Afghanistan: It is Naive to Expect Free Elections

Election Posters for the Sunday Polls

By S. Mudassir Ali Shah

KABUL, September 16 (2005): As 12.5 million registered Afghan voters go to the first post-Taliban parliamentary polls on Sunday, September 18, perturbing questions as to the make-up of a 249-seat lower house and 34 provincial councils, their functions and a possible return of warlords to parliament remain unanswered.

A thumping majority of candidates, numbering more than 5,750, are in the dark about the legislative powers of the Wolesi Jirga (National Assembly) or provincial councils – a whole new concept in a country with a complex ethnic composition, hostage to deep-seated tribal prejudices and struggling with a persistent insurgency.

Long lists of contender names on ballot papers are an inordinate demand on the intellect of voters, most of them illiterate and unfamiliar with exercising universal suffrage in an election contested by thousands. Thus the task of conscious voting will be pretty tough for them within the stipulated 10-minute time.

Belated disqualifications have irked powerful candidates, who warn legions of their supporters would leave no stone unturned to derail the elections. They seem to have unwittingly parroted a threat often reiterated by Taliban insurgents in the lead-up to the keenly-awaited ballot.

Although some “commander candidates” have been barred from contesting the vote under a patently flawed vetting procedure, dozens of criminals – about 17 percent according to guarded estimates – have managed to slip through the net. The clearance of people like Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf, Haji Musa Hootak, Hazrat Ali, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, Abdul Hakim Munif, Mullah Rocketi and Khaksar has drawn denunciation from civil society groups and human rights activists.

Immediately after Electoral Complaint Commission (ECC) Chairman Grant Kippen’s announcement of a ban on 28 hopefuls linked to private militias, two affected men from Kabul and Baghlan spurned the decision as “highly unfair and hence unacceptable.” Reaction from the rest including some women was no different.

But they have no right to challenge their disqualification in court under the relevant election law that bars convicts, government servants and warlords from running for parliament. The ECC chairman, while hinting at more last-minute disqualifications, explained the law provided for banning even those returned to parliament in case credible complaints are lodged against them.

“The charge leveled against me is too groundless to be substantiated,” jihad-era commander Bashir Baghlani protested, arguing the ECC announcement came too late to leave him with ample time to clear his name. By the same token, Commander Didar from Kabul too saw no justification for the move.

Didar, a militia commander during the civil strife in the early 1990s before the Taliban came to power, vowed he would approach human rights watchdogs against the poll panel’s “arbitrary step.” His backers would sabotage the election process, he warned, maintaining he had already surrendered arms during a nationwide disarmament campaign – widely derided as a self-deluding exercise.

Hours later, Didar’s supporters staged a noisy demonstration in front of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) office in Kabul. Wearing black bands around their heads, the protestors chanted full-throated slogans denouncing the election commission for what called “blatant partiality and selective morality.”

Led by Didar himself, the demonstrators warned their protest would go on till the joint poll panel revoked the ‘unjust’ ban slapped on the commander, who has filed an appeal with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) against his disqualification. Didar, who has reportedly spent a fortune, wondered why the Afghans had so meekly capitulated to the dictates of foreigners. “Contesting the polls is our inalienable right under the Afghan constitution and the foreigners have no power to deny us this right.”

Thrown out of the electoral fray this week were five hopefuls from Baghlan, three from Herat, two each from Uruzgan, Ghazni, Faryab, Parwan and Farah provinces. Also axed is a candidate each from Kabul, Kapisa, Paktia, Balkh, Sur Pul, Kandahar, Ghore, Nangarhar, Badakhshan and Bamyan.

But none of them was close to the Afghan president, whose sweeping powers will stay undiluted even after the culmination of the electoral process that favors individuals over political parties – something going against the very grain of democracy.

“The cosmetic measures won’t go too far in working the ‘sick man of Asia ‘ back to health,” remarked a woman candidate, who did not want to be named. She believed the huge amount of money being spent on the “farcical exercise,” unlikely to bring about any propitious change, could be better utilized for building schools, hospitals and roads.

Human rights activists regret the singular failure of the Afghan government and the US-led international community to seize the opportunity – thrown up by the electoral process – of marginalizing gunmen. Saman Zia Zarifi of the Human Rights Watch laments: “The international community and the Afghan government have wasted a great opportunity for this country to move away from the rule of the gun.”

Now an ally of President Hamid Karzai, former guerilla leader Sayyaf is still in the run despite allegations he was involved in abductions and intentional killing of civilians. In a July report, the New York-based HRW had said: “There is clear and compelling evidence … his forces specifically engaged in widespread killing.”

