Afghans go for Parliament

Even though there is fear of electoral violence, even though parties are disallowed, even though this is an election organised to fit an international timetable, there is hope that the general elections of 18 September will give Afghans the politics of representation and deliver them from the gun.

On 18 September, more than 12 million people are expected to participate in Afghanistan's first experiment in parliamentary democracy, when they vote for the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of Parliament) and 34 provincial councils. The term 'experiment' is appropriate, as the complete decimation of structures of a modern nation state during the 25 years of unrelenting war makes the holding of elections challenging, difficult as well as novel. The polling process will also be an exercise in bringing together innumerable variables that have been changing the face of Afghanistan in the past four years.

The elections are being held under the framework of the Bonn Agreement, signed in the wake of the US military victory in Afghanistan in 2001. The Bonn process had laid down a timetable for the recovery and reconstruction of the country. The roadmap included convening of an emergency loya jirga (grand council) for establishment of the transitional government, holding a constitutional loya jirga to adopt a new constitution, to be followed by elections for a fully representational government. Scheduled for June 2004, the elections were to be held for the office of president, seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the provincial councils, and the district councils finally leading to the establishment of the Meshrano Jirga or upper house through indirect election and nominations. However, given the enormity of the task and the fragile security situation, only the Presidential elections were held in October 2004, and polls for other institutions postponed for later.

While the announcement of the present round of elections has been welcomed by the international community, many political leaders as well as aware citizens point to the lack of adequate preparation and controversial electoral procedures. This has made some cautious and others cynical about the 'experiment' of elections coming up in a few days' time.

A society in transition

Afghanistan is in a period of transition, with remarkable change underway in society. For some Afghan women, the transformation has been enormous. Many are back in the workforce while quite a few are contesting elections, fighting for their rights, and working for the development of their society. Yet, the majority still faces the same restrictions and constraints of old. Over three million children are back in school and over three million refugees have returned to the country. Urban centers see new businesses and enterprises coming up every day and the country now has an independent and growing media. At the same time, there are people with destroyed homes facing relentless poverty, drought and floods. Clear signs of Afghanistan's bitter history are visible everywhere. War widows beg on the streets; children without limbs drag themselves from car to car; young girls are sold to pay off debts incurred in a drug run; poppy growers, with their fields destroyed, have no means of employment; old men pull carts, piled high with lumber; young fighters, their guns taken away, are now at a loss never having known any other way of life. There is also rage and hatred, against other ethnic groups, against the foreign aid worker who earns more in a day than most will see in a month.

The socio-economic indicators present a dismal picture. The country ranks 173rd on the Human Development Index, far below neighbouring countries — Pakistan (142), Tajikistan (116), Uzbekistan (107), Iran (101) and Turkmenistan (86). The literacy rate is 28.7 percent and nearly one out of two Afghans will not survive to the age of 40. The infant mortality rate is 115 (per thousand) and that of children under five years, 172. The maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births is 1,600.

Yet, talk to ordinary Afghans and their spirit is indomitable. Unlike the victim syndrome in many post-conflict areas, Afghans blame themselves for their own fate, hoping that time will give them a chance to make a better life and country. It is these citizens who will exercise their right to franchise in less than a month wishing for a peaceful, democratic state at long last.

The security dilemma

For the international community charged with conducting the polls, the elections are a major step in the road to transfer of power and giving rights back to the people. However, there are critics who believe the process should have been delayed until the country was better prepared for it. They are apprehensive that the elections may end up legitimising the illegal centers of power that exist all over the provinces and enshrining the bad precedents, such as the absence of voter lists and adequate means of vetting candidates. But the biggest worry is the lack of a relatively secure atmosphere needed for free and fair polling. As an independent observer of the electoral process observes, "It is important to do it right the first time around." Cutting corners and making compromises harm the credibility of elections, and it will be difficult to change the norm, he says. Skeptics argue that the rush to complete the polls is merely to arrive at a benchmark international powers have set for themselves, rather than based on an assessment of the needs arising from the changing situation on the ground.

Nearly four years after the fall of the Taliban, the installation of the transitional government of Hamid Karzai and the deployment of international presence in the country (troops, UN agencies and innumerable ngos), the institutions of the Afghan state are yet to take firm root. Rebuilding a country, especially one where violence continues to dominate, has been an arduous process. Unfortunately, the emphasis placed by the international community on numbers and deadlines has often been to the detriment of actual capacity-building and greater community participation. This gives the state apparatus an inordinate power despite its obvious weakness.

