Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan spoke today with Jed Ober, chief of staff of U.S.-based Democracy International, which sent a team of observers to monitor Afghanistan's second parliamentary elections on September 18. Democracy International focuses on democracy and governance programs around the world for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other development partners.
RFE/RL: How many observers did Democracy International send out to monitor the parliamentary elections?
Jed Ober: We fielded 80 international observers in 15 provinces throughout the country yesterday.
RFE/RL: What do your observations suggest so far?
Ober: Well, it seemed yesterday that, where we were able to observe, that IEC [Independent Election Commission] staff in polling stations were perhaps more prepared than they were in [the presidential election in] 2009. There were some small operational issues, such as problems with hole punchers used to puncture voter registration cards. However, we didn't observe any systematic irregularities across the country.
RFE/RL: We had reports saying that some Afghan candidates had printed fake poll cards ahead of the elections in Pakistan's northern city of Peshawar. Have you spotted any such cards during your observations?
Ober: We did not observe directly the use of any fake voter registration cards in polling stations. It's important I think, though, to remember that Afghan voters could reasonably have four voter registration cards just simply from the voter registration processes which have taken place here in 2004, 2005, 2009, and 2010.
There are multiple registration cards all over Afghanistan and that's why the Independent Election Commission has instituted a variety of additional safeguards to protect against multiple voting.
RFE/RL: With regards to the September 18 elections, in which more than 2,500 candidates took part, to what extent has democracy really taken root in Afghanistan?
Ober: Well, there are extremely positive signs. The initial indications are that 4 million ballots were cast yesterday. That is a very encouraging number if it ultimately proves to be true. The actual institution -- the Wolesi Jirga, which is the lower house of parliament, whose members faced election yesterday -- there was a very vibrant campaign period so that people could represent their constituencies in the institution.
The election was critically important for Afghanistan's democracy. The Wolesi Jirga has been, perhaps, the only institution which has displayed some balance to executive authority in the country. And over the past year, they have put this on display a number of times, in voting against President [Hamid] Karzai's cabinet nominees, in voting down the president's electoral law decree, and in voting down particular portions of the president's budget.
So the institution has been one of the bright spots in Afghan democracy. And I think in areas where it was secure yesterday, voters were able to go out to vote and they were enthusiastic in the process, and those are all positive signs for Afghanistan's democracy.
RFE/RL: But at the same time, reports are talking about spotty turnout, the usage of fake registration cards and fake ink during the elections. If these reports are true and these elections turn out to be as messy and contested as the 2009 presidential election was, how will it affect international support for Karzai's government?
Ober: Well, what is certainly true is that there's much that remains to be discovered about this election process. At the current time, observation organizations like Democracy International are collecting information from their observers. We'll collect reports from open source information, and then we will do our best to verify these reports.
At this point, I think it's too early to make any type of broad claim that this election process was either successful or detrimental. The next few days and the coming results tabulation period will help us to determine whether this is true or not.