success, allegations of massive fraud are pointing to a sad ending.
 
Candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, who faced off in the second round election on June 14, have traded accusations of vote rigging. And each appears braced to accept nothing less than victory.
 
The situation is murky, with ballots cast in the June 14 election still being counted, and details regarding the thousands of complaints of electoral fraud have yet to be publicly disclosed. But one thing is clear: Afghanistan's transition to a new president won't be a smooth one.
 
Abdullah hammered that point home on June 18 when he said his observer team had uncovered massive fraud, a claim that comes after unofficial early returns indicated that Ghani was poised for a major upset.
 
Saying he no longer trusted Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Abdullah announced that he had ordered his team to stop observing the vote count, to vacate the electoral oversight body's office in Kabul, and to suspend all relations with it.
 
Ghani, has called on political parties to respect the counting process while it was under way, and accused Abdullah of undermining the effort.
 
Upping the ante, Abdullah has also shown a willingness to go outside the Afghan system, saying that a United Nations-led commission should take over the vote count.
 
Ghani spokesman Zahir Zohair responded by saying the election should be "judged by the legal authorities in accordance with [Afghan] law," adding that "nothing should be above the law."
 
The back and forth has led observers to warn of an extended political crisis.
 
"Unfortunately, some of the early indications are that it is a close race and we will be dragged into a bitter squabbling over results," says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul.
 
Disputed Issues
 
The points of contention are an unexpectedly high voter turnout overall, increases seen in voting among women and in insecure regions, and conflicting accounts regarding the level of fraud.
 
The debate began within hours after polls closed, when IEC head Yusuf Nuristani said that turnout appeared to be on track to exceed 7 million votes, the number recorded in the first round, and that "the amount of fraud is much less than the previous time."
 
That came as a surprise because, before the vote, it was widely expected that turnout would be lower than in April's first round poll due to disillusionment among voters following reports of major fraud the last time around and the prospect of venturing out to vote as the Taliban was in the middle of its annual spring offensive.
 
On voting day many media described low numbers of voters in major urban areas. In rural areas, many polling stations were reported to be empty, save for election staff and observers. And election observers, such as the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) and the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), reported that turnout was down compared to the first round, while fraud was up.
 
TEFA head Naeem Ayubzada, whose independent observer group deployed around 8,000 observers on election day, flatly calls the IEC's turnout figures "inflated" and says turnout was between 5-6 million.
 
Much of the scrutiny has been focused on the vote in eastern Afghanistan, Ghani's support base.
 
TEFA's Ayubzada says the number of votes counted in the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar, and Logar was higher than the entire adult population. "We think the increase in numbers was due to fraud," he said.
 
Nader Naderi, the head of FEFA, an independent observer group that dispatched around 9,000 observers on election day, said there was "double and in some cases a three-fold increase" in votes cast in the eastern provinces.
 
He says it is too early to conclude that such an increase was the result of fraud, but he said it "raised some questions."
 
Ghani's camp has said the high turnout there was due to its targeted mobilization efforts, especially among women, whom election official say accounted for 38 percent of the national vote.
 
Women-Only Polling Stations
 
But doubts have been cast over the number of women who turned out as well, particularly in the predominantly Pashtun areas of south and east Afghanistan, where female voters traditionally vote in small numbers and where much of the vote fraud occurred in the maligned 2009 presidential vote.
 
TEFA's Ayubzada says that women-only polling stations are particularly vulnerable to fraud.
 
On election day, due to a shortage of female election workers, many polling centers for women were understaffed, making it difficult to keep an eye out for voting irregularities. It also facilitates proxy voting, in which male relatives vote on behalf of the women of the household.
 
FEFA, in an election-day statement, reported that male voters were seen in 114 female polling stations, and underage voters in 377 polling stations.
 
The two independent election observers, FEFA and TEFA, noted that vote fraud was not isolated to one area of the country, however.
 
Ayubzada noted a rise in the number of irregularities in the northern provinces of Balkh and Baghlan, strongholds of Abdullah. He also said his group had detected lower levels of fraud in some areas of the country, including the capital Kabul, the western Herat Province, and the central Parwan Province.
 
Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has received 2,558 complaints with evidence of voter fraud and other violations. Interestingly, 991 of those complaints were filed against the IEC, whose chief electoral officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil is being investigated for possible ballot-stuffing. Amarkhil was arrested by Kabul's police chief, General Zahir, on June 14 when he apparently left the IEC headquarters with several cars full of ballot papers.
 
