14 October 2005, Volume 4, Number 27
THE MESSAGE OF LOWER VOTER TURNOUTBy Amin Tarzi
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.
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.
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.
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.
OBSERVERS SAY FRUSTRATION, COMPLICATIONS LED TO LOW VOTER TURNOUT.According to the latest elections results released by Afghanistan's JEMB, 6.8 million registered voters -- about 53 percent of the total � participated in last week's parliamentary and local council elections. The figure is significantly lower than during last October's presidential election, when 7.3 million people -- or 70 percent of the eligible voters -- cast their vote. In Kabul, only 36 percent of the registered voters cast ballots in the key vote.
Election officials say several factors contributed to the low turnout for Afghanistan's recent parliamentary elections.
Sultan Ahmed Bahin, the spokesman of the JEMB, spoke to RFE/RL in Kabul. "Usually in elections that are held after a war, during the first vote, more people participate and then during the next elections there are less people. These elections were very complicated. During the presidential vote we had only 16 candidates, but this time we had 5,800 candidates, that made voting difficult," Bahin said. "And there were also security concerns, during the morning hours there were less people but in the afternoon it got better, it shows that people were waiting to see whether the assurances we gave them were valid. Maybe there are some political reasons [why the turnout was lower than last year], but it is not our job as the officials in charge of the election office to investigate it."
Bahin did not comment on what the political reasons could be. But some observers believe political frustration and discontent about the slow pace of reconstruction could be the main cause for the relatively low turnout, especially in Kabul.
Huria Mossadeq, the country director of the Human Rights Research and Advocacy consortium, which groups together several nongovernmental organizations, says the slow pace of bureaucratic reforms and also the presence of some human rights abusers on the candidates list turned off some voters.
"I talked to several people who did not participate in the elections. They told me that when [Afghans] voted in the  presidential election, 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," Mossadeq said.
Several Kabul residents interviewed by RFE/RL believe that the low turnout is an indication of a growing disillusionment with Karzai's government.
Farid, 26, a taxi driver in Kabul, says that people had more hope during the presidential elections. "They had put behind a dark era and were hopeful in life and in the government, therefore more people participated in the presidential elections," he said. "When the ministers were appointed, they swore on the holy Koran that they will work hard, that they will root out bribery and fight corruption in government offices. But they were not able to fulfill their promises and they were discredited among the people, therefore less people voted.
Another Kabul resident, 22-year-old Amir, told RFE/RL a day after the elections that frustration amongst Afghans was the main reason for the 53 percent turnout nationwide.
"In my opinion, the expectations that people had from their president during the presidential election, well, their demands [were not fulfilled]. And it led to frustration. That's the feeling I get. And this frustration has made people have a different [reaction] to these elections," Amir said.
"Arman-e Melli," one of Kabul's dailies, recently wrote that the "cold election atmosphere" is a failure for the Afghan government and "foreign authorities" in charge of organizing the elections.
Other Afghan publications have however hailed the elections and noted that Afghans successfully passed their second test in democracy.
As far as Afghan officials and elections organizers are concerned, the 18 September vote was a successful step along Afghanistan's difficult path toward democracy.
Bahin, the JEMB spokesman, says one of the positive factors of the vote was the fact that in parts of Afghanistan's southern region the number of female voters increased.
According to the first partial results that were released in Kabul on 25 September, more women than men voted in some provinces that, nationwide, include Paktika, Nuristan, Panjsher, and Faryab.
Peter Erben, the JEMB's operations chief, said on 25 September: "We believe that the turnout will end up being around 6.8 million, this compared to the turnout of last year [presidential election] of 7.3 million. Of the 6.8 million voters that voted, 43 percent were women. This is slightly higher than the proportion of women versus men who are registered, but only by 1 percent. So with the approximate figures here, I would say that we have seen the same turnout of women in the election as we have seen during the registration."
