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.
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.
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."