Organizers of the parliamentary vote, the first in 30 years, are satisfied with the pace of delivering ballot boxes and ink bottles to 26,000 polling stations set up across the rugged Central Asian country. Nonetheless, there are genuine concerns about a possible delay in delivery of ballots and election kits to all areas before polling day.

There are many polling stations in inhospitable regions of Nuristan, Badakhshan and Bamyan provinces, where transportation of the poll-related material will take quite some doing. Whether the caravans of horses, camels and donkeys will be able to accomplish the task in time is open to debate.

At the disposal of the election organizers is a small fleet of aircraft but they cannot land in far-flung towns tucked away in jagged mountains, where registered Afghans will have to trek for hours to cast their votes in an election that carries a price tag of $149 million. If all goes well, officials say, the final result will be out around the 20th of October.

Hell-bent on disrupting the polls, Taliban’s threats to kill election workers, candidates and voters have struck fear into people’s hearts. So far, six candidates have been killed while several have been lucky to escape unhurt in daring militant attacks in a bloody run-up the September 18 ballot.

Paradoxically, the violence escalates as Afghan and coalition forces step up anti-insurgency operations in the restive south and east. A number of political activists and policemen have also been wounded in attacks on convoys, processions and public meetings. In separate incidents, two policemen sustained injuries as a roadside bomb hit a motorcade carrying supporters of a candidate in the eastern Nangarhar province on Tuesday.

In northern Takhar, unidentified assailants opened fire on Bashir Shahab, a former commander of the Jamiat-i-Islami, while he was on his way to Taloqan along with his supporters. Shahab alleged the attack was the handiwork of his political foes Muhammad Akram, Amanullah and the district’s administrative chief Muhammad Shakir.

In a grim reminder of the growing lawlessness, Taliban shot dead seven civilians with voting cards after intercepting their coach in Hizb district of the violence-torn Uruzgan province on Wednesday. The same day intelligence operative Abdullah was killed in Khaki-Afghan area of the neighboring Zabul in broad daylight.

The gravity of the security situation can be gauged from the fact that more than 1,100 people have perished in the spiraling violence over the last six months despite the presence of 20,000 US soldiers and more than 10,000 NATO-led ISAF troops.

Despite the worsening law and order, Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) officials – sitting behind fortified walls of their office – are optimistic of peaceful holding of the elections and a high turn-out. But ordinary Afghans, fed up with the unending trail of murder and mayhem, are wary of taking security-related assurances at face value.

“The security issue is paramount. We have planned meticulously for every eventuality, with well-thought out rehearsals … to enable us to take measures which we think are appropriate to ensure the integrity of the vote,” says JEMB’s international media relations officer Aleem Siddique.

But residents of the troubled south, as indeed some candidates, remain skeptical. Khan Muhammad, hailing from Uma area in Zabul, said Taliban had threatened them with death in ‘night letters’ distributed in different parts of the country. “We may end up in trouble if we go to polling stations to cast our votes on Sunday.”

A contestant from the same province, Tahir observed militant warnings and threats had not only harmed his campaign but had also scared away the voters. He complained top provincial security officials, who had promised to protect the, had failed to address their concerns. The situation is particularly bad in parts of Nuristan, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar and Zabul.

Meanwhile, filthy rich candidates are generously dishing out to voters and supporters precious gifts including caps, cell-phone sets, bicycles and bikes to coax them into canvassing for them. One witty analyst, intrigued by turbaned men campaigning for bumptious youths, said in a light vein: “Money makes the man (sic) go.”

Having hit fever pitch, the electioneering represents a huge boom for turban-makers, motorbike dealers and mobile phone companies. Since plain intimidation works wonders in certain Afghan regions, the ‘commanders’ are using their gun-power to seek votes.

Mindful of these ground realities, head of the poll panel Peter Erben views the election as a starting point for the post-conflict country. He likens the exercise to elections held in countries like East Timor, Kosovo and Cambodia. Other officials also acknowledge that expecting free and perfect elections in Afghanistan will be simply naive.

Reserved for Hindus and Sikhs together is a solitary Wolesi Jirga seat an urbane woman, Anarkali, is eyeing. “Many of us didn’t file nomination papers, because no one is willing to grant Hindus and Sikhs their due rights. As a result of continued indifference shown to the two minorities, they are disillusioned with Afghanistan’s political and governmental affairs.”

Up for grabs are 249 Wolesi Jirga seats and 420 provincial council berths. One redeeming feature of the polls is that 30 percent of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga and as many on provincial councils are reserved for women, few of whom dared hit the campaign trail for security reasons. There are also allegations, mostly traded by rival candidates, that millions of dollars have changed hands in recent weeks in an attempt to catapult a handful of ‘liberal women’ to parliament.

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