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Afghan Report: September 2, 2005

2 September 2005, Volume 4, Number 25
By Amin Tarzi

Afghan voters go to the polls on 18 September to elect representatives to the country's legislature -- the National Assembly ("Melli Shura" in Pashto, or "Shura-ye Melli" in Dari) -- and to provincial councils. The fact that a country with virtually no democratic experience and a quarter century of conflict behind it has embarked on the path to democracy is arguably a monumental achievement. But not all has gone according to plans laid out in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, which ushered in a post-Taliban government following UN backed negotiations with a fractious assemblage of Afghan political forces. What follows is an outline of the election process and its significance.

The Bonn Agreement called for Afghanistan's democratic institutions to be put in place by June 2004 through free elections. Instead, only a presidential election had been held by October 2004 -- after numerous delays -- while elections to the National Assembly's lower house, or Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), Provincial Council (Shura-e Welayati), and District Council (Shura-e Woleswali) were postponed to spring 2005. In March, the date for Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Council elections were pushed back to 18 September. Elections to the District Council -- to provide an important part of the bicameral National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) -- were postponed indefinitely, in large part due to disagreements over jurisdictional limits and numbers of districts.

What's At Stake?

On 18 September, an estimated 12 million registered voters are expected to cast their ballots in 69 separate polls. Voters in each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces will vote on two separate ballots: to select representatives to the national Wolesi Jirga and to the Provincial Council. Representatives of the country's kuchi (nomad) minority will vote for their own representatives to the Wolesi Jirga in special polls. According to the coordinating agency for the elections, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), voters will have access to 26,000 polling stations in 5,000 locations throughout Afghanistan.

There are 5,800 candidates -- including 582 women -- competing for seats in the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils. Women account for 44 percent of registered voters, slightly higher than the 42 percent female voter-registration figure ahead of the October 2004 presidential poll. Article 83 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan passed in January 2004 stipulates that at least two female delegates should be elected from each province, guaranteeing a minimum of 64 female representatives among the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga.

Voters in the country's provinces will choose 239 Wolesi Jirga members through secret ballot, while the remaining 10 seats are set aside for kuchis.

The number of seats allotted to individual provinces is based on population, ranging from a minimum of nine seats to a maximum of 29 seats.

Despite requests by opposition parties, the JEMB announced in July that vote counting for the September elections will take place at a central counting facility in each province. Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, who has emerged as the country's main opposition leader following his second-place finish in presidential balloting, has been among the critics of that procedure. Qanuni argued recently that votes should be counted at polling stations in order to reduce the risk of the type of fraud that he alleged took place during the unsupervised transfer of ballot boxes to Kabul in the presidential poll (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 July and 15 August 2005).

Authorities are scheduled to begin tallying the vote on 19 September and conclude the process on 9 October, with provisional results expected one day later. Objections or protests are to be heard from 10-21 October, with the announcement of final results slated for 22 October.

Some Shortcomings

Even if the provincial and national legislative elections are spared any major disturbance from insurgency or disagreements over procedural matters, the National Assembly, which according to the constitution is the country's "highest legislative organ" and the "manifestation of the will" of the Afghan people, will remain incomplete.

Since the still-unscheduled District Council elections will take place separately from the Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Council polls, the National Assembly must be formed without a fully represented Meshrano Jirga. Article 84 of the Constitution prescribes that members of the Meshrano Jirga be taken one-third each from the Provincial and District councils, with the remaining one-third of members appointed by the president "from among experts and experienced personalities" -- including two representatives from the disabled and impaired and two representatives from the kuchis. Half of the presidential appointees must be women, under the constitution.

No clear plan has emerged yet for dealing with the absence of one-third of the Meshrano Jirga.

Security concerns and the drive to hold elections has translated into some corners being cut in Afghanistan's nascent democratic experience -- at times threatening to jeopardize the integrity and acceptability of the institutions for which Afghans are voting. But determining whether Afghanistan represents a glass half full or one half empty is no simple task. A country that four years ago was ruled by the draconian Taliban regime (which was largely unrecognized by the international community) and was host to notorious global terrorists is today one in which a vast majority of eligible voters -- women included -- are going to the polls to vote for their chosen candidates -- sometimes at great personal risk. On the other hand, political expediency and short-term goals have allowed individuals who in many countries would face prosecution for human rights abuses or collaboration with occupation forces are poised to legitimize their power.

By Amin Tarzi

One of the female candidates in Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary elections was among seven Afghan women who discussed issues that they consider crucial to the development of Afghanistan during a visit to RFE/RL's offices in Washington on 23 August.

Women comprise roughly 10 percent of the candidates for the lower house, or Wolesi Jirga, and provincial councils -- there are 582 female candidates, according to the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). The Afghan Constitution, adopted in January 2004, has afforded women at least a minimum number of seats in both bodies.

