Afghan elections in the backdrop of fear and violence

Afghan volunteers transport an injured man on a stretcher to a hospital following a bomb attack on a campaign rally in Afghanistan's northeastern Takhar province, October 13, 2018. Photo: AFP

War-weary Afghani-stan is scheduled to go to polls on October 20, 2018 to elect a new parliament after almost three years' delay. The last parliament was elected in 2010 for a period of five years. The following election was scheduled for October 15, 2016 but was postponed to July 7, 2018 and then again to October 20, 2018.

There are two reasons why elections were deferred: reforming Afghanistan's electoral laws and ensuring security to voters. The parliament (Shura) has two houses: 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) and the 102-seat Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders). There are 2,565 candidates, including 417 women, running for the lower house. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) has already disqualified 35 candidates as they have links with armed groups. 

Preparations for the elections are going on against a backdrop of rapidly deteriorating security due to the frequent deadly bombings by the reinvigorated Taliban. According to recent US government data, "56 percent of the country are under the Afghan government, 30 percent are contested and 14 percent are under insurgent control." Then there is the militant group Islamic State (IS) which emerged as a dangerous force in Afghanistan in 2014.

The biggest challenge for the Ashraf Ghani government is to ensure complete security in the 5,100 voting centres across 387 districts of the country. Though the Ministry of Interior has dedicated 54,000 troops to secure voting centres, the IEC admitted that polling cannot be held in 900 centres in Taliban-controlled areas and the situation in about 3,000 centres is uncertain because of fear of violence as these centres are located in contested areas.

The formidable challenge for the IEC is to register and issue new biometric identity cards to 14 million voters out of a population of 36.6 million (as of 2018). Since the registration process began in April 2018, only four million have been registered so far according to the IEC. The process has been repeatedly disrupted due to bloody attacks by the Taliban on registration centres across the country. 

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid warned the Afghan people not to participate in the elections and in a statement said the elections were a "malicious American conspiracy" against Afghanistan. Warning the candidates, he said, "Your nomination and success directly support the vicious objectives of American invaders by legitimising their bogus procedures and conspiracies… Therefore, you should refrain from participating in this process." Taliban shall target the candidates and people trying to make the elections successful, Mujahid warned.

According to UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) figures (October 10), there were more than 8,050 civilian casualties (2,798 deaths and 5,252 injured) between January and September 2018. Not a week passes by without some kind of attack on civilian targets. Several parliament candidates have already been killed in different provinces. This only reflects the grim security situation prevailing in the country. An election rally four days ago in northeastern Afghanistan saw a deadly bomb blast—for which no militant group immediately claimed responsibility—killing at least 22 people.

All the previous elections in 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2014 were marred by violence and the results bitterly contested. The disagreement over the results of the presidential election in 2014 produced two heads of state—Ashraf Ghani (Pashtun) as the president and Abdullah Abdullah (half Tazik) as the Chief Executive. A strange arrangement that has actually stalled the workings of the government. Both these leaders are frequently at loggerheads over almost every decision of the administration.

Tribal divisions, powerful warlords, endemic corruption, inability of the government to deliver, fraudulent practices in elections, distrust in the IEC, and fear of being killed at polling centres have made voters extremely wary of the election process. People are in general pessimistic about the democracy of the Ghani-Abdullah duo.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) said that lack of security could dramatically affect voter turnout. FEFA also warned that incomplete voter registration and appointment of inexperienced election officials could lead to serious disputes over the results of the election. Reports say that there are 20 million voter registration cards against 14 million voters. This has raised concerns of fraudulent voting. Clearly, the Ghani government is not fully prepared for a free and fair election that can be conducted securely.

Afghanistan has a large number of political parties but their leaders behave more like tribal chiefs rather than politicians. Strangely, the last election did not produce a majority party in the parliament. The performance of the current parliament, which has 165 independent members, has demoralised voters. It neither has a leader nor any clout over the president or the chief executive. Its only function is to ratify the decrees of the president. However, observers say that it is encouraging that a good number of young educated candidates are running for parliament.

Western-type democracy was never practised in landlocked Afghanistan until 2004. The monarchy ruled the country by obtaining loyalty and allegiance of tribal chieftains. Afghanistan has seven major tribes—the largest being the Pashtuns. The tribes practised healthy democracy within themselves through "loya jirgas" (traditional assembly of tribal leaders that made decisions by consensus) and there was peace amongst tribes. Trouble began with the Soviet invasion in 1979 that ousted the monarchy. The Mujahideen chapter (1989-1996) was a period of fierce civil war. The Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996 but was driven out of power when US launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, following the September 11 attacks.  

During nearly 40 years of unending war, attempts to establish peace and democracy have remained elusive. One wonders whether a tribal society like Afghanistan's can really be democratic as defined by the West or left alone to find their own solutions of governance.

In many ways, this election is a test-run for the upcoming presidential elections in 2019. Though officials of the Trump administration have been engaging in talks with the Taliban to push forward the Afghan peace process, this election will no doubt be marred by violence.

Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government.

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