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Afghanistan's Elections: Much Ado About Nothing
The speeches have ended, the candidates are no longer on air, but the effectiveness of the media campaign has yet to be assessed.
Two days before the September 18 parliamentary elections, the airwaves no longer buzz with candidates’ messages. The loudspeakers mounted on vehicles are also supposed to fall silent, and the estimated 12.5 million voters have two days of reflection before heading to the polling booths.
The month-long campaign was a hectic one. In an unprecedented media frenzy, almost half the 6,000 candidates standing in the parliamentary and provincial council elections took advantage of a government offer of free airtime.
The broadcasts were paid for with funds from international donors. The Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, coordinated the effort, negotiating with radio and television stations for the allotted time. Candidates were free to choose their preferred medium, with the bill going to the election commission.
The total cost, say JEMB officials, will be approximately 600,000 US dollars.
Some question whether the money was well spent. Few of the candidates appear to have inspired the electorate - their droning delivery and simplistic messages drove many people to switch them off.
"During the day there is no electricity in Kabul, so when it is switched on at night, I put my television on to watch films," said resident Ajmal Wafa, 20. "If there is a candidate speaking on TV, I change channel. I have no interest in watching politicians lying to the people."
Mahmoud Shah, 45, also of Kabul, tried his best to follow the media campaign, but soon gave up.
"I watched many of them speaking on TV but I could never work out what they were saying,” he said. “They always spoke too fast, and then they’d be cut off in the middle of their speech."
Each parliamentary candidate was allowed to choose either a two-minute spot on television or a five-minute radio address, both aired twice. Provincial council candidates got two minutes on TV and four minutes on radio, with no repeats.
Two minutes would seem to be enough for most of the candidates, whose mantra seemed limited to “vote for me”, accompanied by their name and symbol.
Still, most candidates complained their time on the air was too brief.
“A candidate cannot even introduce himself to people in that much time – at least 10 minutes should have been allocated to each,” said Nasir Ahmad, a candidate for parliament from Kabul.
Parties Fume on the Sidelines
Political groups have been frozen out of the parliamentary election campaign, and many say it is part of a master-plan to weaken the legislature.
By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul (ARR No. 188, 16-Sep-05)
The assembly that finally emerges from the September 18 parliamentary elections is likely to bear little resemblance to a viable parliament.
Observers of the political process say that if this happens, it will be far more than a failure by Afghans to understand parliamentary democracy. Instead, they argue, it is part of a well-thought-out plan to keep the legislature fractured and fragile so that it cannot present a challenge to the executive.
President Hamed Karzai has been ruling by decree since he was installed as the interim head of state in December 2001. His power increased after his landslide election as president in October 2004. It may be understandable that he would be reluctant to give up his near-imperial powers, but according to political analysts, the tactic that has been chosen will do little to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
“Democracy does not work without political parties,” said Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst at the think-tank Crisis Group. “We are not going to see a strong parliament, we are going to see a parliament of 249 individuals.”
This is largely the fault of the electoral method - the Single Non-Transferable Vote, SNTV, where each voter casts a ballot for one individual, rather than selecting a party list with a distinct platform. This leaves parties with little opportunity to foster debate on issues, promote their programmes, or enforce party discipline among their candidates. Instead, each of the nearly 3,000 parliamentary hopefuls is trying to stitch together a patchwork constituency based on ethnic identity and personal ties.
Nathan says that is a recipe for a weak and splintered legislature, “Even the most optimistic say it will take six months to a year to form workable caucuses.”
When the election law was being drawn up, the parties lobbied hard to be given a role in the campaign. They insisted that up to 70 per cent of the seats be apportioned according to party lists.
In the end, they got nothing. The electoral law even prohibits party symbols in campaign literature and on the ballot.
“We were one hundred percent against this voting system,” said Aziz Ahmad Asef, public relations officer for the Afghan Millat party. “It is clear that those communities in the world where political parties have no role are not democratic.”
But the decision to go with SNTV was made by the government and by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, UNAMA, which has helped shape the political process. “Why they did it this way I do not know,” said Asef.
Dreams of Democracy
Mixed hopes and fears as Afghanistan holds its first democratic parliamentary elections in more than three decades.
By IWPR staff in Kabul (ARR No. 188, 16-Sep-05)
Millions of Afghans head to the polls on September 18, hoping to leave behind years of warfare but also fearful of what their votes may produce for the future.
At stake are seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and the provincial councils which will run local affairs and also help shape the legislature’s upper house, the Meshrano Jirga.
Fifty-five thousand police and 28,000 Afghan soldiers, backed by an international force of more than 10,000 troops, have been deployed to provide security against possible attacks by the Taleban, whose fighters are still battling a 20,000-strong US-led Coalition force.
While the massive security arrangements seem to be inspiring confidence, many voters appear to be concerned about the eventual outcome of the vote.
"If I and others don't vote for the good candidates, parliament will be full of criminals and killers," said 28-year-old Farhad in his shop at Kabul's Pashtunistan intersection, adding that he would not vote for a fundamentalist.
