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Afghan Report: September 26, 2005

26 September 2005, Volume 4, Number 26
By Golnaz Esfandiari and Ron Synovitz

Officials in Afghanistan are praising 18 September's parliamentary vote as a historic step in their transition to democracy -- even though voter turnout has been announced as 53 percent -- much lower than it was during the presidential election in October 2004. Election organizers say Taliban militants who vowed to derail the vote failed to do so. But security concerns did prevent 16 polling centers from opening in the south where fighting continues between the Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces. Meanwhile, an attack was reported on 19 September on a truck that was transporting ballots from polling stations to a counting center in Jalalabad.

As far as the organizers of the Afghan parliamentary elections are concerned the vote was an enormous success.

UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) Chairman Besmellah Besmel praised the election as a victory over Taliban fighters who had vowed to disrupt the vote.

"Despite all security concerns, fortunately the elections were held in a perfectly orderly and peaceful manner. This indicates on the one hand the efforts and selflessness of the national and international forces responsible for security. And on the other hand it indicates the high political awareness of the Afghan people [and their] political participation," Besmel said.

Praise also is coming in from the Afghan government and its Western backers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the vote a defining moment in the history of his country. U.S. President George W. Bush and the leadership of the European Union and NATO also have praised the election as a success.

Nevertheless, JEMB chief electoral officer Peter Erben says initial reports on turnout suggest only about 6 million of the 12 million registered voters had cast ballots. That is far lower than the presidential election of October 2004, when more than 8 million voters participated.

Erben's projection supports remarks by local poll workers and independent monitors who say turnout was far lower than expected -- mostly because of security fears and frustrations about the inclusion of notorious Afghan warlords on the ballots.

Among those concerned is Huria Mosadeq, the Afghan country director of the Human Rights Research and Advocacy consortium, which groups together several different nongovernmental organizations.

"I talked to several people who did not participate in the elections. They told me that when [Afghans] voted in the [2004] presidential elections, they expected to see a series of reforms within the government. Unfortunately, these reforms did not take place. The presence of some unpopular candidates [accused of committing war crimes during the past three decades] also caused frustration among people and made them not vote," Mosadeq told RFE/RL.

Some Afghans in Kabul told RFE/RL they didn't vote because they didn't have confidence in any of the 400 candidates who are trying to become a member of parliament representing the Afghan capital.

Amir, a 22-year-old student in Kabul, is among many ordinary Afghans who said the turnout seemed low. "In my opinion, the expectations that people had from their president during the presidential elections, well, their demands [were not fulfilled]," he said. "And it led to frustration. That's the feeling I get. And this frustration has made people have a different [reaction] to these elections."

Asadullah, a 40-year-old driver from Kabul's Paghman District, said he voted even though he was uncertain about the choices available to him. "I participated and gave my vote to [candidates] that I approve of," he said. "But [the problem is that] in Afghanistan there are not even two good candidates to vote for. Are there?"

The Afghan Interior Ministry says there were no major attacks against voters yesterday. However, the ministry has confirmed that more than two dozen attacks by suspected Taliban fighters in the south and east of Afghanistan left at least 14 people dead.

Most of the fatalities were the result of clashes near the border with Pakistan. Rockets and mortars killed at least five civilians, two of them children. A soldier in the French special forces also was killed by a land mine while conducting a security operation as part of the U.S.-led coalition on the eve of the vote.

A Taliban fighter was killed while trying to attack a polling station overnight. Three other suspected Taliban militants were killed in a clash that also left two Afghan policemen dead.

The JEMB's Erben said that security concerns also meant that 16 different polling centers were unable to open across Afghanistan for voting yesterday -- mostly across the south of the country where the U.S.-led coalition forces continue to fight Taliban militants.

