Preparations are underway for the Afghan parliamentary elections on September 18, amid continuing violence and intimidation. At the same time, there is optimism as the U.S.-led coalition forces prepare for the security challenges that the elections present.
The parliamentary balloting will complete the final stage of the Bonn Agreements on Afghanistan. These elections follow the October 2004 presidential election that brought Hamid Karzai to power. Every Afghan over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in the elections and about 12.4 million of the country’s estimated 25-28 million people have registered.
There are more than 5,000 candidates standing for either the 249-seat lower House of the People (Wolesi Jirga) or for a seat on one of 34 provincial councils. Out of a total of 2,707 candidates for the lower house of parliament, 328 are women. According to the Afghan constitution, at least two women legislators from each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces will be seated in the parliament. Women will have a quarter of the seats on provincial councils.
Voters will also chose provincial council representatives. Here a total of 3,025 candidates, including 247 women, are competing for seats on the 34 councils. These councils together, with the president of the country, will appoint members of the upper house of parliament, the House of Elders (Meshrano Jirge). Each provincial council will appoint members from its ranks to serve in the Meshrano Jirge, making up two-thirds of the total representatives, and the president will appoint the remaining one-third, half of which must be women.
The lower house of parliament will initiate legislative proposals and send approved bills to the upper house. If approved there, the bill goes to the president to sign them into law.
Since the new body will be the first elected parliament in 30 years, it will also approve the cabinet, supreme court justices, and the government’s programs and plans. The new parliament will also monitor the activities of the executive and judicial branches (Anis, September 1).
There are concerns that the elections will be marred by violence. According to the NATO- and U.S.-led coalitions forces, Taliban attacks have continued despite the increase in security measures. So far this year about 1,000 people have been killed in violence, including 48 U.S. soldiers.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander General James Jones has downplayed the threat posed by the insurgents. General Jones said the situation in Afghanistan is exactly the same as it was in the weeks before last October’s presidential election. While insurgent attacks have increased in various parts of the country, the surge in violence is not due to a deepening of the Taliban insurgency. “Is it [the violence] a political statement, a religious statement, or a drugs statement?” he asked. “We believe it is coming from disparate groups because they are not pleased for one reason or other with the trend toward a democratic Afghanistan.” However, Jones conceded, some of the attacks could also be blamed on Islamic radicals or groups wanting to spark civil unrest (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, August 30).
Similar sentiments were expressed by the U.S.-led Coalition spokesman Colonel James Yonts, who said the insurgent attacks are uncoordinated and scattered. Noting the increase in the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, he said it is still impossible to stop all the attacks mounted by the Taliban (Arman-e-Milli, September 5).
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann has expressed his optimism about the upcoming elections, saying that coalition and Afghan forces are better trained and larger than they were in October 2004. Although Neumann did not discount the possibility for violence, he said the overall situation is “in reasonably good shape,” partially as a result of the support provided by the 18,000-20,000 coalition troops (Islah, September 1).
While the elections will be a step forward, several issues remain cause for concern. Without institutional safeguards, the rule of law, and sound public safety, the process may be compromised beyond acceptable limits.
Since there has never been a census in Afghanistan, nobody knows exactly the size of the population or the number of people expected at each polling station. Already allegations of fake voter registration cards abound, and hundreds of cards have been seized in the southern provinces of Zabul and Kandahar. In one case even a Joint Electoral Management Body staffer inadvertently issued multiple cards to one person (Erada, September 5).
There are also allegations of ethnic Pashtun citizens of Pakistan being issued voting cards to vote in the southern, eastern, and southwestern parts of Afghanistan (Radio Mashad, August 27). Due to the lack of census data, JEMB officials arbitrarily reserved 10 seats for the Pashtun nomads, who mostly carry no identity cards. This has already provoked heated debates in the media about the fairness of the elections and favoritism toward the nomads.
So far several controversial leaders of armed groups are still on the candidate lists. These include individuals such as Rassoul Sayyaf, who has been accused of human rights violations by Human Rights Watch, the Afghanistan Justice Project, and other groups. Their presence not only raises doubts about the entire process, it also threatens and intimidates other candidates.
Even more troubling is the increasing violence. There have been targeted attacks on participants in the polling process, including officials, candidates, and security personnel. In some areas of the country, participants in the polling process are the source of the threat. As one observer put it, “This is an election held under the shadow of the gun.”