FEFA said in a statement issued on election day that its "observers have reported different cases of irregularities and breach of electoral laws and procedures by different electoral personages from across the country." It also alleged that, in some polling stations, government and security officials took part in fraud and misconduct.
 
Abdullah, who was favored going into the second round after taking 45 percent of the first round vote, has been in a contentious presidential race before.
 
He ran in 2009, when more than 1 million first-round ballots were disqualified, most of them in favor of incumbent President Hamid Karzai. The election was headed for a second round before Abdullah dropped out under pressure from key Afghan power brokers and foreign officials eager to defuse the crisis.
 
With Abdullah making clear that he is not going down without a fight, there appears to be little room for such a scenario repeating itself this time around, however.

Video Abdullah Abdullah Concerned About 'Engineered Fraud'

Abdullah Abdullah Concerned About 'Engineered Fraud'i
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June 16, 2014
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said he was concerned about "engineered fraud" during the June 14 runoff vote. Speaking at a news conference June 15 in Kabul, he questioned the voter turnout figures of more than 7 million released by the election commission. (Reuters)
Abdullah Abdullah Concerned About 'Engineered Fraud'
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said he was concerned about "engineered fraud" during the June 14 runoff vote. Speaking at a news conference June 15 in Kabul, he questioned the voter turnout figures of more than 7 million released by the election commission. (Reuters)

Video Afghan Election: Doubts Cast On High Turnout

Afghans stand in line to vote in Balkh Province on June 14.

Frud Bezhan
KABUL -- As polling in Afghanistan's runoff election ended, the general feeling in the capital was that voter turnout had fallen short of the level seen in the previous round. 

So it came as a surprise when the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced shortly after polls closed on June 14 that "preliminary indicators suggest a turnout of more than 7 million voters" -- roughly on par with the number of voters who cast ballots in the first round on April 5.

Voters, observers, and even a presidential candidate have cast doubt on what they suggest is an inflated figure.

Questions were raised about how the IEC's figure could be accurate, considering it was announced only two hours after polling had ended. That would have given election staff at the 6,184 polling centers -- some in violence-stricken, remote areas -- very little time to count and report to the electoral body. 

There were a number of indications that turnout would be lower than in the first round.

According to media reports, networks of citizen journalists, and independent organizations, the number of Afghans who cast their ballots in major urban centers was generally lower, including in Kabul. Meanwhile, across rural Afghanistan, many polling stations were reported to be empty, save for election staff and observers. 
 
ALSO READ our Afghan election blog

Prior to the vote, there were expectations that turnout would suffer in the second round due to disillusionment among voters following reports of major fraud in the first round and the prospect of venturing out to vote as the Taliban was in the middle of its annual spring offensive.

So where did all the votes come from? One suggested explanation was that there was an unexpectedly high number of female voters -- accounting for 38 percent of the total vote, according to IEC head Yusuf Nuristani on June 14. Many of those votes came from women in the restive, predominantly Pashtun areas of south and east Afghanistan, where women usually vote in smaller numbers, according to Afghan media reports.

But doubts have emerged about this as well.

Many images and reports of long lines of women filing in to vote that were published on social and mainstream media. But there were also reports of fewer-than-expected number of women turning out.

The BBC's David Loyn, reporting from the south, said that over a two-hour period he had not seen a single woman enter the doors of a women-only polling station.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, also noted reports of both greater and lower numbers of women compared to the first round.

While admitting it was too early to tell, he suggested that "the high official turnout figures could be due to more voters -- or more fraud.

Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah openly questioned the IEC's figures. 

"Due to security threats in the morning, there weren't as many people as we were expecting," he said during a press conference late on election day. 

Abdullah added that farmers were busy with their crops and hot weather, reaching 40 degrees Celsius in much of the country, had deterred some voters.

WATCH: Abdullah Abdullah Questions Election Turnout
Abdullah Abdullah Concerned About 'Engineered Fraud'i
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June 16, 2014
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said he was concerned about "engineered fraud" during the June 14 runoff vote. Speaking at a news conference June 15 in Kabul, he questioned the voter turnout figures of more than 7 million released by the election commission. (Reuters)

All in all, the IEC put a positive spin on election day, noting that 96 percent (6,184) of the 6,365 planned voting centers were opened. 