"We celebrate the fact that we were capable of voting in each and every district of Afghanistan," Erben said. "We had over 6,200 polling centers. And of these, only 16 were not able to open. The provinces that were affected were Logar, Baghlan, Helmand, Oruzgan, Dai Kundi, and Kandahar. In Dai Kundi, we did have an issue in [one] district where it was not possible for us to get all the security forces in place in time. Most of the closings were, indeed, due to local security circumstances."

Seven parliamentary candidates and six election workers were killed in violence during the two-month campaign before the 18 September vote.

The counting of ballots started on 20 September. Final results are expected to be announced around 22 October, although the JEMB is hoping to have preliminary results as early as 5 October.

Before the count is complete, tens of thousands of sealed ballot boxes must be transported to counting houses in each provincial capital. Trucks and helicopters are being used to carry many of the ballot boxes. Horses, donkeys, and even camels are being used in the most remote regions of Afghanistan.

General Khalilullah Ziayee, the police chief for the eastern province of Nangarhar, said today that a remote-controlled bomb exploded in front of a truck that was carrying ballot boxes near Jalalabad overnight. The truck was carrying ballots to the provincial counting center in Jalalabad. General Ziayee said the vehicle was damaged but the driver escaped unharmed.

Afghanistan's civil society played an important role in the country's election process. Afghans organized programs aimed at raising voter awareness and deployed a large number of independent native observers on election day. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Foundation For Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan (FEFA) were among the nongovernmental organizations to observe the election process on 18 September. In an interview with RFE/RL, Husayn Ramoz, the executive director of the AIHRC and FEFA's deputy director, discussed some of the organizations' findings regarding the election process.

During 18 September elections for the national parliament and a number of provincial councils, AIHRC and FEFA deployed some 8,000 observers in most of Afghanistan's 6,200 polling centers.

With the vote now over, the same observers have moved on to monitoring the vote-counting centers across the country where collected ballots are being processed.

Some irregularities were reported on election day, and turnout was lower than at last October's presidential ballot. More than 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots last October. By contrast, some 50 percent of voters turned out to elect members of the lower house of the National Assembly -- the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga -- as well as 34 provincial councils.

But generally, says AIHRC director Husayn Ramoz, the voting was a success. "Despite logistical problems all over Afghanistan, despite the problems women face, and despite the low awareness problem that exists in Afghanistan, I think [the elections] are a successful step at this juncture in Afghanistan's history," Ramoz says.

Ramoz says several factors contributed to the estimated 50-percent turnout. He says the large number of candidates -- some 5,800 in all -- created confusion for many voters. Others opted not to vote because of fears of violence and attacks by the Taliban militia.

"One of the factors was the atmosphere of fear and insecurity created by forces opposed to the government several months ahead of the elections. There was intimidation and warnings to people in rural areas that they should not participate in the elections. And also many of the candidates failed to get people acquainted with their platforms and their political views, and they were not successful in convincing voters about the [significance] of parliament, and why their presence in the [future] parliament could make a difference in citizens' lives," Ramoz says.

Of the 12 million registered voters, some 44 percent were women. It is still not clear, however, how many women actually went to the polls on 18 September to vote in Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections since 1969. Ramoz says he believes many women are under pressure not to participate in the vote.

"We still don't have exact figures about women's turnout on election day, but based on different reports, it seems that in comparison with men, fewer women participated. One reason is that the society reserves more rights for men, and unfortunately in most households the decisions are made by men. I think security issues were also one of the reasons [why fewer women participated than men]. The fact that many women did not have registration cards is another reason," Ramoz says.

Ramoz says that during the vote, some men voted using their wives' registration cards. He adds that other shortcomings were also reported, including a delay in the opening of some polling stations, and insufficient knowledge of electoral procedures on the part of some of the election workers.

"In many cases the opening of the voting centers were delayed or the ballot boxes arrived late, or logistical materials for election day were not ready -- that was one of the serious problems. There were only a few cases where the ink [used to mark voters' index fingers to prevent multiple voting] was washed away. The election workers had a poor knowledge of the electoral process, and for example some of the candidates used the opportunity and campaigned [in violation of the election procedure]. Cases of electoral fraud were also reported -- for example, the use of women's registration cards by men," Ramoz says.