An example is the ongoing fight against militancy. The international military intervention, in the wake of 9/11, was led by the US Coalition forces in 2001 and the US remains in charge of the command and control of a multinational force operating against the "enemies of Afghanistan". However this ambiguously defined target has resulted in neglect of the equally important tasks of peacekeeping in secured areas, of ensuring protection against existing warlords who were equally brutal even if not identified as 'Taliban', and of ensuring security that would provide the space for implementing laws and ensuring justice. As a result, even previously secure areas have faced a security vacuum which was taken advantage by a regrouped Taliban and other armed groups and criminal elements. While the figures are contested, the country has seen as many as 1000 deaths in the last six months alone. Even though the Coalition Forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) publicly claim that the security situation has improved, this is doubtful. More independent international observers have noted that the violence now is the worst they have seen since 2001.

Col Jim Yonts, spokesman of the Coalition Forces Command, says, "Security has improved as a result of cooperation and coordination between the Afghan security forces, Coalition forces, local leadership and the Afghan people." Maintaining that 60 percent of the weapons' cache and explosive discoveries are now taking place thiough Afghans, Yonts adds the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army forces have increased in number and capacity. There is no significant terrorist presence or threat in areas where ISAF is operating, claims its spokesperson Major Andy Elmes.

Others are not as sanguine as the two American men. Spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), Adrian Edwards, says the security situation this year has been a matter of concern. The UN Security Council has expressed concern over the increased attacks by the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other groups. Secretary General Kofi Annan's special representative on Afghanistan told the Council recently that extremists were targeting pro-government and international forces, raising concerns for the forthcoming elections. Even the new American ambassador to Afghanistan, who arrived here from a posting in Iraq, expressed the international community's concerns on security at his maiden press conference in August. Ronald Neumann was quoted as saying "there is certainly more violence and there are violent elements trying to come back." The ambassador also said, "I think this is a situation that will probably be difficult for some time. But there is a strong international presence and there is a strong American presence, which is quite adequate to deal with the violence."

Survival in this country remains a tenuous negotiation for citizens, especially outside the urban areas. Though the UN mandated process of DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the standing armies of the provincial leaders) is nearly complete, there are questions about its efficacy. After a quarter century of war, there is no real way to measure the amount of weapons in Afghanistan and this means that officials have to rely on the declarations made by the commanders. Meanwhile, the process of disarming 'illegal' armed groups has just begun. At the time of nominations for the elections, the candidature of 255 candidates was challenged on the grounds that they still possessed arms. They were threatened with disqualification unless they turned in a specified amount of weapons. At the time of the final announcement however, only 17 were barred. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), "many who were provisionally excluded were let back on the candidate list with 'undertakings' of future compliance".

The commanders of the disarmed groups have not been marginalized either. An example is Abdul Rasheed Dostum, the strongman of the North. Dostum was appointed chief of staff to the commander of the armed forces, i.e. President Hamid Karzai, earlier this year. Though his duties in that position remain unclear, the appointment came as a betrayal to many people who had believed in President Karzai's promise to weed out warlords. Dostum, by all accounts, ran one of the most brutal regimes in the northern areas.

A June 2005 report on verification of political rights, carried out jointly by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the UNAMA, says "the widespread fears, feelings of mistrust and acts of self-censorship", that the team found, were based on past patterns of behavior rather than current threats or violations. Nonetheless, these attitudes "could, however, have a significant impact in the coming months as the electoral competition intensifies."

Responding to comments that elections ought to have been postponed due to the fragile security situation, Adrian Edwards of UNAMA says that the debate between whether there should be rule of law first or elections first could go on and it would never have been possible to have a perfect election. He argues that that this is as right a time as any other to hold elections to take people out of an environment of conflict.

Voting without voter lists

A report on the parliamentary polls prepared by a leading think tank, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), states that the new Parliament will be "one important means for the people to have an active voice in government". However, it cautions that while the elections are a golden opportunity, "they also pose a serious threat to the prospects for democracy if they fail". A deeply flawed elections would betray the trust of the voting public, says the report. The AREU also points out that the parliamentary/provincial elections are far more susceptible to fraud, vote buying and intimidation than the presidential polls held in 2004. In these elections, AREU says, the margin of victory may be quite small, and a few votes stolen here and there may dramatically alter the delegation that each province sends to Parliament.