But it also noted that more than 100 were unable to open due to insecurity, and officials admitted they had "lost contact" with several dozen more.

Widespread ballot shortages were also reported in up to half of the country's 34 provinces -- something that could be read as indicative of a higher-than-expected turnout, of increased fraud, or of technical difficulties that could lower turnout potential because it prevented people from voting.

Unlike his rival, Ashraf Ghani hailed the strong turnout. 

Some observers suggested that Ghani, a Pashtun, might stand to benefit because those areas of high turnout, including the candidate’s home province of Logar and the Pashtun-dominated provinces of Paktia and Kandahar, were expected to vote overwhelmingly in his favor.

In fact, Ghani made a calculated move to mobilize female voters in these areas in order to close the 13 percent gap on Abdullah from the first round. Ghani’s campaign team held a gathering with influential tribal chiefs and elders in Logar and Paktia to get more female voters to cast their ballots. For Ghani, the initiative seems to have paid off.

The high turnout has fueled accusations of fraud. 

The two candidates were swift in accusing each other of vote-rigging. 

"We know there has been fraud, you have seen it, we have seen it," Abdullah said.

Ghani called for a full investigation into fraud, saying "unfortunately there were cases of security forces involved in fraud, we have the evidence."

Afghan Election: Ballot Shortages Show Lessons Not Learned

Afghan observers sit at a polling station in Kabul in the second round of the presidential election on June 14.

Frud Bezhan
KABUL -- One of the biggest criticisms of Afghanistan’s otherwise much-lauded first-round election was a chronic shortage of ballot papers. Tens of thousands of people, some waiting in line for hours, were turned away. 

It appears tragedy has struck twice, because during the June 14 runoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, ballot shortages were reported in as many as half of the country's 34 provinces.

After the first round on April 5, observers accused election authorities of being unprepared for the high turnout of around 7 million people.

Election officials themselves said the shortage of ballots was actually a calculated move -- an effort to prevent the widespread fraud and ballot-box stuffing that critics alleged took place during the presidential election of 2009.

One reason cited at the time was that unexpectedly low turnout left a high number of leftover ballots available to be filled in. To prevent such a situation from developing again, each polling station was limited to only 600 ballots for the first round of the 2014 vote. 
 
ALSO READ our Afghan Election Blog

Officials had estimated that 600 ballots for each station would be enough for the first round but were far off the mark. Nearly 2 million ballots were printed for the second round. It is unknown whether limits were put in place at polling stations this time around, but ballot shortages were recorded again, reopening avenues for the type of fraud alleged in 2009.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, which had correspondents on the ground in many of the country’s provinces on election day, reported shortages in Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, Herat, Balkh, Badakhshan, and even Kabul, among other provinces.

In Kabul, shortages in one district sparked angry protests. Demonstrators accused election officials of intentionally delivering a small number of ballots to the district. 
 

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has said it provided additional ballots to more than 300 polling stations across the country on June 14. 

But many other voting centers failed to receive extra supplies. And those polling stations that did often had to wait hours to get them, limiting the number of voters casting ballots. 

Even if election officials did underestimate turnout, there may be a silver lining. 

But it still came as a surprise. Early on election day, IEC chief Ahmad Yusuf Nuristan had reassured voters there would be enough ballot papers. Nuristani, who was the first to cast his vote in the country, briefly addressed reporters in Kabul. 

And just a few days before election day, Nuristani said the IEC had printed nearly 2 million more ballot papers than in the first round, when 13 million were printed to correspond with the number of eligible voters.  

While some have said the limit on ballot papers would curtail fraud, others saw it as undemocratic.

