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Afghanistan: Despite Problems, UN Chief Expects Voters to Express Their Will

The UN's top official in Afghanistan has issued his overall assessment of conditions for tomorrow's Afghan presidential election. Jean Arnault, the UN secretary-general's special representative, says the disarmament of Afghan factional militias has fallen short of expectations. He says a culture of violence persists in which some candidates are encouraging voter intimidation. And he says most Afghans need to be better educated about how elections work. But despite these problems, Arnault concluded there is a "degree of freedom and fairness" that will allow Afghans to express their political will tomorrow.

Kabul, 8 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly three years of work by the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) will be tested on 9 October when Afghan voters go to the polls to choose their president.

UNAMA was tasked by the Bonn accords in late 2001 with organizing elections that would accurately reflect the political will of the Afghan people.
"We need meaningful elections. We need free and fair elections. We need elections that will deliver, as the Bonn agreement says, a fully representative government."

The top UN official in the country, Jean Arnault, told RFE/RL that he thinks Afghans will get the meaningful election they deserve. "That's precisely what our mandate is. It's not only a mandate to carry out electoral operations. It is a mandate to conduct them in conformity to the Bonn agreement," he said. "And the Bonn agreement is very specific. We need meaningful elections. We need free and fair elections. We need elections that will deliver, as the Bonn agreement says, a fully representative government."

Arnault admits the electoral process has been hampered by serious problems since a massive voter-registration drive was launched last March. But at the end of the day, Arnault said he thinks the terms of the Bonn accords will be met.

"Our assessment is simple. We've taken into account all these problems and shortcomings, these weaknesses and strengths of the process for the past now six months. And we have concluded that there exists, even with these difficulties, a degree of freedom and fairness that is adequate to an essential goal -- that of allowing Afghans at the polls on Saturday to translate their political will as a nation in an electoral outcome. And we also believe the next president will be able to claim, as Bonn requires, representation of the nation as a whole," Arnault said.

Arnault said major difficulties in organizing tomorrow's ballot have been caused by misunderstandings among ordinary Afghans about how democracy works. "The first problem -- the lack of familiarity, of experience, of knowledge of most people with democratic procedures. And also, to some extent, with electoral procedures," he said. "[Afghanistan] is, clearly, a country that is flexing its democratic institutions for the first time. And we are far from a situation where the population at large will have a deep understanding of how this process is being conducted and where it leads."

As an example, Arnault said many Afghans still do not understand that tomorrow's vote will be a secret ballot. Once a ballot is put into the ballot box, there is no way for anyone to link that vote to a specific individual. Arnault also said Afghans need to understand that observers at polling stations are there to ensure the process is conducted freely and fairly -- not to watch who people are voting for.

"There is still a gap in terms of the public awareness of several of the safeguards that are essential to protect the right of Afghans to cast their ballot free of intimidation. The secrecy of the vote. The presence of observers. All these safeguards, we believe, must be communicated very forcefully to the population at large -- particularly [in isolated rural areas] where the printed media doesn't reach -- so that people feel confident that they can indeed vote without the knowledge of others and without undue influence," Arnault said.

Arnault said problems also have been caused by Afghanistan's lingering culture of violence -- including extremists who want to disrupt the entire election, as well as factional militia leaders trying to influence the outcome of the vote.

"Intimidation is a fact. Our reports contain quite a large number of examples of how some candidates have been condoning, at the very least, the use of pressure tactics through local officials or outside them. This culture still exists. And the third point -- of course, I can't omit it -- is the problem of extremist violence. The Taliban and others continue to try to put pressure, to threaten with violence and often commit violence, particularly in those areas of the south and southeast where they are operating," Arnault said.

Arnault's assessment is supported by political leaders and observers in Afghanistan who have been monitoring developments closely since the fall of the Taliban regime. Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has repeatedly described tomorrow's vote as an experiment that will give most Afghans their first election experience.

Robert Barry, the head of the election support team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said tomorrow's ballot will help both Afghan voters and international monitors understand how an election works in Afghanistan.

In the final analysis, the presidential vote is not considered the most important milestone on the road to democratic rule in Afghanistan The crucial test will be the amount of voter intimidation during the more complicated parliamentary and local elections next year.

Click here to see a "Factbox" on the presidential election.

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.