Afghanistan: Campaigning in Crazyville


KABUL, Afghanistan - The old man in a loosely wrapped turban shrugged and smiled, baring nearly toothless gums. “Yeah, they’re doing something over there in Lewanai Kalai,” he pointed, using the old name for Ashraf Khel, a small village on the outskirts of Kabul Province. The name translates, roughly, to “Crazy Village,” and the speaker obviously thought it was more apt than the modern designation. “It could be a political campaign. Who cares?”

Afghanistan is once more in the throes of election fever – this time for parliament, with the poll scheduled for Sept. 18.

But last year’s fraud-plagued presidential ballot has cast a long shadow over the process, dampening voter enthusiasm and raising fears that Afghanistan’s democratic experiment may be heading for a crisis.

In addition, the U.S. government fears that violence will surge ahead of the poll. Several incidents have already been reported: On Aug. 25, 10 campaign workers for Parliamentarian Fawzia Gailani were kidnapped in Herat, a province on Afghanistan’s western border with Iran. Earlier in the week, also in Herat, one of the candidates, Abdul Hadi Jamshidi, came under attack, presumably by the Taliban, while on the campaign trail. He escaped unharmed, but his brother was killed and three of his bodyguards wounded.

Other incidents of intimidation have been reported from various provinces, and many female candidates say they are unwilling to travel outside of major cities for campaign events.

The Ministry of the Interior is licensing gunmen for candidates who feel they need them; more and more are taking the government up on their offer.

But by any measure, this year’s elections to the legislature promise to be messy, even chaotic.

More than 2,500 candidates are running for the 249 parliamentary seats, over 600 of them in Kabul alone. This makes constructing ballots a challenge, especially in a country where literacy rates barely top 30 percent. In the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, the Kabul ballot was nearly two feet long, with candidates’ photos no larger than a dime.

Complicating the process even further is Afghanistan’s electoral system, the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), according to which all candidates run as independents at large in each province. This, say experts, makes the formation of meaningful political parties almost impossible, and divides the electorate to such an extent that candidates can squeak into office with just a few thousand votes.

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Ever since the campaign began on June 23, candidates have been in a mad race to paper the country’s cities and towns with posters, containing their photos and electoral symbols.

Since so many people cannot read, candidates draw, lottery style, from a collection of graphics devised by the IEC. The rules specify that these pictographs cannot have political or religious significance, making the selection a bit whimsical.

There are lions running against butterflies, light bulbs against brooms, paint brushes against roses. There is even a rather spectacular turkey in the line-up. The limited number of symbols necessitates repetition – one candidate may have a single gas pump beside his name, while his main rival may have three or four.

Bilboards adorn the roadsides; candidates’ faces obscure commercial ads and traffic signs. Every city, Kabul included, has tried to restrict the display to certain approved areas, but to no avail. Almost any flat surface, from the walls of private homes to public monuments, is fair game.

With such a large pool of candidates to choose from, voters make their selection based on a number of criteria. From many reports, these include the degree of largesse displayed during the campaign.

Election events are usually organized around a speech, followed by lunch. Sometimes small gifts are included. Without the promise of at least a meal, few will stay until the end of the event.

“I don’t go to any campaign event where they don’t give things away,” said a voter in Nangarhar, who boasted that he had received a turban at one rally.

In Asraf Khel, posters of the candidate, Janan Mosazai, are everywhere. He was lucky enough to draw binoculars as his symbol, which give him the aura of far-sightedness. He has assembled a good-sized crowd for his rally - at least 2,000 people, mostly men, who sit on carpets under several large tents to hear village elders and political supporters give testimonials to Mosazai’s character.

The candidate is just 30, and represents a generational shift in Afghan politics. Educated abroad, he has returned to his native Afghanistan hoping to bring new awareness to his countrymen.

Ashraf Khel is his home district, land the Mosazai have inhabited for decades, if not centuries, and he is using his tribal connections to gain popular support. His main rival for this area is a former mujahedeen commander named Anwar Khan, and for Mosazai, the choice is clear: the past, or the future.

“We have failed as Afghans to put the interests of our nation first,” he said in an earlier interview. “Instead we have various groups based on ethnic, religious or commercial interests. But now we have a new generation, many of whom have acquired education and experience abroad. They know how things work, and they want to use their skills for their country.”

To those assembled under his tent, he delivers a quiet, authoritative speech that emphasizes dignity and responsibility. Afghans have relied too long on foreign forces to ensure their stability and security, he says, and it is now time to come together to forge a new future for their country.

“Our security is not assured,” he said. “As long as we fail to unite, history will repeat itself. We will have the same ethnic problems, the same interference from our neighbors, who are also players in this game.”

His message seemed to sit well with his listeners.

“This is our guy,” said one middle-aged villager, who identified himself as Abdul Qadir. “The other one, Anwar Khan, did nothing for us. Janan is from the Mosazai tribe, he will look out for our interests.”

Abdul Qadir, along with hundreds of others, then tramped off to a candidate-sponsored meal of rice and lamb that, along with the rental of the tent and sound system, depleted Mosazai’s campaign coffers by several thousand dollars.

But with less than a month to go before election day, voters are concerned about more than a free lunch. Security in the country has deteriorated steadily, with the Taliban threatening once again to disrupt the poll. The IEC spokesman, Muhammad Farid Afghanzai, told Afghanistan’s most popular television station, TOLO, that only nine out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were fully secure.

Election officials say that more than 900 of the planned 6,800 polling centers will in all likelihood be unable to open due to threats from the insurgency, raising fears that this election, like the presidential one, may end up mired in allegations of fraud.

In the presidential elections, ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities were most prevalent in those areas where observers and monitors could not penetrate because of instability; a surprising number of “votes” were received from centers that did not even open their doors to the public.

Voter turnout is also a question. There is no minimum requirement for voter participation – in the presidential elections barely a third of an estimated 15 million eligible voters came to the polls. And following the long-drawn-out wrangling that followed last year’s ballot, many voters may not be willing to risk their lives for what they see as a fixed game.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, or IFES, an American non-profit organization, has been taking the pulse of the electorate throughout the country. In province after province, voters have expressed doubt in the validity of the system.

“The people do not believe in the elections,” Hussein Ali, a farmer, told an interviewer in Bamian. “The widespread fraud last time showed us that our votes have no value.”

Nor is the electorate as likely to be swayed by flowery speeches as in the past; jaded by years of disappointment, many see no reason to concern themselves this time.

“Candidates cannot trick people with empty promises any more,” said Mehar Angiz, a teacher in a girls’ school in Herat. “Last time their representatives did nothing for them.”

With the clear possibility of low voter turnout, insecurity in the provinces, and the naked desire of various power groups to get their candidates into the legislature to protect their interests, the stage is set for another acrimonious election process.

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