Final certified results are due on 22 October. (Golnaz Esfandiari)
CANDIDATE KILLING SPARKS PROTESTS, ACCUSATIONS.Mohammad Ashraf Ramazan, a candidate for the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) of the Afghan National Assembly from the northern Balkh Province, was gunned down along with one of his bodyguards on 27 September as he drove from a vote-counting station in Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh's provincial capital. Soon after his death, the neo-Taliban claimed responsibility for having killed Ramazan, who was poised to win one of the province's 11 seats in the People's Council.
But despite that claim by the neo-Taliban, Ramazan's supporters, many of whom are from the Hazara community in Mazar-e Sharif, began protesting and accusing Balkh Governor Ata Mohammad Nur of involvement in the assassination. The protesters, reportedly as many as 1,000 people, tried to block the main road linking Balkh and points south, including the capital Kabul.
By 3 October, protests against Ramazan's murder had reached Kabul's Hazara community in numbers estimated at around 4,000. The same day, the Afghan Interior Ministry dispatched 300 rapid-reaction troops to Balkh to aid local police and military units in quelling the disorder in Mazar-e Sharif.
During a ceremony held to mourn Ramazan in Kabul on 3 October, some in the crowd demanded that Ramazan's brother, Ahmad Shah Ramazan, be allowed to occupy the seat that his slain brother -- with almost 97 percent of ballots counted -- appears certain to have won.
Charges And Countercharges
Speaking at a news conference in Mazar-e Sharif on 3 October, Governor Nur vehemently denied any involvement in Ramazan's death, adding that he had appointed a commission of "influential people" to investigate the killing. Nur said that he was planning to present to the public "photographic evidence" to prove that he had no animosity for the slain candidate. The only problem between Ramazan and Nur was over the former's "grabbing [of] government assets," Nur said, without providing details.
Nur described the allegations against him by protesters as "irresponsible." But he reserved harsher language for former Planning Minister Mohammad Mohaqeq, who reportedly has also accused Nur of involvement in Ramazan's death. Nur charged that Mohaqeq "has assassinated a lot of intellectuals, and he is a terrorist himself."
Mohaqeq is leader of the Islamic Unity Party of the People of Afghanistan, a newly formed party that splintered from the main Wahdat party, and is also a candidate for the People's Council from Kabul Province. While Afghan election procedures prevented any candidate from running under a specific party, Ramazan was affiliated with the Wahdat party, although it is unclear whether or not he had joined Mohaqeq's faction.
With more than 83 percent of the votes counted in Kabul, Mohaqeq leads all candidates and is virtually assured of one of Kabul's 33 seats in the lower house, or People's Council.
The war of words between Nur and Mohaqeq, two former mujahedin commanders and former allies against the Taliban, is a sad reminder of Afghanistan's turbulent history since 1992, when the communist government collapsed and former resistance groups turned their guns against each other. More alarming, Ramazan's death and the public reaction that has followed his murder might signal that Afghan politics -- even if conducted on a democratic platform -- remain divided along ethnic lines and might involve violence.
It is unlikely that the only candidate assassination since the 18 September elections was the work of the neo-Taliban or their allies. It is thus particularly important that the Afghan government thoroughly investigate the murder and provide answers that satisfy Ramazan's constituents. But since the demands of Ramazan's supporters might include the granting of his seat to his brother, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) -- and by extension the Afghan government -- faces a dilemma. Afghan electoral law states that if a candidate is unable to assume his or her seat, then that seat belongs to the candidate of the same gender with the next-highest number of votes. While the circumstances of Ramazan's murder have yet to be investigated transparently and fully, it would be unwise to pervert the law with the aim of satisfying any single group's grievances. (Amin Tarzi)
FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR SUSTAINED ENGAGEMENT.Afghanistan's foreign minister says this month's parliamentary elections showed the will of the Afghan people to create a real democracy. But Abdullah Abdullah also urged the international community to remain engaged in stabilization efforts, saying the country still faces "too many urgent priorities" involving security and reconstruction.
Abdullah says security and narcotics trafficking remain long-term challenges as his country enters a new phase of rebuilding.
