On July 22, General Abdur Rashid Dostum, the strongman of northern Afghanistan, announced his intention to run for the presidency. He called his decision the will of the representatives of his people. His entry in the field brings the total number of candidates to near 20. What was most surprising about this ceremony, held at the fashionable Kefayat Club in Mazar-e-Sharif, was the presence of his old rival and at times archenemy, General Atta Mohammad, who endorsed Dostum’s candidacy.
Dostum’s announcement comes at a time when there are increasing questions about the applicability and fairness of the electoral law. On July 19, nine Afghan presidential candidates took part in a press conference in Kabul and demanded amendments to the election law. They said that if the government fails to change the law, they would raise the issue on both the national as well as the international levels.
The candidates pointed to several shortcomings in the election law. Ismael Qasimyar, for example, said his main objection to this law is that it was drafted under the direct supervision of President Hamid Karzai, himself a candidate in the upcoming election (RFE/RL, July 19.)
The candidates issued a seven-point joint statement arguing that the fact that this law was proposed and signed by one candidate without consulting other candidates or political parties. Therefore, it represents an undemocratic and unfair practice by a person who is running for a third term as the leader of the government.
One of the most contentious issues is the provision requiring each candidate to collect 10,000 copies of voter registration cards to demonstrate that they have a minimum number of voters backing them. The candidates must also pay a registration fee of 50,000 Afghanis (about $1,000), according to Provision 44 of the Election Law. They consider these provisions to be contrary to the confidential, direct, and democratic nature of the elections as promulgated by the new constitution adopted last year.
In an interview with a women’s magazine in Kabul, Masouda Jalal, one of the leading candidates and the only woman in the race, complained that no voters, candidates, or political leaders were consulted in drafting the election law. She said the same wheeling and dealing that had derailed the two Loya Jirgas (Grand Assemblies; one elected the transitional government and the other approved the new constitution) is now being used to manufacture election results that will benefit only a few Afghanis (Mursal, June 12).
One leading opposition publication has noted other provisions of the law that clearly favor Karzai at the expense of other candidates. Specifically, one provision stipulates that all candidates must resign their public or military posts 75 days prior to the election date. The attorney general explained the stipulation as necessary to prevent individuals from taking advantage of their governmental power. However, Karzai is exempt from this requirement. As the paper asks, “Can anyone guarantee that Mr. Karzai would not misuse his authority?” (Payam-e-Mujahed).
Candidate Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai told a VOA Dari Service talk show that already there are reports in Kabul and Kandahar, Karzai’s hometown, that Karzai loyalists have torn down posters of other candidates. Powerful individuals allied with Karzai have employed threats and intimidation against some candidates. Latif Pedram, an ethnic Tajik, and M. Mohaqqiq, an ethnic Hazara, have been threatened on more than one occasion by known individuals (Cheragh, June 17).
The candidates have also complained about the lack of security. There has been an increase in violence, terror, and kidnappings, and a large number of weapons still remain in the hands of private militias. According to the candidates’ joint statement, the realities of Afghanistan show that it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in the country. The elections are intended to benefit the re-election campaign of U.S. President George W. Bush more than the Afghan people. In fact, the statement says, holding the presidential election in Afghanistan based on indirect political considerations and divorced from the interests of the country will exact a heavy toll in the lives of the poor Afghan people.
The Afghans who object to the election law are also opposed to the recent decision to hold the contests for president and parliament six months apart. Originally the elections were scheduled to be held jointly in June and later in September. Now that the presidential election is slated for October 12, there are concerns that the president may use his influence to place his allies in the parliament, making it impossible to form an independent legislature. In addition, in a country that has trouble funding even one election, providing for a second one in the course of six month is an undue burden on the budget.
The candidates that took part in the domestic press conference threatened to take the issue to public forums in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They asked the UN to intervene. They consider Mr. Karzai’s tenure in office unlawful and contrary to the Bonn Agreements on interim administration. They proposed convening an emergency Loya Jirga that would select a caretaker government run by a person who is not a candidate for the presidency.
The objections raised by the candidates, the Afghan press, and the local intelligentsia are basic and fundamental. Barely half of the eligible voters are registered, and the number of men registered far exceeds the number of women voters. The country is awash with weapons and the militias have not been disarmed. One newly declared candidate, Dostum, is widely regarded as a warlord with an arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
The forthcoming elections will be the first democratic elections held in Afghanistan. If they are marred by violence, vote rigging, or undue influence from an incumbent president or powerful warlords, they would be viewed as anything but democratic and once again the people would be denied a genuinely representative government.