Video Afghan Woman Voter: 'I Voted To Bring Peace To Our Country'

Afghan Woman Voter: 'I Voted To Bring Peace To Our Country'i
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June 14, 2014
After casting her ballot at a polling station in the western city of Herat, an elderly Afghan woman told RFE/RL she took part in the presidential runoff election to help bring peace to her country. She said she hoped her vote would help create more jobs and improve living conditions for the people of Afghanistan. (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
Afghan Woman Voter: 'I Voted To Bring Peace To Our Country'
After casting her ballot at a polling station in the western city of Herat, an elderly Afghan woman told RFE/RL she took part in the presidential runoff election to help bring peace to her country. She said she hoped her vote would help create more jobs and improve living conditions for the people of Afghanistan. (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Video Kabul Voters Queue To Participate In 'Historic' Election

Kabul Voters Queue To Participate In 'Historic' Electioni
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June 14, 2014
Amid heightened security, Afghan voters queued to cast their ballots in the runoff presidential election on June 14. At a polling station in Kabul, voters told RFE/RL they came to the polls with a sense of national pride and called on their fellow citizens to take part in what they described as an "act of national unity." (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
Kabul Voters Queue To Participate In 'Historic' Election
Amid heightened security, Afghan voters queued to cast their ballots in the runoff presidential election on June 14. At a polling station in Kabul, voters told RFE/RL they came to the polls with a sense of national pride and called on their fellow citizens to take part in what they described as an "act of national unity." (RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)

Video Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah Casts Ballot In Runoff Vote

Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah Casts Ballot In Runoff Votei
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June 14, 2014
Afghan presidential election candidate Abdullah Abdullah cast his vote in a runoff race between him and his opponent Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on June 14. The former anti-Taliban fighter and foreign minister dipped his finger in ink and filled out his ballot paper in a cardboard booth, before dropping the paper into a sealed box. (Reuters)
Presidential Candidate Abdullah Abdullah Casts Ballot In Runoff Vote
Afghan presidential election candidate Abdullah Abdullah cast his vote in a runoff race between him and his opponent Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on June 14. The former anti-Taliban fighter and foreign minister dipped his finger in ink and filled out his ballot paper in a cardboard booth, before dropping the paper into a sealed box. (Reuters)

Video Security Tight At Kandahar Polling Stations

Security Tight At Kandahar Polling Stationsi
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June 14, 2014
Armed soldiers stood on guard outside polling stations in Afghanistan's volatile Kandahar as the country voted to choose a new president on June 14. (Reuters)
Security Tight At Kandahar Polling Stations
Armed soldiers stood on guard outside polling stations in Afghanistan's volatile Kandahar as the country voted to choose a new president on June 14. (Reuters)

Photogallery Afghans Vote In Presidential Runoff

  • Khost Province
  • Khost Province
  • Khost Province
  • Herat Province
  • Kabul, the Afghan capital
  • Kabul
  • Kabul
  • Konduz
  • Konduz
  • Konduz
  • Balkh
  • Balkh
  • Jalalabad
  • Baghlan
  • Baghlan
  • Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai after voting in Kabul
Afghans returned to the polls on June 14 for a second round of voting to decide which of two candidates -- Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani -- will succeed Hamid Karzai, the only head of state the country has seen since the Taliban was ousted 13 years ago.

Video Kabul Voters Cast Ballots In Presidential Runoff

Kabul Voters Cast Ballots In Presidential Runoffi
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June 14, 2014
Afghans headed back to the polls in Kabul on June 14 for a second round of voting to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. (Reuters)
Kabul Voters Cast Ballots In Presidential Runoff
Afghans headed back to the polls in Kabul on June 14 for a second round of voting to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai. (Reuters)

Commentary: Beyond Elections -- What Is Required For Real Democracy In Afghanistan?

Despite a substantial level of anticipation in the first round of Afghanistan's presidential election, the authors argue that much more needs to be done before democracy is firmly established in the country.

Karim Lahidji and Guissou Jahangiri
Much noise was made about the unprecedented voter turnout for the first-round elections in Afghanistan on April 5, with almost 7 million people (60 percent of all eligible voters) making their voices heard despite serious insecurity.
 
Yet just two months after they filled the streets of Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Kandahar, the people of Afghanistan have all but disappeared from the discussion, and media attention has turned to the big power players and who between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani will be the country's next leader. But regardless of the results of the second-round elections to be held on June 14, the question of whether Afghanistan can now be considered democratic will depend on whether its citizens continue to participate in their own governance.
 
For the next leader of Afghanistan to be a true beacon of democracy, he will need to ensure that the extraordinary willingness of Afghanistan's citizens to participate in their governance continues beyond the ballot box, by guaranteeing them access to education, information, and justice.
 