Afghanistan's electoral commission must now consider complaints that have been submitted regarding the conduct of the electoral process. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

The European Union's election observation mission in Afghanistan has released its preliminary report on the 18 September parliamentary vote. It says election day was "generally well-administered" and largely peaceful. But the EU team also observed serious shortcomings during the two-month campaign and on the day of voting. RFE/RL spoke with Emma Bonino, the head of the monitoring team, about the positive developments and some of the serious concerns.

Since the beginning of July, nearly 100 EU observers have been monitoring the electoral process in 29 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. On election day, they were joined by an additional 60 European observers.

Their preliminary report praises the vote as a significant step forward for Afghanistan's democratic development. But it also says there were security and electoral shortcomings that cannot be overlooked.

Of top concern are the numerous reports of intimidation and "deplorable cases" in which candidates, clerics, election workers, and others have been killed.

Emma Bonino is the former European human rights commissioner and now heads the EU's electoral monitoring team. She says the security problems impeded campaigning in several parts of the country and contributed to the intimidation of voters -- about half of whom stayed away from polling stations on election day.

Bonino told RFE/RL that one serious election-day security issue was the inability of 16 polling centers to open in six provinces -- Logar, Baghlan, Helmand, Oruzgan, Dai Kundi, and Kandahar:

"That goes to what we are saying as far as security concerns, which is not our invention. It is a real issue and a real problem. Evidently, we could even have expected a major disruption. That didn't happen. So the electoral day has been on track. Nevertheless, this is a totally clear signal of a situation of unstable security," Bonino says.

Overall, Bonino praised the work of the UN and Afghan officials in the JEMB, who organized the ballot for the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and provincial councils:

"So far, the JEMB has administered the election process generally well, with commendable openness to election stakeholders, despite the undoubted complexity of this election and the logistical and security challenges," Bonino says.

Bonino says the EU monitors also were encouraged by the variety of candidates, including women, and the continuing emergence of a civil society in Afghanistan.

"The large number of candidates from a variety of ethnic, social, and political backgrounds offered the electorate a wide choice of political contestants. Women registered in large numbers as candidates -- 10 percent of the total. And as voters -- 45 percent. And around a quarter of the seats in the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils are reserved for women. Civil society played an important role in the election process through the deployment of a large number of domestic observers across the country over the election-day period," Bonino says.

But the EU team's report says there were weaknesses in the way the pasts of candidates were investigated for involvement in war crimes -- one of the tasks of the JEMB's electoral complaints commission.

"The electoral complaints commission was provided with insufficient resources and investigative capacity. And a number of its decisions were taken late in the election process, creating problems and uncertainty for the election authorities, candidates and voters," Bonino says.

Bonino says the election system itself also created significant political and administrative challenges. She says the system of a single nontransferable vote should be reviewed before any future elections are conducted in Afghanistan.

Although an updated voter registration process was carried out after the presidential election of 2004, Bonino says shortcomings from last year's registration process remain. And she noted that a final voter list was not produced for the parliamentary ballot.

She praised the free access scheme of the JEMB's media commission, which gave access to media for all candidates who applied to take part -- more than half of all candidates. But Bonino says that with the exception of the JEMB program, there was a notable absence of election-related coverage by mass media in Afghanistan.

She says civic education efforts did not adequately reach voters in remote areas and in minority enclaves. She said Afghan women remain generally less informed than male voters. And there were other problems as well:

"Election day was relatively calm and peaceful. The voting process was assessed as �very good �and �good' in nearly 900 polling stations visited by the observers," Bonino says. "While many polling stations around the country opened late -- and maintaining the secrecy of the vote was not always achieved -- polling procedures were generally followed by election officials. In addition to domestic observers, large numbers of candidate's agents were present in polling stations. And in some cases, their behavior presented concerns in terms of compliance with the code of conduct."

