September 08, 2009


Eurasia Insight:
September 9
Aunohita Mojumdar

Two developments on September 8 seem likely to plunge Afghanistan into a long and debilitating battle over the country's electoral process and the government's very legitimacy. The crux of the unfolding problem is that the country's two main electoral institutions appear at odds with each other.

A split became evident on September 8. The government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced results that put incumbent President Hamid Karzai above the majority mark on the basis of votes counted from 91.6 percent of polling stations. But the announcement defied an order issued earlier in the day by the UN-appointed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) to exclude results from a number of polling stations demonstrating "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."

The IEC results - giving Karzai 54.1 and challenger Abdullah Abdullah 28.2 percent of the votes - would enable the Karzai camp to claim victory without the necessity of a run-off vote. "We see this as a victory even though we do not announce it as one," Waheed Omar, the spokesman for Karzai's campaign, told EurasiaNet, noting the campaign would wait for certified results before celebrating.

Many reports of widespread fraud stemming from the August 20 presidential election originate in southern provinces said to heavily favor Karzai. The New York Times has reported that Karzai supporters reported made-up results for as many as 800 polling stations, each of which showed relatively heavy turnout and large majorities of ballots cast in the incumbent's favor.

In a detailed statement accompanying the order to exclude results, the ECC - which has the mandate to order a re-poll or recount - said fraud in a number of polling stations was characterized either by an exceptionally high number of votes, or an exceptionally high percentage in favor of one candidate. Terming these strong indicators of electoral irregularities, the ECC has ordered the IEC to conduct an audit and recount in polling stations for which the preliminary results have shown 100 percent turnout or where 95 percent of the votes are in favor of one candidate.

Observers were surprised the IEC announced the latest batch of results only hours after the ECC's directive. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In a brief evening press conference announcing Karzai's definitive lead, the IEC refused to exclude the results from the suspicious polling stations. The commission claimed it was unable to understand the ECC's order because of a supposed discrepancy between the Dari language version and the English-language version. The IEC's Chief Electoral Officer, Daoud Najafi, insisted that his commission could not implement the criterion for audits until after the preliminary count had been made. Facing repeated questions on the ECC order, Najafi insisted that the IEC had tallied votes based on completed documentation.

Indications of a political challenge to the ECC were also evident from the Karzai camp, where spokesman Omar tacitly challenged the recount directive.

"We respect the ECC's order, though we do not agree with it. In a way it could be counterproductive. We hope the ECC does its work in a way that does justice to the votes of people in Afghanistan and we will wait for that. We will not interfere with the process, but we are going to take it up with the ECC," he said.

For its part, the IEC insisted that it would "take a long time" to recount if it were to follow the ECC directive. Deputy Electoral Officer Zekria Barakzai said the ECC order could impact 70 to 80 percent of polling stations.

Such reference to a slow recount strikes a sensitive nerve with officials and diplomats. The ECC mandates that audits must take place in the presence of ECC officials. But the ECC's lack of resources is likely to increase the time required for the audits ordered on September 8. With winter approaching, a second round of polling - required if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote - would be increasingly difficult to hold in a timely fashion after these further delays.

Though the international community is concerned that a prolonged period without results could lead to instability, the widespread reports of fraud have made questions about the presidential vote's legitimacy difficult to ignore.

Both the UN and the European Union Observer Mission (EUOM) issued statements on September 8 expressing concern, and calling for the exclusion of results where there is evidence of irregularities. The EUOM said its findings had confirmed large-scale ballot stuffing and that despite legal provisions on fraud detection and mitigation, hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes were accepted at the main tally center in Kabul and included in the preliminary results.

In a clumsy attempt to deflect further criticism, the IEC removed detailed fact sheets on the results from its website September 8, turning dozen's of URLs into dead links.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

September 06, 2009


Recaps / Q & A:

A EurasiaNet Q&A with commission head Grant Kippen Conducted by Aunohita Mojumdar

As evidence of electoral fraud continues to mount, and the Afghan government delays publicizing results of the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections, attention is focusing on a single point -- the Electoral Complaints Commission. Comprised of Afghan and international advisers, the ECC - the repository for all allegations of electoral fraud, manipulation and wrongdoing - will not only help determine the final outcome of the elections, but also the way Afghans view the democratic process.

According to the most recent figures, the ECC has received 2,187 complaints since polling day, of which it says 652 have the potential to influence results.

Grant Kippen, the ECC's Canadian head, held the same position during the last elections in 2005. He says awareness about voters' rights and the electoral process has increased over the past four years. In an interview with EurasiaNet, Kippen laid out the tasks and the limitations of the ECC, insisting that the commission's role is not to rubber stamp a process that lacks legitimacy, but to add credibility to Afghanistan's democratic process.