Beyond ensuring security -- which was more of an issue for women living in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the resurgent neo-Taliban and their allies have stepped up their destructive activities -- all seven said they favored long-term reconstruction projects that would empower women over short-term programs. The leading issues of concern for all of the women who spoke at RFE/RL were health care and education.

Masuda Karokhi, who is executive committee member of the Directorate of Women's Affairs in the western Afghan city of Herat and an independent candidate for the National Assembly's lower house, welcomed the chance afforded to Afghan women to run for public office in a country with a "patriarchal and traditional system."

Female candidates are determined to "help rebuild our country and have a role in parliament," where they can have a major impact, Karokhi said. Karokhi identified the most crucial issues for Afghanistan -- and for Afghan women -- as poverty, literacy and education, and public health.

Karokhi said that campaigning is more difficult for female candidates, forcing her to rely on the "traditional tribal system" to get her message out to voters -- adding that such power structures are controlled by men. "We must go to the centers of influence," Karokhi said. But she also noted the support that some men have lent to her campaign. In many cases, Karokhi said, men have been more vocal advocates of her campaign than women.

While Karokhi focused on the positive contributions and support of men in her campaign effort, she did not dwell on why women have been less enthusiastic to support her. One reason could be that while Afghan women enjoy legal avenues to express their opinions, they often confront social forces that see their place outside the public realm, and certainly not in politics.

Karokhi argued that Afghans in general do not embrace political parties, adding that a candidate would lose support if she or he belonged to a political party. (More than 70 parties have so far registered with the Afghan-UN electoral watchdog, the JEMB.) She attributed that popular distrust to decades of conflict in Afghanistan in which political parties and organizations played leading roles. Karokhi did not rule out a role for political parties in the future, however.

She said security has not presented a problem for Karokhi during campaigning in Herat, and she has never asked for any protection. The main obstacle, she said, has been reaching out to voters outside of the city, where media access, particularly television, is extremely limited or nonexistent.

While discussing the importance of the media, Karokhi suggested the regime in neighboring Iran exerts extensive influence on many aspects of life in Herat Province. Karokhi claimed that some local residents refer wryly to state-run radio and television broadcasting in Herat as "Iranian" due to the clergy's perceived influence over their content. Women's rights in her own province, she hinted, might come into sharp conflict with the principles advocated by the hard-line theocracy next door.

By Ahto Lobjakas

Emma Bonino, who heads the EU observation mission to Afghanistan for the 18 September legislative elections, told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 30 August she is hopeful of the poll's success. The report she presented says insurgents do not threaten the electoral process as a whole, although isolated attacks against candidates and other personnel persist and large-scale attacks cannot be ruled out closer to the election date. There appear to be no insurmountable logistical problems.

The top EU official preparing for elections in Afghanistan told the European Parliament on 30 August she returns from the country with a "message of hope."

Bonino told members of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that as long as the security situation does not deteriorate drastically and the Afghan government follows through on its own commitments, the elections have a good chance of succeeding.

Security remains the most obvious concern. A written report submitted to the parliament by Bonino says the "electoral process as a whole" does not appear to be under threat.

However, in her spoken remarks, Bonino indicated the calm is at best relative. "It is clear that the whole region in the south and southeast is suffering from significant disturbances, even in the presence of the 20,000 or so multinational troops. The rest of the country is fairly -- in quotation marks -- calm. If not then that is because of the more or less ubiquitous criminality linked to drug trafficking, militias, or other things. I believe that an increase of these violent activities in the run-up to the elections cannot be ruled out," Bonino said.

The EU is currently fielding 70 officials who cover 28 out of the 34 provinces. Bonino's report says the provinces of Konar, Khost, Oruzgan, and Zabul are too dangerous for any EU personnel to visit. The same applies to parts of other provinces in south and south-central Afghanistan.

By election day on 18 September, the EU will have up to 140 observers in Afghanistan. The EU mission will be by far the largest monitoring presence in the country. Much of its work will rely on some 7,000 local assistants who are being specially trained for the occasion.

Bonino highlighted numerous logistical complications. She said 2,000 donkeys were needed to transport ballots to the mountains. The indelible ink used to mark voters who have cast their ballots must be brought in from Canada and then distributed across the country. The voting cabins are manufactured in Pakistan, while the 14 million ballots are printed in England and Austria.

Bonino's report notes that voter registration for the 2004 presidential elections had been "clearly incomplete." This year, approximately 1.7 million new voting cards have been issued. The process of registration is still ongoing, and will only end on 8 September. The total number is expected to exceed 12.5 million. Women currently make up 44 percent of the registered voters, although Bonino notes that there are many indications of "proxy registration of female voters."