An educated citizenry is at the heart of any well-functioning democracy: people must be informed and encouraged to think critically if they are to meaningfully participate in a political society. Education is particularly important in a young country like Afghanistan, where two-thirds of the population is under 25 years of age. Equal access to quality education should be a key priority for the incoming government and seen as an investment in the development of generations of politically active and informed citizens.
 
An improved educational landscape has been one of the major achievements of the post-Taliban era. Many schools closed under Taliban rule have been reopened, and girls have again been offered access to education. But just as important as the government's reopening of schools has been the enormous public response to it. With the same enthusiasm that they brought to the ballot boxes in April, Afghan citizens have shown a desire to invest in the future of their country by sending their children -- boys and girls -- to school. Since the fall of the Taliban, school enrollment skyrocketed by 700 percent, with almost 3 million more girls attending school despite continued threats and attacks against them.
 
Low Literacy Rates

 
To build on these gains, Afghanistan's next leader must ensure equal access to quality education and give protection to those regions where Taliban groups continue to burn school buildings and threaten those who wish to educate their children.
 
Further resources need to be dedicated to improving literacy rates, which remain among the lowest in the world. In rural areas, where three-quarters of the population resides, around 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men still cannot read or write. In addition to the proven role of education in economic development and advancing women's rights, ensuring access to education for all of Afghanistan's children will be the main determinant for genuine democracy in years to come.
 
But even an informed and educated citizenry cannot engage in politics unless they are given the space to voice their thoughts and opinions. A democracy that represents the will of the people is not guaranteed only through the counting of ballots every few years; citizens must have the opportunity and freedom to share their views and concerns on an everyday basis.
 
Ensuring that civil society is given space and resources to thrive in Afghanistan will therefore be an essential element to lasting democracy in the country.
 
Freedom of expression, association, and assembly must be protected, and the media must be allowed to operate without censorship.
 
Media and civil society are the channels through which citizens learn about and engage with their government, and Afghanistan's new president must therefore enact legislation to protect journalists and facilitate the creation and operation of diverse civil society organizations. The international community and donors must also recognize the importance of bolstering local civil society, and support Afghan organizations representing and mobilizing their fellow citizens.
 
Violence With Impunity
 
Challenges to the capacity of Afghans to engage freely in governance come not only from illiteracy or a weak civil society. Violent actors who deny the rights of women continue to dominate local politics and rule by force, particularly in rural areas. Current approaches to "peace talks" have resulted in impunity and have allowed warlords to continue terrorizing the population.
 
The passing of an amnesty law by the parliament in 2007, ironically titled the "National Stability And Reconciliation Law," precludes prosecution of all people engaged in large-scale human rights abuses prior to 2001. This immunity for violent actors, combined with a lack of vetting for political leaders, has allowed local warlords to hold on to power and prevent genuinely representative candidates from running for office.
 
Moreover, without accountability for past and present abuses, Afghans will not feel safe to criticize the government and defend their rights. The fallacy that peace and justice are incompatible continues to pervade the peace talks in Afghanistan, and allows violence to continue with no consequence.
 
In this climate of impunity, Afghanistan's citizens have no guarantees that they can safely speak out against those who violate their rights. Unless Afghanistan's new government guarantees the rule of law and invests in justice mechanisms, he will be but a figurehead, and violent actors will continue to prevent genuine democracy from taking hold.
 
For far too long, the voice of the Afghan people has been silenced by poverty, exclusion, and violence. Nevertheless, they are being asked to have hope and courage and again face great risks to vote in the second-round elections on June 14.
 
Let us not ignore this call for change by the Afghan people by succumbing to the temptation of declaring democracy in Afghanistan based simply on the completion of the elections. Afghanistan's people deserve to be able to continue to participate in their own governance, and it's up to the country's next leader to ensure that they are able to do so.
 

Karim Lahidji is president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). Guissou Jahangiri is director of Armanshar Open-Asia, FIDH's Afghanistan-based partner organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of RFE/RL

Video RFE/RL Roundtable: Afghanistan's Presidential Election

Afghan workers unload electoral material dispatched for the Jamee Mosque in Herat, June 13, 2014.

Afghans will vote on June 14 to decide which of the last candidates standing -- Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani -- will be their next president.

The foreign policy issues in play are profound:  NATO troop withdrawal, the Bilateral Security Agreement, religious extremism, and regional security. 
 
Check out our Google + Hangout on the subject which was held on June 13 with expert panelists in Kabul and Prague.
 

