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Afghanistan: Banning Of Candidates Complicates Parliamentary Ballots

There are worries that leaving disqualified candidates on the ballots could spark unrest Afghanistan's electoral watchdog has disqualified a further 28 candidates from parliamentary elections on 18 September. A total of 45 candidates have now been barred. Thirty-two were disqualified for maintaining links to armed militia groups. The others, including three women barred yesterday, were disqualified for keeping local government jobs in violation of election rules. But the disqualifications do not include high-profile warlords accused of human rights abuses. Moreover, the disqualified candidates will still appear on ballots when voters go to the polls, because the ballots have already been printed and are being distributed to thousands of polling stations across the country.

Kabul, 13 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The list of candidates banned yesterday from Afghanistan's parliamentary elections includes three militia commanders from the northern province of Baghlan. It also includes former Taliban commander Qumandan Didar, who had hoped to win a parliamentary seat as a representative from Kabul.

Didar told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has wrongly accused him of maintaining ties with an illegal militia.

"They don't want to surrender themselves to the people's will, and they have given false reports," Didar said. "They have their own personal issues and they have put me on the list. It is wrong for the people."

But Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body secretariat in Kabul, told RFE/RL that the decisions on all banned candidates are based on reliable information.

"The Electoral Complaints Commission relies on the expert advice of a body called the Joint Secretariat for Disarmament and Reintegration. They are the expert body [that is] best placed to advise the ECC on those candidates who have retained links to armed groups. That vetting process continues. And the Electoral Complaints Commission has a mandate to disqualify any candidates who have been found to have links to armed groups -- right up to the certification of results," Siddique said.

The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch says disqualifications have not gone far enough. Human Rights Watch researcher Sam Zia Zarifi told RFE/RL that many other militia commanders with well-known records of human rights abuses are still being allowed to run.

"Some very prominent people like [the radical Islamist] Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is running. He is a commander [for] whom there is very strong evidence about his involvement in human rights abuses throughout the civil war in Afghanistan," Zarifi said. "There are people from the Taliban that are running -- like Ahmad Rocketi, who was a commander who cooperated with the Taliban. And his past record on atrocities is quite well-known. There are people from the communist era running. There are a couple of generals from the communist era running who have very questionable pasts. So I think the electoral commission could have been a little more forward-leaning in keeping the lists clean."
"There were well over 200 complaints filed against candidates, out of which only 11 were finally struck off [the ballot papers] for links to armed groups. There is a general consensus that many more candidates are improperly on the list." - IWPR's MacKenzie

Jean MacKenzie, Afghanistan country director for the London- based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, agrees with that assessment. Like Human Rights Watch, MacKenzie and her staff of Afghan journalists have been monitoring the election campaigns across the country during the past two months.

"The vetting process could have been a lot more rigorous," MacKenzie told RFE/RL. "There were well over 200 complaints filed against candidates, out of which only 11 were finally struck off [the ballot papers] for links to armed groups. There is a general consensus that many more candidates are improperly on the list."

MacKenzie says one reason is that the election law calls for a standard of evidence regarding human rights abuses that is difficult for the electoral watchdog to meet. "The [Electoral] Complaints Commission has not had the resources that it needed to investigate complaints. They are relying more on people coming forward with evidence of wrongdoing rather than being able to investigate tip-offs or complaints. It seems they have very little authority to enforce any decisions that they might make," MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie also notes that despite a crescendo of complaints against warlords, there is no way to remove the photographs and ballot symbols for disqualified candidates from the millions of ballot papers already printed.

"Formally, if they are struck off [the eligibility list but remain on the ballot papers] then any votes cast for them will be discounted -- meaning if a candidate receives a significant number of votes and he or she has been struck off that, a large percent of votes in a certain province will just be wasted. What this means is that candidates who have received very few votes, or a very small percentage of the popular vote, may be the one who is headed for parliament rather than [the one who] was the popular choice. This can be a very great problem in the days immediately after the election and when the final results are announced," MacKenzie said.

Siddique, the JEMB Secretariat spokesman, said it is impossible less than a week before the election to reprint and distribute new ballots without the photos and candidate symbols of those who have been disqualified.

"This is a particular concern for us. With having to print nearly 40 million ballot papers in the time frame that we have, there's no going back and being able to print the ballot papers [again]," he said. "So our main focus or concern at the moment is ensuring that voters understand that there are candidates at this stage who have been disqualified from the race. And we will do our best to ensure that voters are aware of those candidates who have been disqualified before polling day."

Siddique said one way to inform voters is to put up posters at more than 26,000 polling centers across the country announcing the disqualifications in Dari and Pashto. But an estimated 85 percent of Afghan voters are illiterate. And Siddique said that raises concerns about whether all voters will get the message about disqualified candidates.

"Illiteracy is a problem. We have an important balancing act to play here because, on the one hand, we can put the [disqualified] candidate's name and photograph on a poster. But then there's a risk that that may raise the profile of that candidate at a polling station. And there may be illiterate people who take that in some way as an endorsement, even though we don't mean it that way, and end up voting for that person. So we're looking at how we can possibly use public service announcements in the run-up to polling day to inform them that a certain number of candidates are no longer running," Siddique said.

MacKenzie said the failure to inform voters about the disqualifications could lead to unrest if large numbers of votes are simply thrown out as a result. "We have seen demonstrations throughout the country over various topics and we certainly have seen that there are maybe more weapons than we would like to think still in the hands of certain groups," MacKenzie said. "I would think that if a province has voted for a person and that person ends up not being elected because the people were not informed in advance that he or she had been struck off the ballot, that there certainly is a potential for popular discontent or unrest."

Zarifi of Human Rights Watch concludes that the JEMB is taking the right approach by not posting photographs of the disqualified candidates at polling stations. He agrees that such announcements could be misunderstood and lead to even more votes for disqualified candidates.

For more news and analysis on the Afghan parliamentary elections, see "Afghanistan Votes"