Victory Lab Kabul
I was one of Ashraf Ghani’s chief campaign strategists, and no, we did not steal the Afghan election. We won it fair and square -- with Facebook, road rallies, and people power.
KABUL — You might be excused for thinking that Ashraf Ghani's campaign cheated its way to victory in Afghanistan's election. Many analysts have indulged the fraud allegations of our opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and embraced the notion that since everything in Afghanistan is supposedly corrupt, the June 14 election must have been stolen. That is nonsense. Ghani won the presidency fair and square.
KABUL — You might be excused for thinking that Ashraf Ghani’s campaign cheated its way to victory in Afghanistan’s election. Many analysts have indulged the fraud allegations of our opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and embraced the notion that since everything in Afghanistan is supposedly corrupt, the June 14 election must have been stolen. That is nonsense. Ghani won the presidency fair and square.
But the truth emerging now is that the charges of "industrial scale fraud" were bogus from the beginning. The United Nations, after conducting the most extensive vote audit in its history, is likely to soon confirm Ghani’s win with 55.7 percent of the vote, less than a 1 percent change from the preliminary results. That’s nowhere near enough to overturn Ghani’s 1 million vote victory.
So how did the election, which was supposed to be hailed as the first peaceful, democratic change of government in Afghanistan’s history, become such a mess? It shouldn’t have. Ghani ran a smarter, more popular, and more proactive campaign than Abdullah, who was already positioned for defeat going into the run-off election.
But the international community, laudably hoping to facilitate a free and fair election in Afghanistan, was too quick to believe Abdullah’s charges of electoral fraud, and the narrative took hold, even as pre- and post-election polls showed Ghani winning handily.
The wrangling here in Kabul continues. But it is worth reminding the world that you don’t need fraud to win an election in Afghanistan. You need a good candidate (which we had) and a campaign that, like our country, melds the old with the new. Our campaign strategy relied as much on SMS messaging as bringing together traditional voting blocs.
Our victory was built on the principles that would make a campaign work anywhere: We had a broad, issue-driven agenda with the support of political, tribal and, most importantly, religious leaders. We ran an inclusive campaign that energized young people and women. We employed a comprehensive and inclusive communication and outreach strategy, using national media outlets, audio and visual aids, and mobile technology. We reached out to tens of thousands of remote villages across the country. And we used targeted, data-driven messaging via social media, mobile phones, and person-to-person contacts to get out the vote.
At the local level, our primary outreach focused on tribal and religious leaders. The Ghani team negotiated with them to keep violence away from the polls and to encourage voting. We brokered hundreds of these tribal agreements, called taruns in Pashto, as we collected endorsements across Afghanistan.
We gathered critical local support from 2,665 religious leaders, called the Ulema, in districts from all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. These leaders helped us mobilize millions of voters. The Ulema also issued fatwas stating that it was the civic duty of every Afghan, including women, to vote. This was a first for our country.
We also rounded up key political endorsements, including four of the 11 presidential candidates who did not succeed in the first round of the election in April. And of their own volition many of Abdullah’s provincial campaign operatives flipped to our side.
After winning endorsements, we adopted a different strategy from our opponent. Abdullah’s team relied on his political elite to deliver their voters. In many cases they failed to do so. We, on the other hand, targeted people lower on the pyramid.
Consider, for instance, the case of Zalmay Rassoul, a candidate who got 11 percent of the vote in the first round. While Rassoul endorsed Abdullah ahead of the second round, we won support from all of the people who had endorsed Rassoul, and who actually controlled the local vote banks. In the end, despite his endorsement, Rassoul went empty-handed to Abdullah, because as we gained support from his entire campaign team, and his chief endorsers pushed virtually all of his votes to Ghani in the runoff. This consolidated and unified our support, and it gave us a huge advantage.
The Ghani team also focused on recruiting women and young people, both as campaigners and as voters. Except for a small number of staff members and monitors, all our workers were unpaid, which created a culture of volunteerism that was fueled by the enthusiasm and passion of our supporters. For Afghanistan, this was a novel approach to political teamwork that ensured our campaigners were invested in the common cause of Ghani’s candidacy, as opposed to personal or monetary gain.
But it wasn’t just how we gathered up votes that won us the election. Ghani took his compelling message of hope to the people in diverse ways. Our campaign message was broadly and consistently communicated from the first day of the campaign, and we aggressively got our message out.
We mobilized both hyper-local and national mass media. Night after night on 64 radio stations — four national and 60 local — Ghani answered voter questions for hours on end, explaining his policies on women, the economy, governance, and urban development. He answered audience questions live on 11 TV stations, creating robust debates on social media. (Abdullah, on the other hand, never showed up for a televised debate for the runoff.) Afghans took to calling Ghani the "Talking Google" because of his strong, ready and consistent answers, particularly about his economic plan.
Many Afghans live in very remote areas, so our communication strategy targeted them with a traveling campaign rally over the last five days of the race that visited all 34 provinces. From the backs of cars and trucks, on billboards, and out of tents in neighborhoods, the Ghani team reached out to boost his candidacy and explain his proposals and message of change. These traveling rallies, with up to 500 vehicles at a time, generated excitement and ended up being spontaneous celebrations of support for Ghani.
The road rallies included newly composed folk songs about disarming Afghanistan and building a future without war, written by supporters and posted online. Drum and dance circles sprouted on the spot. The road rallies were notable as well for drawing many women, through door-to-door campaign by female volunteers in far-fetched districts, who in more conservative or insecure areas risked personal safety to appear and claim their right to vote.
To expand the campaign’s reach even further, we handed out roughly 500,000 audio and video CDs with Ghani’s campaign messages. We distributed 200,000 printed copies of Ghani’s 243-page campaign platform in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s two official languages. We gave out 50,000 memory cards with MP3 messages from Ghani’s speeches that could be played on mobile phones and shared through Bluetooth. And every aspect of the campaign was reinforced with social media. His Facebook page reached an average of 2.2 million people each week during the campaign — astounding when you consider that voter turnout was about 8 million and only 700,000 people have access to 3G connections, according to the Ministry of Communication.
Ahead of election day on June 14, we sent out 3.8 million SMS messages, targeting the 89 percent of the population with access to a phone, asking people to vote for Ghani.
Our team also provided transportation to voters across the country to drive them to the polls. This was highly successful in boosting turnout. In fact, one cleric in the south reportedly took the women in his family, who had never voted before, to the polling station in curtain-lined minibuses as an example to the rest of his community to fulfill their civic duty.
Using results announced by the Independent Elections Commission for round one we reviewed the patterns of voting and analyzed the turnout at each polling station to understand where we needed to focus on campaigning during round two. A call center was set up in Kabul and staffed by 300 volunteers. Monitors could call to report complaints and turnout. Ghani himself helped answer calls at the center on election day. We created an interactive infographic to consolidate the information that can be viewed at www.ghani2014.com.
Above all, we were promoting a great candidate. But we also conducted a political campaign the likes of which had never been seen in Afghanistan. We proved that you don’t need to steal votes to win an election here. In doing so, I hope we helped eradicate wholesale electoral fraud in our country forever, or at least the perception that that is what it takes to win.
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