One week after parliamentary elections in his country, Abdullah said in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies that stabilizing Afghanistan will be a "painstaking job."
"In a country which has too many priorities and too many urgent priorities, we need to fight -- continue the fighting against terrorism," Abdullah said. "That continues. A lot has been achieved in that front, but it will continue for some more years to come."
Abdullah urged sustained international help for what he called the total defeat of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, as well as handling problems like reducing opium cultivation and repatriating millions of refugees.
NATO and other countries deployed in Afghanistan have given no signs of an immediate draw down in forces. But Abdullah sought to counter any perceptions that the country is now a guaranteed success story because it has adopted a constitution and held presidential and parliamentary elections.
At the same time, Abdullah echoed comments of other Afghan officials and elections organizers that the vote was a successful step along Afghanistan's path to democracy.
"Despite all the threats, despite some of the attempts by the Taliban which led to the killing of too many people during those periods before elections, prior to elections, the people went for voting and they voted for their candidates and hopefully in a few days time we will have the initial results," he said.
Relations With Neighbors
Abdullah said as the post-conflict Bonn process comes to a close Afghanistan is developing new relations with its neighbors.
The foreign minister said security cooperation with Pakistan is crucial to combat infiltrations of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from border areas.
U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley made similar comments earlier in the day in Afghanistan. Pakistan says it has already deployed more than 70,000 troops as part of an extensive campaign against infiltrators, but the issue remains a sore point between the two neighbors.
An estimated 1,300 people have been killed in renewed fighting with Taliban insurgents in the past six months. Many of the dead have been rebels killed in battles with U.S.-led coalition forces.
But Abdullah said the Afghan government also needs to take more steps to develop areas on its side of the border with Pakistan as a way of nullifying support for Taliban fighters.
Washington And Tehran
In an interview with Radio Farda on 25 September, Abdullah praised Iran for its help in Afghanistan's reconstruction. He also expressed concern about tensions between Washington and Tehran.
"We only hope that the current problems surrounding Iran's nuclear program will be solved peacefully and will not cause more tension in the region," Abdullah told Radio Farda. "Improvement of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. will have a positive effect on Afghanistan, and we just hope that our region will remain stable."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on 26 September that the United States will not tolerate what he called a "pattern of deception and concealment" on Iran's nuclear program. Washington hopes to bring the matter to the UN Security Council later this year. Iran says its program is for peaceful energy uses only. (Robert McMahon -- Radio Farda's Parichehr Farzam interviewed the foreign minister and Fatemeh Aman translated his comments for this report.)
TOP SECURITY OFFICIAL RESIGNS AMID CONTROVERSY.After months of speculation about the resignation of Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, the country's top law-enforcement official's departure from President Hamid Karzai's cabinet was officially announced on 27 September.
"I will not work as Interior Minister anymore. Maybe there are reasons for this and maybe not, but one of the main reasons is that I wish to resume my academic research," Jalali was quoted by Kabul-based Tolu Television on 27 September as saying.
In a press statement released by the Interior Ministry on 27 September, Jalali denied reports that his resignation stemmed from conflicts with Karzai over the appointment of governors, other senior Interior Ministry officials, and counternarcotics-related issues.
"All these rumors are baseless, and I seriously reject them," Jalali said in the statement. He added that Karzai appointed governors and other officials in the Interior Ministry "based on the national interest" of Afghanistan and he is "more committed than anyone else in the fight against drugs."
Karzai appointed Jalali as his interior minister in January 2003, replacing Taj Mohammad Wardak, who now leads an opposition political party. After the conclusion of the 2001 Bonn agreement, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, currently the leader of the main opposition coalition, which includes Wardak's party, was selected interior minister but, following the June 2002 Loya Jirga he stepped down as part of a compromise to balance the ethnic representation of the Afghan cabinet in favor of Pashtuns. During Wardak's tenure, criminal activity increased, particularly in Kabul, and he was criticized for his handling of a student protest in November 2002 at Kabul University.