Bonino says the final assessment of the election will depend, in part, on the completion of counting and tabulation. It also will depend on the certification of the results by the JEMB and the process of handling the complaints and appeals of candidates.

The EU mission plans to remain in Afghanistan until the end of October to monitor all of those phases of the election. Its final report -- with detailed recommendations on how to improve elections in Afghanistan -- is to be published by the end of the year. (Ron Synovitz)

In the days before Afghanistan's 18 September parliamentary vote, President Hamid Karzai urged voters to defy threats of violence and head to the polls. It was a particularly relevant message for the country's women, who continue to fight for their political voice after years of repression. RFE/RL spoke to women on election day and found their moods alternating between joy, sadness, and determination to bring their "three-decade-long night" to an end.

Women made up 44 percent of all Afghan voters registered during the past year.

In the eastern city of Jalalabad -- where female candidate Safia Sidiqi survived an apparent assassination attempt by militants aiming to disrupt the election -- more women than men reportedly turned out to vote.

Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces also reported high turnouts among women.

One woman in Kandahar -- the former stronghold of the Taliban militia -- expressed enthusiasm about participating in the first democratic parliamentary vote in more than 30 years.

"This is a great occasion; we are very happy," the woman said. "I must say that women from our province are very mature and intelligent. They know whom to vote for."

The role of women extends beyond voting. Last October, a female candidate -- Masuda Jalal -- ran in the country's presidential elections.


A quarter of the Wolesi Jirga's 249 seats are earmarked for women lawmakers. The provincial councils also have quotas for female members. In total, some 320 women were candidates in the 18 September vote -- many overcoming financial difficulty and threats of violence to do so.

It is a major achievement in a country where women have seen their rights systematically stripped away. For years, women were unable to attend university, be treated by a male doctor, or even walk outside without a male chaperone.

In many areas, women were still discouraged from voting by tradition-bound male family members. The Taliban had also vowed to disrupt the vote to prevent women from turning out.

Nekmarga, another woman voter in Kandahar, could barely control her emotions as she said the vote was a crucial opportunity for her to show that women -- like men -- are an important part of the country.

"We are one wing of the bird," Nekmarga said. "If both wings don't move together, the bird can't fly."

"We have been ignored," she continued. "The mujahedin and the Taliban have stolen our will, our motivation. We were not allowed to go to university, even to attend school or to work. We have not been respected as human beings; we were considered subhuman. So today we've been given the chance to exercise our rights, and we shouldn't miss the opportunity. I want to vote for a person who will work for us, for women."

The Kuchis

Another neglected group -- the Afghanistan Kuchis, or nomads -- also had a chance to run for parliamentary and council seats. Kuchis were guaranteed 10 seats in the Wolesi Jirga.

Some Kuchi women in western Heart Province told RFE/RL they would vote for any candidate -- male or female -- who would work to solve the dire poverty of the Afghan nomads. But one woman said she was voting for a man, because she believed only they had the power to solve problems.

"Look at me," the Kuchi woman said. "I'm so poor, I'm blind, I'm sick. I'm old. I'm going to vote for a Muslim man. We are so far away from the city. We don't have water; we don't have animals; we don't have milk. Believe me, I don't even have enough money for even a little tobacco."

It will be several more weeks before the official outcome of the elections is known. But despite some views that only men have the power to make change, many female voters express optimism that this is only the beginning of a political role for women in Afghanistan.

They point out that other Muslim nations have many female politicians. Some -- like Pakistan and Indonesia -- have even had women presidents. (Farah Hiwad)

The Afghan province of Bamiyan is well known for having a female governor -- the first and only one in Afghanistan. Habiba Sorabi, a former women's affairs minister, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as governor about six months ago. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Sorabi says her appointment has had some positive effects on the situation of women in the province. She also talks about plans to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas and the country's recent parliamentary polls.

