Pre-Election Reflections from Kabul

On April 5, the people of Afghanistan will vote in their third national election since 2001—a hundred million-dollar effort financed by international donors. The air is filled with anticipation and hope, albeit tempered with grave concerns held by both the international community and Afghans about the spiraling insecurity engulfing the country.

In the past four weeks, the Taliban’s efforts to disrupt the election have intensified, with violence escalating in the provinces and in the well-fortified capital, Kabul. The recent spate of attacks on foreigners has prompted the international community to go into ‘lockdown mode’, with virtually no movements outside their fortress-like compounds. The World Bank is operating from its satellite office in Dubai. No one has replaced the IMF representative who was tragically killed in a recent Taliban attack.

Out of 6,770 polling stations, 748 will remain closed due to security threats—which will effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who will not be represented in the new government.

While attacks on foreign targets get international publicity, the tolls of violence is the heaviest on Afghans, who have no option but to go on with their daily lives. The small shops and restaurants on the roadside are open, and the streets are still full of Afghans young and old walking, biking, driving and riding taxis or other public transport—a reflection of Afghans’ resilience. Rush hour traffic is a bit less distressing in the absence of fleets of SUVs owned by expatriates who have fled the scene.

Amazingly, in the face of severe threats, Afghans want the election. They are determined to exercise their democratic rights to vote even though they believe that there can be no such miracle as a perfectly free and fair election.  The most recent random sample survey of over 4,000 people across the country by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FFEFA) shows that 92% support the election and 75% are determined to vote.

Declining support for the Taliban is reflected in the responses from the southern provinces, the heartland of the Taliban. A larger number of respondents from this region than from others in the country expressed interest in voting, despite the Taliban’s call for a boycott. The election is unlikely to be defined by tribal divides, as a majority of the respondents stated that tribal elders will not influence their choice of candidates. The candidates’ announced plans for improving security, social justice (including women’s rights) and education are the major factors influencing voters’ choices.   Interestingly, respondents are concerned about foreign countries influencing the election and its outcome.

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These are all indicators of conscious voters and of small advances for democracy. The growing level of political awareness among women and youth is especially notable. Women’s groups have ramped up their demands to the Interior Ministry for the protection of women voters on election day. In the aftermath of the recent Taliban attacks in the capital, youth groups called for all Afghan citizens to show solidarity against acts of violence.

The majority of the respondents to the FFEFA survey expressed concerns not about security but about vote fraud and rigging. FFEFA was initially hopeful that independent election observation and monitoring would contribute to the elections’ transparency and make its results somewhat credible. However, the challenges to monitoring are immense. In the last election, more than 1,000 out of 8,000 polling stations remained unobserved because they were located in areas too dangerous and prone to Taliban attack. The problems of ballot stuffing and low voter turnout were especially acute in these areas.

The experience might be repeated this year. Intimidated by recent attacks on foreigners, many organizations evacuated their observers and curtailed their planned observation activities. Two American organizations with past experience of election monitoring in Afghanistan, National Democratic Institution (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), decided not to monitor this year. In fact, NDI closed its office in Kabul after one of its expatriate monitors was killed in the Serena Hotel attack.  The UN has encouraged its international staff to take vacations and home leaves during the election period, and has restricted staff movement to such an extent that no meaningful monitoring assistance can be expected of them.

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Although it is unrealistic to expect a totally fraud-free election, massive fraud should be prevented through adequate observation and monitoring in order to lend a fair amount of credibility to this election. A government backed by a fairly credible election and country-wide participation of the citizens in the process is essential for building the legitimacy of a conflict-affected state. However, that goal might not be possible under the current circumstances.

The size of voter turnout will serve as an indicator of the extent of popular participation. Due to Taliban intimidation, voter turnout was 50% less in 2009 than in 2004. Intensified Taliban threats in 2014 might result in an even lower voter turnout (although voters appear to be less deterred by threats this year).  Out of 6,770 polling stations, 748 will remain closed due to security threats—which will effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who will not be represented in the new government. At least half of the closed stations are in severely conflict-affected provinces where the Taliban insurgency is already strong.

The closure of polling stations will send a signal to residents that the central government is unable to control the security situation in their constituencies. This, in turn, will result in the central government losing popular support in the most critical provinces where the Taliban resurgence must be brought under control.

The Independent Election Commission, however, is hard at work, fighting against all odds to lend credibility to this election and contribute to the emergence of a government with a genuine popular mandate.

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