There are enough reasons why that is a real danger. Apart from direct intimidation and violence, the hurry to hold elections has also led to the adoption of short cuts which would not stand scrutiny elsewhere. For example, there has not been enough time to either carry out a census or register voters according to their area of residence. There are therefore no voter lists which polling staff could use to cross-check the eligibility of voters lining up to vote. This is the reason why the Joint Electoral Management Board (JEMB) says it is printing 40 million ballots, nearly double the estimated number of voters. The JEMB is the independent electoral authority comprising of nine Afghan election commissioners appointed by President Hamid Karzai and four international electoral experts designated by UNAMA. At an estimated electorate of 12 million voting twice (for provincial and presidential elections) the ballots needed should have been a little over 24 million. However since no one knows how many people will choose to turn up at which polling station, there have to be enough ballots in each one just in case.

The bulwark against fraud is supposed to be the 'indelible' ink which will be used to mark the fingers of the voters, a method in use (and misuse) all over Southasia. This assumes that security in each and every polling station cannot be breached and that there will be no stuffing of ballot boxes, a guarantee that is difficult to ensure even in the more developed democracies of the region.

The lack of census data, the ICG points out, has also meant that there is no accurate estimate in the allocation of seats to each province. Therefore, the numbers that have been arrived at remain highly disputed. The electoral laws formulated for the parliamentary polls are also controversial. Though a large number of parties as well as sections of the international community counseled for the proportional representation system, the government proceeded with adopting the single non transferable vote (SNTV) system. Though this might seem like a more simple system to adopt, given the nascent nature of Afghanistan's democracy, it is actually far more complicated since each constituency is a multi-seat constituency. The system does not bode well for political parties either. Any party seeking to secure votes for its multiple candidates from that constituency will have to calculate exactly how many voters it should encourage to vote for each candidate, a difficult science in the best possible circumstances and impossibility here.

The Names

The reason for the adoption of such an awkward system is said to be the antipathy of President Hamid Karzai towards political parties. Nearly four years into power, Karzai himself has neither joined nor launched a political party. While supporters of the president like to claim that he is trying to remain above the fray, critics allege Karzai wants to keep the political parties weakened since he himself has no political base of his own. Under the current system, political parties have no right to use a common symbol for their party candidates thus preventing them from effectively building up a cross-country support base.

One person who certainly thinks the electoral system has been designed to Karzai's advantage is the 'leader of the opposition' Younis Qanooni. Leader of the newly formed New Afghanistan party (Afghanistan e Nawin) and a former member of the Hezb e Jamiat Islami Afghanistan, Qanooni was a cabinet minister in the interim and transitional governments. He feels that "the government implemented the SNTV system forcibly because it does not have a base". A leader of the former Northern Alliance who challenged Karzai in the presidential elections, Qanooni says the JEMB is not independent and that the current system provides ample opportunities for fraud and cheating during the polls.

On the other hand, Qanooni fully supports holding the elections, claiming that it is the only mechanism against a government that "is the biggest threat to the country today." Stressing the importance of Parliament, he says the upcoming legislation must seek to introduce fundamental reforms for the benefit of people. "Policies will need to be updated, the Constitution changed, the cabinet reconstituted and foreign aid will have to become more transparent. The balance of power will have to shift from the presidency to the parliament."

It is this relationship between the presidency and the legislature that has been a matter of concern in some quarters. Under the Constitution, both houses of parliament will have the authority to pass, amend and review all laws. If the president disagrees he can ask them to reconsider, but the final binding authority rests with the Wolesi Jirga or lower house. The Wolesi Jirga can also approve or reject government proposals to obtain or grant loans, make decisions on the annual budget and state funded development programmes, set up commissions to investigate actions of the government and approve or reject individuals appointed by the president to government positions.

In the absence of a cohesive system of political parties, usually the source of organized support and opposition to the government, the search for a balance of power vis-à-vis the Afghan presidency is likely to be fairly chaotic. In the absence of a political party from which he can derive his authority, Karzai will have to not just persuade every political grouping in Parliament, but also every individual member to see things his way. This would considerably erode the authority of the government and may force him to compromise on key political issues against his better judgement.

