Afghanistan is set to hold parliamentary elections on Sunday, September 18. In the final days of the campaign, hopes and difficulties abound. The hopes stem from the fact that people see the elections as a positive step towards democracy. The difficulties arise from the lack of preparedness and the handicaps facing a country still recovering from a long, bloody civil war followed by wars of liberation against occupiers and invaders.
On the plus side, the euphoria is overwhelming. Almost the entire country is caught up in election fever. There is hardly any city, town, or village where there are no election activities planned. With three days to go, the excitement and anxiety are beyond description. There are huge posters and banners appearing on every conceivable surface in the capital, from rooftops to buildings to lampposts. Cars and vans equipped with loudspeakers travel throughout the city, announcing various candidate messages. Mosques and town halls are reserved for public meetings. The campaign process will end tomorrow, Friday September 16, about 48 hours before the polls open.
Although the Joint Election Management Body (JEMB) imposed a spending limit on the campaign, there are no controls on how much each candidate spends for posters and banners. Each parliamentary candidate is allowed 750,000 Afghanis (about $15,000) and each provincial candidate 375,000 Afghanis (about $7,600) (RFE/RL, September 12).
There are at least four major hurdles still standing in the way of the elections.
The first problem is security. Since March about 1,200 people been killed, including insurgents, government soldiers, candidates, and election workers. About 76 soldiers from the U.S.-led coalition have also reportedly been killed in the same period. Most operations have been carried out in the volatile provinces of Khost, Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, and Kunar (Hewad, September 13).
Second, the enormous number of candidates in some provinces, and especially in Kabul, poses a formidable problem. Since seats for both the lower house of parliament as well as the provincial council can be selected on a province-wide basis, all the names of the candidates must appear on the ballot papers. In Kabul alone, there are about 400 candidates for the lower house and each individual ballot paper consists of eight pages with some 50 candidates on each page. It is a newspaper-size page crowded with names, pictures, symbols, and numbers for each individual candidate. For an illiterate, elderly Afghan voter, male or female, the task of locating the right candidate is daunting.
Third, the logistics of transporting ballots are extremely complex. Over 135,000 ballot boxes have been imported from Canada along with 140,000 bottles of indelible ink, which stand ready to mark the index fingers of Afghan voters to prevent them from voting twice. Officials say that this time the stain will last long after the elections, hopefully eliminating the controversy that marred last October’s presidential election during which the ink would sometimes rub off.
There will be 26,000 polling stations across the country, with 140,000 booths inside which voters will cast their ballots.
Once the vote is cast, the daunting task of transporting the ballot boxes begins. In some cases several days are needed to collect the boxes in one central location. Every conceivable means of transportation have been readied for this purpose, including donkeys, horses, camels, mules, cars, trucks, and helicopters.
It has taken a small fleet of aircraft to ferry in election supplies, including 14 Antonov 124s, one of the largest aircraft ever built. Also on tap are eight Boeing 747s, an Ilyushin 76, and several helicopters.
Beside the crowded field of candidates, there are some 34,000 national and 491 international observers that will be dispatched to watch out for fraud. But there are also concerns that some observers might really be there to intimidate people planning to vote for the “wrong” candidate (Cheragh, September 10).
Finally, counting the ballots is another problem. It will take more than a month to know the final results. Most candidates prefer that votes be counted at polling stations. But at the moment, conditions in Afghanistan are not favorable: democratic institutions are still weak and warlords and armed people still wield influence in provinces and remote areas. Some government officials might abuse their powers at polling stations during the vote counting, so the result of votes counted at polling stations would probably be contested.
The real problem is the nature of the parliament. Since running on a party line is discouraged, and a single non-transferable voting system will be used, most of the candidates are segregated along ethnic fault lines. There are few candidates who expect to be elected by people other than their own ethnic constituencies. As a result, the new parliament is expected to be made up of ethnic groupings rather than party blocs or affiliations. There are fears that this situation might sharpen ethnic differences. The voting system is likely to produce a fragmented parliament that is both conservative and parochial, and possibly more of a hindrance than a help to the government.
The lingering anxiety in Afghanistan is the commitment of the international community to prop up the fledgling democracy in the country. James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, summed up this fear best: “Without the international presence, the country would begin to disintegrate again” (Reuters, September 12).