It was a view frequently repeated by others who spoke out vehemently against those candidates with "blood-stained hands".
Abdul Shukur, 30, from Wardak province, summed up such concerns succinctly, "Our nation is torn by war, and those who had their swords drawn yesterday should today be stopped from getting into parliament."
Those elected to parliament must focus on benefiting the whole nation, and not be swayed by ethnic or regional interests, he added.
When the polls open at 6 am on September 18, the estimated 12.5 million electorate - many of them illiterate - will have a chance to vote at polling stations across the country, some of them so isolated that donkeys and camels had to be used to bring in the election materials. Others will make their way to mosques and schools in towns and villages that have been turned into polling stations for the day. The 26,000 stations will be open until 4 pm.
Each person will cast two votes, one for a parliamentary candidate and one for the provincial council.
In the capital, Kabul, voting will be a formidable exercise. Nearly 400 candidates are standing for the 33 parliamentary seats allocated to Kabul, which has meant production of a ballot booklet carrying the photograph, symbol and number of each would-be politician. Each voter will have to search through this list for his or her chosen candidate.
Across the country’s 34 provinces, there is widespread distrust of many of the 3,000 candidates contesting the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga.
The candidates themselves are a mixed bunch. Among them are former warlords and lower-level commanders whose militias destroyed much of Kabul and caused thousands of deaths between 1992 and 1996 in the internecine conflict between rival mujahedin groups that followed the ousting of the communist government.
They also include a former Taleban official responsible for the “promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice”, and a woman who was spurred to contest a seat by the memory of being whipped by the same official's religious police in a Kabul street.
More than 300 women are vying to enter parliament, where a minimum of 68 seats are reserved for them.
Political analyst Bashir Bezhan sees little chance of a truly representative parliament emerging. "Just as the presidential election was conducted according to the will of a few individuals, the parliamentary ones will be the same, and these people will get the parliament they want," he said
Bezhan and some other analysts worry that the vote will be affected by external influences. The international community has reportedly invested over 150 million US dollars to finance the election.
"The Americans will do whatever it takes to get their own platform implemented and obtain their chosen parliament," he said, without elaborating on what he saw as Washington's aim.
Analyst Qasim Akhgar also doubts that the election will produce true representatives of the Afghan people, and fears that it will instead be dominated by the rich and powerful.
"Foreigners are directly involved in the parliament because a huge amount has been spent and it is obvious the Afghan government does not have this kind of money. And of course those who subsidise this process will have their goals fulfilled in this parliament," he said.
Akhgar added that independent candidates would have no chance of getting elected because they did not have the necessary backing. "This parliament won't be an effective one," he concluded.
Vetting was supposed to have eliminated any candidate with current links to armed groups, found guilty of war crimes, or still hanging on to a government post. But the process has been widely viewed as being ineffective.
Just five days before Sunday's poll, three supporters of a parliamentary candidate were wounded when gunmen attacked the convoy in which he was travelling in the northern Takhar province. According to press reports, the candidate, a former militia commander, accused his rivals of carrying out the attack.
Two high-profile parliamentary candidates, Mohammad Younus Qanuni and Salam Rakiti, traded accusations of mass murder and human rights abuses in a televised programme, each saying the other should be struck off the ballot list.
Neither candidate has been charged with war crimes or other human rights abuses, one of the criteria for disqualification.
There is confusion over whether the Taleban, ousted by US forces in 2001, intends to try to disrupt the poll on election day. The group’s spokesman, Lutfullah Hakimi, has said the Taleban will not attack voting stations because it does not want to be responsible for injuring innocent people.
But his statement comes against a background of increased violence in which the Islamic movement has been blamed for the killing of at least six candidates and five election workers.
Hakimi dismisses the election as a sideshow in the Taleban’s war, which he says will go on beyond the ballot box until foreign forces and the government they support are driven out.
Officers with the US and Afghan militaries, and those of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, say they are ready for any eventuality and are confident they can ensure the elections will not be disrupted, a view shared by many of the capital’s residents.
The owner of a Kabul shop, who asked not to be named, said, "Although the opposition group [Taleban] may try their best to disrupt the process, I don't think they will succeed."
He believed everyone should vote "because this election is seen as a step towards real democracy and it means we will have a body with the power and authority to be involved in government affairs".
His optimism was shared by 34-year-old Akhtar Mohammad, who owns a shop at the Nader Pashtun intersection. Once parliament is elected, he believes many problems will be solved. "I'll vote for a person who is honest, competent, Muslim and whose hands are not stained with people's blood," he said.
Aziz Ahmad, a lecturer at the law faculty of Kabul University, was optimistic about the composition of the new national assembly. "I think Afghans know who they should vote for," he said.
But some are not so confident about the elections. A shoeshine man waiting on the pavement for customers told IWPR he thought parliament was "a waste of time and money".
"Away with you, brother! What’s parliament and what does it do?” he said aggressively. “Find another person to talk to. What benefit did we get from voting for Karzai?"