Fears of fraud cloud Afghan elections - again
A year after the fraud-marred presidential vote, Afghans go to the polls on Saturday in the country’s second parliamentary elections since 2001. But will these elections see a repeat of problems that plagued last year’s vote?
Just two days before the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, residents in the volatile Afghan province of Wardak, east of Kabul, woke up to piles of threatening Taliban pamphlets planted overnight at mosques, schools and bazaars across the Pashtun-dominated province.
The flyer, popularly called a “shabnamah” - or “night letter” – a copy of which was received by FRANCE 24, featured the familiar trademarks of an anti-election Taliban missive. (Click here to see Taliban shabnamah)
Under a masthead bearing the Taliban insignia of a Koran encased in double swords, the text, printed in Pashto, the language of the majority Pashtun community, warns Afghans against going to the polls.
Dismissing the parliamentary elections as an “American process,” the shabnamah calls on “our Muslim nation” to “boycott this process and thus foil all foreign processes and drive away the invaders” by “sticking to jihad”.
A year ago, the international community was caught by surprise over the scale of violence and the extent of electoral fraud during and after the Aug. 20, 2009 presidential poll.
This time, with electoral violence and intimidation reaching new heights, there appear to be few illusions about the Afghan electoral process.
Afghan, not Swiss elections
In a speech earlier this year, UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Staffan di Mistura famously said the 2010 parliamentary elections “cannot and will not be Swiss elections,” before adding, “They are going to be Afghan elections.”
International observers in Afghanistan, according to a report by Martine van Bijlert of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, seem to be oscillating “between an optimistic hope that improved anti-fraud measures will result in a much cleaner election, and a cynical acceptance that an Afghan election will by nature be messy.”
Elections Afghan-style are not only messy, they’re also violence-ridden affairs. In the run-up to Saturday’s vote, there were 19 election-related deaths, including four candidates who were killed between July 15 and Aug. 25, according to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), a Kabul-based independent monitoring group.
Female candidates are at particular risk, according to a statement by Amnesty International.
A counterweight to presidential powers
Despite the lack of security and the widespread irregularity fears, few are wiping their
hands of the Sept. 18 vote, the country’s second parliamentary election since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
“This election is important to address what the Afghan population is really looking for – that the rampant corruption and impunity of those in power will end and there will be accountability,” said van Bijlert. “Secondly, parliament is a very important body for Afghans living in the provinces. It provides access to government and it’s important that parliament is a body that they can put their confidence in.”
While the Afghan parliament has remained mostly powerless against Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in recent months, it has flexed its democratic muscles by, for example, blocking a number of the president’s cabinet picks after the tainted 2009 presidential vote.
Factions and warlords in the mix
The country’s unwieldy electoral system impedes political parties from contesting polls, resulting in a fragmented policy, in which parties have a hard time coalescing into nationwide political forces.
As a result, most of the nearly 2,500 candidates vying for the 249 seats in the wolesi jirga, or lower house, are independents.
After more than three decades of war, Afghan politics is dominated by factions, led by strongmen such as the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Hazara leader Mohammed Mohaqiq, who can play decisive kingmaker roles in Afghan politics.
New procedures, new hopes
In a bid to prevent a repeat of the messy aftermath of last year’s presidential vote, the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) under a new leadership has tightened its electoral procedures for the 2010 parliamentary polls.
It has provided grounds for cautious optimism with Afghan and international election observers.
“I think we are more prepared this time,” said Andy Campbell, Afghanistan country director for the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO. “There will be challenges this year of course. Running an election is the largest peacetime activity in any nation. In Afghanistan, you have an active insurgency, which makes it even more challenging.
"But what’s amazing is that despite the threats and intimidation, people have turned out on Election Day and have braved the attacks to cast their vote. That’s the truly amazing thing about Afghan elections.”