Jalali was generally regarded as a forceful factor in organizing Afghanistan's national police force and in spearheading the country's counternarcotics programs. As an outsider who had lived in the West for many years (he is the former director of the Washington-based Afghan-language service at the Voice of America), he did not have an easy relationship with the former mujahedin personalities, many of whom served either as governors or were obstacles in attempts by Kabul to exercise its authority throughout the country.
Given that the Interior Ministry in Afghanistan controls the police force, the bulk of counternarcotics forces, and manages the countries provincial governors, it is considered -- at least in theory -- the most powerful organ of the Afghan government. Some in Kabul have even argued that the ministry be split in two: one in charge of security affairs and the other in charge of administrative matters such as the management of the provinces.
Since Jalali's departure from Karzai's cabinet has been rumored for so long, there has been a lot of speculation about who would be his replacement. Some of the people thought to be under consideration for the post include former Herat Province Governor and current Minister of Power Mohammad Ismail Khan; Karzai's national security adviser Zalmay Rasul; Jalali's deputy, General Mohammad Daud; and even Karzai's political rival, Qanuni.
If Jalali did in fact resign due to differences with Karzai about counternarcotics and provincial governor appointments, his replacement will be watched closely by Afghans and foreign supporters of the Afghan government on his actions regarding those two crucial issues. (Amin Tarzi)
RICE HAILS AFGHANISTAN'S 'MARCH TOWARD DEMOCRACY'.During talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials on 12 October, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated the United States' long-term commitment to Afghanistan and praised the country's recent parliamentary vote.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said her second trip to Afghanistan comes at a time of great promises and hope for the country.
"Afghanistan is now inspiring the world with its march toward democracy, with the successful presidential elections that brought you [Karzai], the first elected president to Afghanistan, and then the parliament that has just been elected," Rice said. "And in both cases, we recognize that the foundation is being laid for a strong and democratic Afghanistan."
Rice said that she and Karzai had discussed Afghanistan's progress toward democracy, the challenges still facing the country, and the state of bilateral relations.
"We talked also about the importance of Afghanistan in this region -- where Afghanistan was once a land bridge for the entire region -- and the need to rebuild regional economic ties," Rice said. "We talked also about the challenges -- as you said, Mr. President -- of narcotics, and your great desire to have Afghanistan rid of it. We, with our lead partner the British, have been very involved in that effort, and we will redouble our efforts.�
Rice also reiterated Washington's commitment to a long-term relationship with Afghanistan and said that her country will assist Kabul as long as such help is necessary.
"The Afghan people have a long-term partner in the United States," Rice said. "We are not going to leave, as we once did. It was a mistake for us, it was a mistake for the Afghan people. And so you can count, Mr. President, on our continuing friendship, our long-term partnership, a relationship in terms of security cooperation and the fight to bring peace and stability to this region."
Hours before Rice's arrival, a rocket exploded outside the Kabul residence of the Canadian ambassador, wounding two guards. Another rocket landed near a government building, but reportedly did not cause any damage. No one has claimed responsibility for either attack.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Afghan Service, Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammad Yusof Stanizai blamed the attacks on the enemies of peace and stability.
"The enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan always try to disrupt the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere," Stanizai said. "They always make these failed attempts, but they have not been successful."
Attacks by Taliban militants have increased in the south and eastern regions of Afghanistan since the spring, causing the deaths of more than 1,300 people, many of them militants. In the latest violence, five Afghan aid workers and six policemen were killed on 12 October in separate attacks in Kandahar and southern Oruzgan Province.
Despite the reinvigoration of the insurgency, Rice told journalists that the Taliban had not been able to disrupt the 18 September parliamentary elections and last November's presidential vote. "There are some remnants of the Taliban that continue to be able to pull off an attack here or there," she said. "But they have not been able to stop either of the elections that took place."
Karzai told Rice that he thinks the insurgents are receiving support from Afghanistan's booming drug trade. (RFE/RL's Afghan Service)