Afghan Elections May Be Less Than Free
by Jim Lobe
Afghanistan's parliamentary elections Sunday are expected to go
relatively smoothly, the freedom with which they are being carried
out is being questioned by many observers.
presence on the ballot of a number of notorious warlords and their
close associates, as well as the continuing threat posed by the
Taliban insurgency, which has become increasingly aggressive since
last spring, leads a list of concerns about the vote and its effectiveness
in moving the country toward more democratic rule.
election results, it is feared, could not only legitimize the power
of warlords and militia leaders, but also increase ethnic and sectarian
tensions within the country. These have contributed to a growing
divide between the U.S.-backed government of Pres. Hamid Karzai,
who has tried hard to woo his fellow Pashtuns, and the predominantly
Tajik and Uzbek forces that ousted the Taliban with U.S. support
nearly four years ago.
are also concerns that policymakers in the West, and especially
the United States, may see the elections as evidence of success
and begin reducing both their commitment and assistance to what
remains one of the world's poorest countries.
have grown sharper in the wake of a recent U.S. proposal to reduce
by as much as 20 percent its nearly 20,000 troops there beginning
next spring, and last-minute difficulties in securing contributions
to cover the election's cost of nearly 160 million dollars.
is absolutely imperative that these elections be viewed as the beginnings
of democratization, not the end," wrote Joanna Nathan and Mark Schneider
of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in The Washington Times
Friday. "Afghanistan is still at a perilously fragile stage."
elections, in which almost 6,000 candidates – including nearly 600
women – are running for seats in the National Assembly and provincial
councils, represent an important landmark in the transition from
the Taliban regime to a government with many of the institutions
of a democratic state. Indeed, these elections were seen as the
final stage in the transitional process contemplated by Afghanistan's
major donors and neighbors at the Bonn conference in December 2001,
a month after the Taliban's ouster.
more than 12 million people officially registered to vote, technical
preparations for the election have been largely successful, according
a report released this week by Human Rights Watch. Kabul and other
cities are reported to be blanketed in campaign posters.
these achievements and the evident enthusiasm of both candidates
and many voters, however, "an underlying climate of fear," as Human
Rights Watch (HRW) put it in a report released this week, has affected
the campaign, due both to recent threats and attacks carried out
by the Taliban and other insurgent groups and the candidacy of alleged
war criminals and human rights abusers.
Afghan people are clearly eager to participate in elections that
will help them move away from the rule of the gun," said Sam Zarifi,
deputy director of HRW's Asia Division, who has traveled frequently
to Afghanistan since 2001.
they are disappointed that the government and its international
partners haven't done more to prevent warlords and rights abusers
from dominating Afghanistan's political scene," he added.
a special Electoral Complaints Commission consisting both of international
and Afghan members was set up to vet candidates and disqualify them
if they were shown to be tied to militias, notorious rights abuses,
or the opium trade, which has flourished since the Taliban's demise.
of election eve, the Commission had banned 32 candidates from running,
but HRW, ICG, and foreign media have reported that as many as 10
times that number of candidates with such connections remained on
are not a criminal court or a transitional body," Grant Kippen,
the Commission's Canadian chair, told the Los Angeles Times
those who made it through, according to HRW, are a number of commanders
and former officials who were implicated in war crimes and crimes
against humanity, especially during the battle for Kabul that destroyed
most of the city in the early 1990s.
list includes Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf (a Karzai ally whose forces
are accused of having massacred hundreds of Hazaras in Kabul), former
President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullah Taj Mohammad, Younis Qanooni
(a Tajik leader who was runner-up in last year's presidential elections
and is expected to head the opposition), Haji Almas, and Mullah
addition, according to the HRW report, "Afghanistan on the Eve of
Parliamentary and Provincial Elections," Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi,
who is running for a seat from Khost, once served as head of the
notoriously brutal police under Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, while
several former high-level Taliban officials and commanders, including
the former minister of vice and virtue, are also on the ballot.
provincial and more remote areas, intimidation and fear are strongest,
with some candidates unable to even travel or campaign in their
constituencies. Female candidates have faced special problems in
rural areas due to the pervasive social conservatism in those areas
where local militias and warlords control security, according to
HRW and other observers.
given the continued dominance of warlords in most of Afghanistan's
countryside, HRW appealed urgently for the repeal of a clause, known
as "the assassination clause," in the electoral law that allows
losing candidates to take the seats of winning candidates who die
or resign from the office.
last thing Afghanistan needs is the election's losers murdering
the winners to take their seats," said Zarifi.
resurgent Taliban and its allies, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, add
to concerns about the election, particularly in rural Pashtun areas,
although U.S. officials and others insist they will not be in a
position to seriously disrupt them.
insurgent attacks – particularly against electoral targets and police
– have surged since last winter and have been blamed for the killings
of six candidates to date. On Wednesday, a female candidate, Hawa
Alam Nuristani, who works as an anchorwoman on the state-run television
and radio, was wounded in an attack and two of her supporters were
kidnapped, although no one has taken responsibility.
forces this year have suffered their greatest losses in Afghanistan
since their 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban.
than 70 U.S. servicemen have been killed there since January, although
almost half of them were killed in just two incidents involving
officials insist that the higher death toll was due to a more aggressive
counter-insurgency campaign designed precisely to keep the Taliban
from disrupting the election process. However, some observers attribute
it as well to increasing recruitment both in Pakistan and in parts
of Afghanistan where the Karzai government has failed to substantially
improve economic and social conditions.
Lobe [send him mail]
is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service