Most of Habiba Sorabi's subordinates are men -- an unusual situation in a country where women enjoy very few rights and men are the main decision makers. But Sorabi's colleagues say they don't mind and see it as a great opportunity for Bamiyan and its people.

"The presence of Sorabi as the first female governor of Bamiyan is a unique opportunity for the people of Bamiyan to show that they are willing to cooperate with a woman and contribute to her success," said Ahmad Fouladi, a Sorabi adviser. "It can also get the attention of the international community. It's a good opportunity and I hope that the work will be successful because the success of the governor can prove that women can also be in executive positions, and it can be a good example for women."

Sorabi told RFE/RL that her appointment has helped ease some restrictions imposed on women.

"One night I was in Band-e Amir and had a friendly meeting with some of the women who had come there," Sorabi said. "It was very interesting for me because they spoke very openly and frankly about their problems. And what really touched me is that they told me that they used not to even be allowed to go out for worship or other things. But now when they ask something, men do not oppose it, they say since we have a female governor, you are also allowed to go out. I realized that some women are using this opportunity very positively."

Battling Illiteracy

Bamiyan is a war-ravaged, mountainous province in central Afghanistan, where poverty is widespread. Sorabi -- a pharmacist by profession -- says that in addition to poverty, illiteracy is a major problem for women in the province.

"For example, it is very difficult to find educated women whom we can hire for different positions in government offices," Sorabi said. "There are only two schools in Bamiyan; the one for girls has classes only up to the ninth grade. This shows that the level of literacy in Bamiyan [among women] is very low."

But Sorabi is determined to improve the lot of women and raise their status by creating schools to train female teachers. She says this will create jobs for women and also enable them to educate girls and ensure them a better future.

However, Sorabi says her main priority is to preserve the historical and archeological heritage and identity of Bamiyan, the site of the two giants Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban regime in 2001.

Bamiyan's Archeological Heritage

"The city of Bamiyan has many precious historical and archeological sites and in the past there has been a lot of cases of transgressions out of ignorance -- deliberately or not deliberately," she said. "Now I want to pay special attention to this issue so that the historical sites are well preserved and we will have a city master plan that will preserve the sites and at the same time provide good living conditions for people."

As for the statues, she says there are plans for rebuilding just one. The other destroyed Buddha statue will be kept as it is now, as a reminder of the destructive act committed by the Taliban.

Building roads is Sorabi's other priority. She says many of Bamiyan's problems -- including poverty and lack of access to health and education facilities -- are connected with the issue of accessibility.

Unable To Vote

Sorabi, 48, made international headlines when she was appointed as the governor of Bamiyan. This week her name appeared on the front page of most of Kabul's newspapers because she could not vote during the key 18 September legislative elections because her registration card was deemed valid only for Kabul.

Sorabi says it was unfortunate she could not cast her vote, but she adds that others could and the elections were a success.

"It went very well," Sorabi said. "The elections were held freely. Whoever wanted to could participate. But one problem was the low level of women's awareness; they did not know whom to vote for. Unfortunately, candidates could take advantage of it. I went to the polling stations and saw that women did not know the difference between the parliament and local councils."

And what do women in Bamiyan think about Sorabi governing their province?

Khadija Bahari, 26, is a candidate for parliament. She tells RFE/RL that Sorabi's appointment is a good sign. "I'm very happy that Mrs. Sorabi -- a woman - is the governor of Bamiyan," Bahari said. "The majority of people have to a great extent accepted her. This is a move that opens doors for women."

But, as Sorabi says, it's only just a start. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

3 September 1879 -- Sir Louis Cavagnari, the British emissary in Kabul, and his staff are killed in Kabul, leading to an invasion of Afghanistan by British forces.

9-19 September 1964 -- Loya Jirga debates and approves Afghanistan's new constitution.

16 September 1979 -- Radio Afghanistan reports that President Nur Mohammad Taraki has asked be relieved of his government positions because of "bad health and nervous weakness." Prime Minster Hafizullah Amin assumes the additional post of president.

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