Afghanistan’s Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has issued its final list of the 5,805 candidates registered for the parliamentary and local council elections that are to be held on September 18. However, there are an increasing number of questions about the screening process in general, as well as about the difficulties female candidates in particular will face in the upcoming polls. Over 500 women have registered for the parliamentary race. However, several major human rights organizations have alleged that some candidates are suspected war criminals who should be stricken from the ballot.
Although the election law barred candidates known to hold weapons stockpiles or to retain ties with armed groups, only a handful of those accused of such violations have had their names struck from the roster. A total of 1,136 complaints against 556 candidates have been filed with the election commission.
The panel had initially recommended the disqualification of 233 candidates, most of whom were accused of possessing weapons or maintaining links with paramilitary groups. But all of these individuals appealed the ruling, and all but 17 were reinstated.
One of the more controversial candidates is Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, a leading figure who formerly led his own military-political party. Sayyaf, who was part of the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, voiced his anger at the decision. “The people who fought for freedom and for the country are now known as warlords or criminals,” he told local television (Tolo TV, July 10). Sayyaf was also involved in the internecine fighting that followed the collapse of the communist regime in 1992. He has been accused of being a war criminal by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and was also named in a special report issued by Human Rights Watch on July 7.
The five-member election complaints commission, composed of three United Nations representatives and one each from the Afghan Supreme Court and the AIHRC, explained its reluctance to disqualify more candidates by noting that, so far, no one has been convicted of war crimes or human rights violations committed during the decades of strife in the country (Afghan Recovery Report, July 15).
Ultimately, 267 names were deleted from the candidate lists for the 249-seat parliament and the 34 provincial councils, the majority at the candidates’ own request. According to JEMB chairman Bismillah Bismil, “Some 250 candidates asked to be removed from the list, including 50 women…They asked to withdraw because of security fears over incidents that had taken place in the provinces.”
According to news reports, five declared candidates for parliament have been killed. Others have reported being threatened, and the home of at least one female candidate was burned down (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, July 17).
Afghanistan’s election law sets aside two seats in parliament from each of the country’s 34 provinces for women. But although women have their rights guaranteed by law, they face two formidable obstacles in running for office. One is tradition, particularly in a conservative society such as Afghanistan. There are examples of women taking part in elected bodies in the past, for example, as part of the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) convened by the reformer King Amanullah in 1928. During the 40-year reign of King Mohammad Zahir Shah (1933-73), women ran for both parliament and provincial councils. However, in the current struggle between legislation and tradition, the latter seems to be gaining the upper hand. The most conservative elements of society believe that women have no business seeking power. They point to the second obstacle, Islam. Scholars believe there are no religious tenets preventing women from running for parliament. Rather, it is the influence of the conservative portions of society that seems to be the main problem facing Afghanistan’s female candidates. Some people think that what is purported to be “Islamic” in fact violates Islamic law (Cheragh, July 15).
Afghan women have been held back by Afghan men. As a result, most people believe that women are incapable of achieving anything. “I have nominated myself as a candidate to demonstrate to people that women, too, can defend their rights and serve their community,” explained one female candidate.
Male voters seem to be divided about having women on the ballot. “People have experienced what men are capable of in the past decades,” says one observer. In fact, some Afghans people prefer women candidates because they think women are less violent in their nature.
Some women considered running for parliament as part of a crusade against gender stereotypes. Says one: “I decided to become a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga [the lower house of parliament] in order to bring women’s voices to the government” (Erada, July 14).
Yet other Afghans consider female candidates for parliament to be fighting a futile attempt to reform the situation. They believe that only people of power will enter parliament, a view echoed by ordinary citizens who have already nicknamed the legislature “the house of lords,” implying that only the rich and powerful will be able to secure seats.