Bonino said on 30 August that overall, women's active participation is "good news."

"There is significant participation on the part of women, they make up 10 percent of the candidates and 44 percent of the registered voters. This is an improvement on the presidential elections of [last] October. And there is a quota system which will ensure that at least 25 percent of the parliament will consist of women," Bonino said.

The EU observer mission offers some criticism of what the report describes as a "highly questionable" vetting process of candidates suspected of past human rights violations or links to armed groups.

Bonino told the parliament on 30 August that process appears to be opaque to outside scrutiny. So far, only 11 candidates out of a total of more than 200 suspected warlords have been struck from the list of candidates.

Bonino says this appears to reflect a conscious policy on the part of the Afghan government. "It is clear that the political line that has been chosen is one of inclusion of commanders, one of not excluding anyone, so as to avoid a violent backlash during the transition. It is therefore possible that commanders with known links to militias will end up in parliament. It is a question on which we do not yet have a position, but we're studying it," Bonino said.

Bonino also said there have been numerous reports of intimidation of candidates. Again, she said, the reports were "difficult" to verify independently.

Four candidates have been killed so far, the last on 28 August.

Bonino's report says that although the official start of campaigning was to take place on 17 August, the country was "flooded" with electoral posters months ago.

On the other hand, the report notes that the campaign has not been very lively and is mostly carried out along tribal and ethnic lines "without any programmes." It says access to airtime has emerged as the most complicated issue in the campaign so far.

By Robert McMahon

The chief of the UN mission in Afghanistan has warned an upsurge in violence could disrupt Afghanistan's parliamentary polls next month. Speaking to the UN Security Council on 23 August, UN envoy Jean Arnault pointed to an escalation in attacks in the south and east as posing the most risk to elections. Representatives of neighboring and troop-contributing states vowed to help stabilize the country during the key polls.

Jean Arnault told the UN Security Council that security remained a paramount concern nearly three weeks before parliamentary elections. He said the increasing intensity of attacks in the south, southeast, and east of Afghanistan could disenfranchise parts of the dominant ethnic Pashtun population there.

"It is too soon to rule out attempts at causing major disruptions of the elections before, during or after polling day," Arnault said. "In addition, increased insecurity in the provinces along the eastern border is in itself a cause for concern for the elections in these areas."

The UN and Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission released a report on 22 August saying extremist attacks have increased against candidates, election workers, community leaders, and military forces this summer.

A Taliban spokesman said this week that the insurgents would not attack polling stations on election day on 18 September. But he vowed Taliban fighters would try to disrupt preparations for the polls.

Arnault said about 30,000 Afghan national police would be required to secure the "first ring" around about 6,300 polling centers. International military forces from Spain, the Netherlands, Romania, and the United States would provide back-up support, he said.

Arnault also said that almost $30 million was still needed from international donors for electoral costs, including ballot printing and transportation.

Pakistan's UN ambassador, Munir Akram, told the council his country was committed to securing its borders to block infiltrations into Afghanistan. He expressed disappointment those efforts have not been acknowledged by the UN.

"Seven hundred posts have been established along the border," Akram said. "Four thousand troops are being added for interdiction duties in the run-up of the Afghan parliamentary elections. Our troop strength on the border, I may mention, Mr. President, is higher than the combined strength of the national and international military presence within Afghanistan."

Pakistan is seen as the base for large numbers of rebels who cross into Afghanistan to launch attacks, before going back across the frontier. Vigorous efforts by Pakistani forces last autumn helped reduce activities by militants during the Afghan presidential elections.

Speakers at the 23 August Security Council meeting in New York stressed the importance of Afghanistan's 18 September polls proceeding peacefully. But many also said the country needs to focus on a postelection strategy for development, including more effective plans to eradicate the country's huge opium economy.

Iranian UN Ambassador Javad Zarif said his country, which has long battled drug traffickers from Afghanistan, had become alarmed at the increase in opium production.

"While certain efforts by the government of Afghanistan have resulted in the reduction of opium cultivation in some regions traditionally famous for opium producing, it is beyond comprehension why at the same time opium production should increase in areas bordering my country, especially in the Farah Province. It is a development that arouses our grave concern," he added.

Zarif also expressed disappointment at Afghan government delays in repatriating the millions of Afghans who have taken refuge in Iran in the past two decades.

26 August 1965 � Election of parliament members begins. Over 1,000 run for 216 seats in Wolesi Jirga and 100 for 28 elective seats in Meshrano Jirga.

20 August 1998 � The United States fires cruise missiles on camps of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan for attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

23 August 1961 � Pakistan announces it is closing Afghan consulates and trade offices in Pakistan and is considering prohibiting transit facilities given to Afghanistan.

Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003); "RFE/RL Newsline."