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Afghanistan: The Message Of Lower Voter Turnout

Were voters unhappy with some of the candidates running? Afghanistan's Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) on 22 September officially announced that 53 percent of Afghanistan's voters cast their ballots in the parliamentary and provincial council elections on 18 September. Voter participation in Kabul was just 36 percent -- lower than in many far-off provinces.

The 18 September polls represented the final step of the plans laid out in the December 2001 Bonn agreement, which ushered in a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. With the completion of the elections -- according to the plans agreed to in Bonn by an assemblage of Afghan political forces with United Nations and international backing -- Afghanistan has now, at least on paper, put in place all of the necessary institutions needed to become a democratic state.

Throughout the process agreed upon in Bonn, the Afghan people have enthusiastically supported the steps taken by their leaders, despite some shortcomings, missed deadlines, and perhaps hurried processes.
Roughly half of voters exercised their democratic right by saying they are not content with many of the people campaigning to represent them or, perhaps, with the speed at which their country is progressing.

Strong Turnout In Previous Votes

In June 2002, their first chance to elect their own representatives after decades of being ruled by force, around 90 percent of the selected group of some 20,000 delegates actively participated in electing members for the emergency Loya Jirga held in.

In October 2004, in the Afghans first-ever chance to directly choose their leader, the JEMB reported that more than 70 percent of registered voters participated in the presidential elections, which were held on an exceptionally cold day and amid threats by the neo-Taliban to disrupt the process.

After those two examples, why did nearly half of the Afghan voters choose not to exercise their democratic right to elect representatives to the lower house, or People's Council, of their country's National Assembly and to the Provincial Councils?

Don't Blame Poor Security

Lower participation by voters in the southern and eastern provinces of the country where neo-Taliban and other insurgencies are most active could be attributed to security concerns. But then why did around two-thirds of Kabul's voters, where security is relatively well-established, stay away from the polls?

The answer to the lower voter turnout must be found in other factors beyond security concerns.

Two broad issues seem to have led to the general voter malaise. First, voters were turned off by the presence on the list of candidates of former or current warlords and notorious human rights abusers -- including known former communist and Taliban strongmen and people with little or no public recognition. The last point was made worst by the short campaign period which prevented the unknown candidates to reach out to voters. Second, as a 22-year-old Kabul resident told RFE/RL, many of the people's expectations following the presidential election remain largely unmet and this has led to a frustration which made people react differently to the 18 September elections compared to last year's presidential vote. (See "Afghanistan: Officials Praise Elections Despite Lower-Than-Expected Turnout")

Before the 18 September elections, when confronted with the question that many people with very murky backgrounds were standing as candidates, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated that the Afghans would choose the right candidates to represent them. (See "Afghanistan: Eleventh Hour Disqualifications May Serve Questionable Candidates")

With the burden of Afghanistan's march to democracy placed squarely on the shoulders of the Afghan people, roughly half of them exercised their democratic right by saying that they are not content with many of the people campaigning to represent them in parliament or, perhaps, with the speed at which their country is progressing.

If Afghanistan's democracy is to move forward in deeds and not just in words, this message by many Afghans must be heeded and steps taken to regain their confidence.

Read all about the Afghan parliamentary elections at the RFE/RL website "Afghanistan Votes"