EurasiaNet: How do you compare the political contest today to 2005? Kippen: It may sound hokey, but I am not really paying much attention to the political situation. We have a lot of challenges just because we were late in setting up this organization and getting our headquarters open; finding and hiring people; training them; getting our provincial offices open. We had the first meeting of our commission on April 26. [Editor's note: Dates for the 2009 elections were only finalized in late January after a political tussle between the president and parliament.]

EurasiaNet: Do you feel the expectations of the ECC are too high and too wide? Are there things that people should not be expecting from this office when the final results are out? Kippen: I think people are expecting us to make some sort of statement about the credibility and the legitimacy of the elections. We are not going to do that. We will be rendering decisions based on the complaints we receive. We'll let the decisions speak for themselves. How others want to interpret our decisions -- that is up to them.

EurasiaNet: The pressure on your commission has increased since the international community was seen to have rushed too quickly to endorse the elections. Do you think this has increased the expectations people have of the ECC? Kippen: If you look at the process, we have very little ability to influence activities at the front end before they take place. We deal with alleged violations - infractions. It is after something takes place that our role comes into play.

We can inform people about what we do and hopefully discourage the various stakeholders from taking wrong actions, or what is deemed to be in violation of the electoral law. But we have very little influence in being able to actively prevent things. One of the things, had we been established earlier, we could have done more of, was public outreach - to advise candidates and others about the law, and what they needed to respect. But there is also a responsibility on all the stakeholder groups involved in the process to know the law as well. We can only do so much from our perspective.

EurasiaNet: Your mandate enables you to order a re-poll. Theoretically speaking, could you order the entire election process to be rescinded and held again? Kippen: Under the law, it states re-polling [is in our mandate], so theoretically you could say the entire country. But you have to think of what that would entail, what kind of evidence would be needed to make that kind of decision. In the complaints that have come in since Election Day, I don't recall any saying that the entire elections were fraudulent and therefore the entire process needs to be redone. The complaints have been about a certain polling station or polling center, about certain districts.

EurasiaNet: But if they were widespread enough, might a certain percentage - an overwhelming percentage - be considered enough to call for a re-poll? Kippen: We will have to wait and see. We are still in the early days of our investigations and some of the complaints do speak to large areas - a district-wide basis. We will have to see what evidence comes forward from the investigations and make our decisions accordingly.

EurasiaNet: There has been much focus on fraud and malpractice. But many voters were unable to vote. Does your mandate look at people's inability to exercise their right to vote? And to what extent did insecurity prevent people from voting? Kippen: Yes, some of the allegations are about access to a polling station or polling center. That is something we will be investigating. We would have to look at what kind of remedy was possible, if security was an issue, and if it prevented people [from voting].

If the polling station was open and people did not come to vote, one can argue that was a personal decision. We can't fault the IEC, [the president-appointed Independent Election Commission] or the security forces. The IEC went to a lot of effort to make sure they could open as many polling centers as possible. But we also have to recognize that we are in a conflict environment here.

EurasiaNet: One of the things you have addressed is the absence of benchmarks, and the need for an electoral certification process. In the absence of that, is everyone fishing around to determine what constitutes credibility? Kippen: At the end of the day it's really the Afghan population: the voter population that is going to have to decide how they felt about the election, and if their will is reflected in the vote.

EurasiaNet: Before the elections, you made a number of recommendations, including the need for a strengthened ECC. But not much has changed since the last elections. Were you going into this process with your hands tied? Kippen: We basically have a structure that mimics what we had in 2005. It would have been much more advantageous to our organization had we been [formed] earlier. For example, if we had provincial offices established during the challenge period, we would not have had to work the process through IEC provincial offices. We could have done it through our own offices. [Editor's note: The challenge period allows for vetting candidates for possible links to armed groups].

A lot of the things in the observer reports [on the 2005 elections] were not followed through on: the civic education recommended in the interim period, a voter registry, some sort of national identity card, or voter ID. Unfortunately, those things didn't happen in the interim. But we have a process, we can't go back, we just need to look at what we can do going forward.

EurasiaNet: Given the fact your recommendations were not accepted, and given the limitations of resources and your mandate, is there not a risk that you end up rubber-stamping a compromised electoral process? Kippen: No, I don't think we are rubber-stamping at all. Part of the challenge here - but also a great privilege and opportunity certainly for the internationals - is to work with our Afghan colleagues to build up an institution like the ECC and to try to demonstrate to Afghans that there is an institution that they can rely on, that they can access if they feel they need to. So I don't think we are rubber-stamping anything. I think we have been very upfront and transparent about what we are doing and I think and I hope that that we are able to contribute to the credibility of the process by our actions.


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: 9/02/09

A report released September 2 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has good news and bad news about narcotics cultivation and trafficking in Afghanistan. The good news is that 800,000 Afghan farmers have stopped cultivating poppies; the bad is that those who continue to grow illicit crops are becoming more efficient, and traders are forging stronger ties with criminal and insurgent groups, as well as corrupt officials. The UNODC report, titled Afghan Opium Survey 2009, documents a decline in opium cultivation in Afghanistan for the second consecutive year, dropping by as much 22 percent since 2008. Prices for opiates are also at a 10-year low. But, signaling improved efficiency, the production of narcotics from poppy plants was down only 10 percent.