A key issue on which Qanooni disagrees with the Karzai government is what he says are the latter's efforts to bring Taliban leaders into the fold. This, he believes, is leading to increasing instability and insecurity in the country. "How can we bring the ideology of the Taliban and the government together? The Taliban believe the country is under occupation, they believe the current government is un-Islamic, they don't believe in women's rights, education. How can they be in government?" Qanooni claims that the only reason for the overtures to the Taliban was Karzai's attempt to marginalise the former mujahideen leaders, who he sees as competition.

Though Qanooni does not mention the Northern Alliance, claiming his constituency cuts across all ethnic communities and power groups, it is clear that in the last two years, Karzai has effectively marginalised most of the leaders of the Northern Alliance, even while making overtures to other warlords and some of the more radical mujahideen leaders. The Panjshiris, who take their name from their military stronghold, the Panjshir valley in the Shomali belt north of Kabul, were the major anti-Taliban force at the time of the US operations against the Taliban. Though this strength allowed them to occupy key ministries in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion, most of them were later removed, leaving only the well-known public face of Afghanistan, the suave Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

The head of the Republican Party of Afghanistan, Sebgatullah Sanjar, also emphasises the importance of holding the upcoming elections. He says, "The main challenge to Afghan politics today is the absence of political organizations." Sanjar, who supported Karzai in the presidential elections last year, carries the advantage of being a relatively unknown figure. Unlike most factional leaders, he has no apparent history of being directly involved in violence. Sanjar argues that even with all its flaws, Parliament will still provide the only public forum for political debate and to build an alternative leadership. He too believes that the proportional representational electoral system would have been more beneficial even while acknowledging that in several parts of the country his party candidates are unable to openly acknowledge their affiliation, so great is the mistrust of people towards political parties of all shades.

Also in the fray are a number of other political parties, most of them registered recently under a new law on parties, which are led by former leaders, both communist and their arch enemy the mujahideen. Abu Sayyaf, one of the radical Islamist leaders, who at one point was in the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, heads the Ittehad e Islami. Afghan Millad, a Pashtun-dominated party considered close to Karzai is also contesting the elections. Former communist leader and defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai heads the Movement of Peace party. Gulbuddin Hekmatayar's Hizb e Islami saw a split recently, and a faction headed by Humayun Aria has been recognized as a registered political party.

The electoral campaign, such as it is, is nothing like the frenzied political activity that defines parliamentary politics in Southasia. Travelling and holding meetings remains a difficult task in the absence of security. The JEMB, in an attempt to provide somewhat of a level playing field, has provided all candidates with the opportunity to broadcast and telecast their messages on electronic media free of charge. Parliamentary candidates are allowed either 10 minutes time on radio or 5 minutes on TV and provincial council candidates are allowed 4 minutes on radio or 2 minutes on TV. They are also allowed to buy a total of four pages of space in a newspaper or magazine. Though candidates are allowed to hold meetings with the prior permission of the local police, large-scale political rallies are considered too dangerous. While in urban areas, most candidates either campaign through small meetings or loudspeaker fitted vehicles, the preferred methods of canvassing in the villages are by holding meetings with community leaders, addressing the communities at prayer meetings or hosting meals.

An independent woman candidate from Paktia province, Sharifa Zurmati Wardak initially received death threats while campaigning and drew back. However after some community leaders pledged their support, she once again picked up the courage to go out into her electoral district. During her last visit to the constituency however, she was advised to flee the border area where she was staying as she had become a well-known face through her posters. That which in any other country during elections would have been an advantage, had turned into a source of threat for Sharifa.

For Sharifa as for most other candidates contesting in this nascent parliamentary process, the issues on the stump are very basic: bringing peace to the country and working for development. While she and candidates like Sanjar play up the need for new leaders who are not tainted by bloody wars, older political leaders like Qanooni are campaigning on the slogan that the government has failed to deliver either peace or development. The situation here does not allow for more complex political platforms or detailed manifestos.

However, the cynicism that greets elections in the rest of Southasia is already visible among some here. Jawed, an educated urban voter has scant interest in the polls, believing it is far too early for legitimate candidates to come to the fray. "Right now there is no one worth voting for. Why are there holding elections? It will restore the same greedy warlords and reinforce their grip on power," Jawed asks.

But it is Safia, a housewife and mother, who is able to see through the clutter of history and identify the issue at the heart of the matter. Thinking back over all the years she has spent in Kabul, trying to make sure her children survived the war to live in an Afghanistan that had a present and future, she says that for her, it isn't so much an issue of who wins or loses or who comes to power. It is about something else. "Democracy," says Safia, "we should start getting used to it, shouldn't we?"

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