Panelists:

Frud Bezhan, RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom Correspondent, live blogging on the campaign, the election, and its repercussions direct from Kabul.
 
Akbar Ayazi, Regional Director of Broadcasting, Prague, overseeing RFE/RL's Afghanistan and Pakistan broadcast services. Ayazi is a frequent commentator on Afghan politics, and before joining RFE/RL, was a broadcaster for Afghan National Radio and TV.
 
Daud Khattak
, Senior Editor with RFE/RL's Pakistan Service, Radio Mashaal.  Khattak, based in Prague, has written for "Foreign Policy," "Christian Science Monitor" and "CTC Sentinel." He is an expert on militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Pakistani Taliban, and Pashtun politics and society.
 
Moderator: Mardo Soghom, RFE/RL’s Regional Director for Iran & Iraq. Based in Prague, Soghom has written extensively on Middle East politics and previously served as News Director for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian Service.

Afghan Voters Left With Images of Negative Campaigning

The Afghan incumbent, election officials, and even Western officials have repeatedly urged each of the candidates to steer away from smear campaigning, to no avail

Frud Bezhan
KABUL -- The campaign is over, but evidence of mudslinging remains.

Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani took the low road as the Afghan presidential campaign wound down, with their teams and supporters engaging in petty name-calling, and exchanging personal insults and threats.

They also got some final, and lasting, words in, despite a two-day "silence period" under which candidates are barred from campaigning ahead of the June 14 vote.

A number of negative posters and billboards were placed around Kabul ahead of the ban, as smears emerged on social media, ensuring that voters would have something to think about as they head to polling stations.

One billboard from Ghani's campaign features an image of a pile of books, a pencil holder, and a laptop juxtaposed to a black-and-white photo of a group of Afghans standing and sifting through debris.

The caption on the billboard reads: "Is your future with Ashraf Ghani or … with …??? Your vote, your future."

The implication is that the country will prosper if Ghani, a Western-educated technocrat, is elected. But if Abdullah -- a former resistance fighter during the Soviet invasion and a commander in the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance -- is elected the country will again be plunged into violence and poverty (Abdullah was a member of the Jamiat-e Islami, one of the warring factions of the mujahedin, which destroyed much of Kabul during the civil war).

Another billboard erected in Kabul's Shar-e Naw neighborhood bears the same slogan: "Is your future with Ashraf Ghani … or ???" But this time on one side of the billboard there is a light bulb. On the other, there is darkness.

Ghani Tarred As 'Western,' Even 'Christian'

For their part, supporters of Abdullah (it is not clear who, exactly, is responsible) used social media to smear Ghani.

The top of this poster, posted on Facebook, reads, "Islamic nation of Afghanistan!"

It is accompanied by a caption in blue that reads: "Participation in the election and selecting the country's leadership is the duty of every Muslim. We have the right to choose our new president on June 14 by going to the polls. But choosing the right candidate is important because it will define our future. Do you want the president of an Islamic country to be someone who doesn't know about Islam and Shari'a law?"

On the top-left corner there is a photo of Ghani posing with what appears to be a Roman Catholic clergyman who is described in the caption as the "pope." Together they hold a piece of paper that is described as a document confirming Ghani's conversion to Christianity.

The bottom-right corner has an image of Ghani apparently standing before another high figure from the Roman Catholic Church.

The bottom-left corner of the poster features a photograph of what appears to be Ghani's wife, Rula, who is of Lebanese Christian descent. Next to it is a photo purportedly showing Ghani's daughter. The caption above the photos reads, "Do you want this family to determine your destiny?"

Throughout the campaign, Ghani has come under a barrage of attacks on online forums in Afghanistan and on Twitter and Facebook over his perceived Western leanings.

Some Afghans have expressed alarm that, should Ghani win the election, Afghanistan would have its first non-Muslim first lady. Others have criticized Ghani for letting his daughter appear in public without a head scarf.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, election officials, and even Western officials have repeatedly urged each of the candidates to steer away from smear campaigning. But despite the warnings, negative images will remain in public view as Afghans determine their next president.

About This Live Blog

Afghans went to the polls on June 14 to decide which of two remaining candidates -- Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani -- would be their next president. RFE/RL correspondent Frud Bezhan is blogging from Kabul as this historical race nears its conclusion. With contributions by RFE/RL editors.

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