An election milestone, but how free are Afghan voters?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2005, 12:00am

Ahmed Khan gestures towards the election poster on the door of a refrigerator repair shop in the heart of Kabul.

'Sure, she's beautiful, but I am not going to vote for her,' he says. 'I want to support a leader who is honest and who doesn't put money in his pocket like all the others.'

Mr Khan's co-worker nods vigorously in agreement.

The large poster of a glamorous young woman, a volleyball champion contesting Sunday's election to the 249-member National Assembly, was apparently put up just to brighten the workshop.

The real choice for the two young mechanics is represented by a postcard-sized handbill pasted above the shop door.

It carries a tiny photo of an intense-looking Ramzan Bashardost, Afghanistan's planning minister until he was sacked by President Hamid Karzai last year over the alleged misuse of development funds by international non-governmental organisations.

Mr Bashardost has now pitched a tent in Kabul's central park, and focused his poll campaign on an issue that has begun to agitate many Afghans - corruption in public life.

The fate of candidates like Mr Bashardost will provide an answer to a question that baffles observers - how free and discriminating will the Afghan voter be?

About 5,800 candidates are vying for the support of more than 11.7 million eligible voters in elections to the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of the National Assembly, and 34 provincial councils.

But there are no big public rallies or processions, no loudspeakers blaring poll promises or rousing political songs.

An important reason for the sedate polling atmosphere is the absence of political parties. Though the country has 76 registered parties, none are allowed to participate in the polls - all the candidates are contesting as independents.

As a result, towns and villages have been plastered with tens of thousands of posters promoting individuals who canvass for votes by addressing small groups in mosques, offices, hospitals, homes, and even schools. Candidates have been given free time on radio or television to air their messages.

Interestingly, so far the election has been much less violent than those in neighbouring Pakistan or India.

Even though the stepped-up, armed campaign of the ousted Taleban and other Islamic rebels has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths this year, only five candidates have been killed so far. Perhaps a dozen election workers have also died.

'What is amazing is the extent of solidarity among candidates,' says Almut Wieland-Karimi of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German political foundation that has trained candidates.

'It's a competitive situation, but many candidates have worked together on strategies, and helped each other,' she explains.

More than with the presidential election last October, when over 70 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, there's a sense this time of Afghanistan being on the cusp of historic change.

The electoral law, framed under the tutelage of the United Nations, has been criticised, since not only does it outlaw parties but voting is not on the basis of defined legislative constituencies. Each province has been allocated a quota of seats, and the same number first past the post get into the National Assembly or provincial councils.

There is another rule that could be disastrous - if the winning candidate dies or is killed after the election, the runner-up automatically gets into the legislature. To many, this appears like an open invitation to murder and mayhem.

Nevertheless, which way the country turns will depend on what happens on election day.

'If we're forced to vote for a candidate we do not like, we will tear up the ballot papers,' says refrigerator mechanic Khan.

But the situation in the capital is very different from the provinces, where warlords and tribal chieftains still hold sway.

'Many Afghans are worried that local power brokers with guns and money will intimidate average citizens into voting against their real interests,' says Care international country director Paul Barker, a member of the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium.

Partly due to the people's rising anger and concern that many notorious warlords and their henchmen are in the fray, the national election body announced the disqualification of 21 candidates yesterday, just three days before campaigning ends. This is in addition to 11 disqualified in July.

Many powerful warlords are expected to make it to the National Assembly. But whatever their number in the new legislative bodies, Afghanistan's budding democrats are readying for the challenge.