for the Sunday Polls
It is Naive to Expect Free Elections
S. Mudassir Ali Shah
September 16: 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.