Letters from Afghanistan – Part II: Why Should You Care About the Afghan Elections?

By Barın KAYAOĞLU

October 4, 2010

The answer is simple: the Afghan constitution gives the parliament significant powers vis-à-vis the president. In fact, the previous Afghan parliament had such strong differences with President Hamid Karzai that it had refused to confirm nearly 1/3 of Mr. Karzai’s cabinet after his controversial re-election last year. As such, only a new parliament that is elected legitimately can give meaning to Afghan and international efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.

I had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan as part of a monitoring mission requested by the Afghan government and sponsored by the Turkish government. Together with four other Turkish observers, I was assigned to the cities of Sheberghan (capital of Jowzjan province) and Mazar-e Sharif (capital of Balkh province) in the north.

Despite concerns that wide-scale fraud may have also tainted the vote on September 18, I actually witnessed a fair and transparent process in action. At the polling stations I visited, every single ballot box was attended by at least half a dozen Afghan observers who were keen to ensure that outcome. At some of the schools that served as polling centers, Afghan observers were so numerous that they could be allowed to come into rooms only in turns.

As candidates, polling officials, observers, and voters, Afghans took the elections seriously. Even though our group was welcomed with traditional Afghan hospitality in all the centers that we visited (historical and religious ties between Turks and Afghans helped), observers and officials asked us to follow the rules all the same. In Sheberghan, an observer asked us to take the pictures of empty ballots from afar (to avoid the possible reproduction of fake ballots later on). In Mezar-e Sharif, one official insisted that we wait on the other side of the room after we accidentally crossed the tape separating the ballot box from the observers’ side. Only after we crossed to the other side did voting resume.

Another reason to be hopeful about the recent election was its competitiveness. Many – if not most – of the incumbents faced significant upsets and the possibility of losing their seats. Throughout the country, nearly 2,500 candidates, including 400 women, ran for 249 seats. In Jowzjan, 47 candidates competed for their province’s 5 seats in parliament.

The 68 seats that are reserved in the Afghan parliament for female candidates were also a positive feature of the election. I’m against “reserved female quotas” because I believe that women throughout the world deserve real equality without special privileges. But in Afghanistan, where drastic measures are necessary to advance the status of women, the quota is not such a bad idea. More women assuming important responsibilities in national politics will make a positive impact on the lives of Afghan women in the future.

To be sure, as suggested by Mr. Staffan de Mistura, the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, these elections were “Afghan and not Swiss elections.” Although not a problem in urban centers, security and fairness was a significant problem in the country-side. Even some districts in the north couldn’t hold elections because of insurgent attacks. And elsewhere, some observers have reported cases of voter intimidation by government officials.

I witnessed other shortcomings in the quiet and orderly north. Voters were only asked to bring their voter registration cards and not their IDs, putting honest voting at risk. Although registration cards are obtained by submitting an ID prior to the election, bringing an ID together with the registration card would’ve saved the voters and officials from a lot of headaches.

Another problem that I witnessed was with the supposedly durable ink in which voters had to dip their index fingers to prevent successive voting. The ink wasn’t really durable and after leaving the polling centers, many voters cleaned off the ink, in some cases simply by wiping their fingers with handkerchiefs. A majority of Afghans cleaned their fingers not to vote again but out of genuine fear from the Taliban, which had threatened to chop off inked fingers in past elections. The practice of inking fingers should either be scrapped altogether or a genuinely durable chemical must be used.

Despite the odds, voter turnout in Jowzjan and Mezar-e Sharif was around 40-45%, while the figure throughout Afghanistan is expected to stay somewhere between 25 to 35%. But in the face of last year’s fraud, the security situation, and Afghans’ frustration with slow recovery since 2001, even a 35% turnout should be seen as a success and not a failure.

In the final analysis, the positive things I’ve seen may not represent the bigger picture in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan is still far away from being an exemplary democracy with an unblemished electoral system, my experiences on September 18 show that, in the right circumstances, Afghans can hold decent elections with little outside intervention. After suffering from war for 30 years, that may not be such a bad thing for Afghanistan.

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* The author’s travels in Afghanistan were sponsored by the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Turkish Embassy in Kabul.

The author is grateful to the following for their invaluable help:

His Excellency Ambassador Basat Öztürk, former Deputy Chief of Mission Onur Katmerci, Second Secretary Onur Şaylan, Military Attaché Colonel Can Bolat, and Kemal Doğan of the Turkish Embassy; Didem Büner and Burçin Gönenli of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Civilian Coordinator Türker Arı, agricultural expert Osman Kabacaoğlu, TİKA expert Mikail Taşdemir, and Mahir Akhüseyinoğlu of the Turkish Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province; General Levent Çolak, Colonel Ali Bilgin Varlık, and Colonel Ramazan Akyıldız of Kabul Regional Command; TİKA Vice President Mustafa Şahin, TİKA’s Kabul representative Özay Özütok, and TİKA experts Adem Urfa, Talha Kaçar, and Ahmet Dayı; His Excellency Governor Halim Fidai of Wardak Province; State Department Representative Jeff Stanton and USAID expert Douglas Blanton in Wardak; Mark Ward, former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan; Prof. Abdul Iqrar Wasel, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University; Prof. Yusuf Altınışık and Prof. Gulamresul Karlog of the Department of Turkish Language and Literature at Kabul University.

The views expressed in this article DO NOT reflect the opinions of the above-mentioned or the position of the Turkish government.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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