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Afghan Election Environment Improving, But Obstacles Remain, Panel Says

A large campaign poster for incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai
A large campaign poster for incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai
NEW YORK -- Experts on Afghanistan came together this week at the Asia Society to discuss possible outcomes for the country's presidential election, which is scheduled for August 20. The election is viewed as a critical test of Afghanistan's fledgling democracy.

Will the vote represent another step toward a stable, democratic, and peaceful Afghanistan, or a return to armed conflict over political succession? The credibility of the election process will determine how this scenario unfolds.

Ahmad Nader Nadery is the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and also the chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. He said that, despite numerous obstacles facing the upcoming vote, one important positive element to note is that this election is organized and administered by Afghans themselves.

“This time, the election is fully administered by the Afghans themselves; it’s a fully Afghan-led process," Nadery said. "The second positive step was the conduct of nationwide voter registration. This was administered and done by fully Afghan-led institutions. There were no major incidents, especially with the security issues."

Another positive element, he noted, is the "surprisingly high" number of female voters who have registered. In total, he said, more than 14 million people have registered to vote and political activity remains high.

“Despite the deteriorating security situation, a record number of candidates have stood for office, both for the presidential election and for the provincial one. Almost 20 percent of them are female candidates," he said. "It’s a very significant number.”

Threats From Insurgency

Despite these positive developments, participants admit that the situation on the ground remains grim. A number of serious threats are present, notably from the Taliban insurgency in the south.

That situation may improve with the launch of a major military operation against the Taliban by U.S. and Afghan forces on July 2, but its outcome has yet to be determined.

Negative campaigning has never happened in the history of the country in mass media. There is a seven-year history of the current administration and the incumbent that can very easily be used against them.
At the end of June, Nadery said, 11 electoral districts in the southern part of the country were under full Taliban control. Another 124 out of 390 electoral districts are facing significant security threats from the Taliban. As the situation stands now, he said, organizing elections in those district will not be possible.

Nadery said a number of the candidates themselves possess serious credibility problems. Some are former war lords with strong links to the insurgency, while others maintain independent militia units and are heavily involved in the drugs and arms trade.

The very presence of these candidates on the ballot list, Naderi said, creates an atmosphere where people feel intimidated and fosters the belief that these will not be free and fair elections.

Another element damaging to the credibility of the elections, Naderi said, is the number of behind-the-scenes deals that President Hamid Karzai has allegedly made with various war lords in a bid to boost his chances for reelection.

“By [Karzai] sharing certain parts of the power before the election with certain individuals, [he is] making sure through these individuals that an environment is being created where people would feel that the result of the election has already been decided," he said. "So, this political horse-trading is going to further alienate voters.”

'Used Against Them'

Jahid Mohseni, who is the head of the Afghanistan-based Moby Media Group, also noted that this is the first time elections have been organized entirely by Afghans and said there are a lot of unknown variables, particularly in the area of media coverage within Afghanistan.

“Negative campaigning has never happened in the history of the country in mass media. There is a seven-year history of the current administration and the incumbent that can very easily be used against them," he said.

"The other issue is in terms of the assumption that certain people represent voting blocs, which again, I think, is not 100 percent accurate. Certain people have got positions of power that are related to what they’ve done during the war period, during the fighting, but those people aren’t necessarily reflective of a voting bloc. They have power, they have money, they have influence, but they don’t necessarily command massive numbers of votes,” he said.

He said the country's burgeoning media environment has also changed the game on the ground.

“Traditionally you’ve had a history of key power holders or middlemen going into the center and coming back with the information telling people, 'These are the issues and this is how you need to vote,' " Mohseni said.

"Now you are in situation not with just [Moby], I think there are 17 television [license] holders and a large number of radio licenses that are broadcasting information. So, you’re getting to a stage where an average everyday citizen is exposed to a fair amount of information,” he said.

The participants said there is a lot of frustration within the general population toward the government in Kabul because they see little actually being delivered on the ground to improve their lives.

People won't trust the central government, they say, until they see a lot more credibility and accountability on the local level.

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