Good news is deeply entangled with the bad. Helmand, a province with a notorious reputation for the drug trade, showed a one-third decrease in areas used for poppy cultivation. Nevertheless, the province still accounts for the lion's share -- 56 percent -- of poppies grown in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Officials say several factors contributed to the gains made in the anti-drug fight, including more robust counter-narcotics operations by Afghan security and NATO forces, stronger provincial leadership, and favorable market conditions for the cultivation and sale of other crops.

The UNODC declared the strategy of eradication a continuing "failure" noting that, despite the enormous human and economic cost, only 4 percent of the crop had been effectively eradicated with force. Speaking with the media in Kabul on September 2, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa criticized the continuing collusion between the drug trade and corrupt government officials and questioned some recent actions by the Afghan government.

"Drug lords should be brought to justice, not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency," he said. President Hamid Karzai recently pardoned several drug smugglers including a relative of his election campaign manager. The international community had earlier criticized the Afghan government for executing drug smugglers, arguing that a weak criminal justice system lacking checks and balances made such executions suspect. Costa expressed concern about the pardon and release of traffickers, adding that corruption was "an enabling factor" and "major lubricant" to the drug trade.

While welcoming the good news at a "time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan," Costa cautioned against foreseeing a trend, warning that stockpiling and a fluctuating opium market were also contributing factors to the decline. "Is it a trend or a market correction?" Costa asked rhetorically. "Hopefully the former, and certainly the latter."

In a well-attended news conference held jointly with Minister of Counter Narcotics General Khodaidad Khodaidad, and UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Peter Galbraith, Costa warned that new links among insurgents and criminal groups were "spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taliban."

The linkage between poppy cultivation and insurgency is growing. "Like never before, the fates of counter-narcotics and counter insurgency are inextricably linked," Costa added.

Costa also expressed concern about opium stockpiling. He estimated that 10,000 tons had accumulated, and described this burgeoning stockpile as a "ticking-bomb" that needed to be uncovered and defused.

Speaking to EurasiaNet after the news conference, Costa emphasized the importance of law enforcement, good governance and delivery of aid to provinces that had performed well. "Control of territory" and security will be crucial to maintaining momentum in the anti-drug fight. Greater development assistance needs to be delivered faster, more efficiently and through fewer intermediaries, he said.

The risks to cultivators and drug lords had been low until Afghan security forces and international forces began carrying out more robust operations, Costa added. "The impunity enjoyed thus far by the Afghan drug economy is under threat," he noted.

The UNODC report documented that the number of poppy-free provinces increased from 18 last year to 20 in 2009, including Kapisa, Baghlan and Faryab. But Nangarhar, which was poppy free last year, lost that coveted status to become a poppy-producing province once again. Reversals also included Badghis Province, where poppy cultivation increased tenfold from 500 to 5000 hectares in the past year, according to the UNODC report. Overall, Afghanistan has 34 provinces.

Though many observers have become concerned that cannabis is replacing opium in areas that have successfully beaten back poppy growth, no such figures were included in the report. UNODC Country Representative Jean-Luc Lemahieu told EurasiaNet that such figures were expected in January of 2010. Satellite imaging technology used to detect cannabis is more exacting than that for poppy and the UNODC only recently acquired the funding to undertake such a study. Lemahieu emphasized that the linkages between cannabis production and insurgency were not as strong as with opium.

Costa called for a regional approach to Afghanistan's drug problem, emphasizing the need to widen antinarcotics programs to Iran and the Central Asian states. To that end, the UNODC has brokered a Trilateral Initiative involving Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to share counter-narcotics intelligence and run joint operations. It has also created a Central Asia Intelligence Centre, headquartered in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

"Controlling drugs in Afghanistan will not solve all of the country's problems, but the country's problems can not be solved without controlling drugs," Costa concluded.

Creating an audience from the void

September 2009
By: Aunohita Mojumdar

After decades of upheaval, Afghanistan today finds itself unable to remember its cultural past.

Bollywood songs blare from taxis and street corners. In wedding halls, guests sit glued to the next episode of “Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi” dubbed into Dari, the main language in Afghanistan. In shops selling pirated CDs and DVDs in Kabul’s busy Flower Street, young Afghans walk in to ask for the latest Hollywood action movie, the music of a hot new Tajik singer or the most recent Iranian soap opera. The removal of the Taliban has been celebrated as the end of cultural censorship in Afghanistan, and the easy availability of imported pop culture touted as evidence of new freedoms. But the tragedy of the years of conflict in Afghanistan runs much deeper. What remains after years of violence and fighting, displacement and censorship, is a void. Built over years of absence of art and culture, what echoes today is the lack of an audience where once existed a deep appreciation of arts and music. This is an emptiness – as opposed to a simple tug of war between cultural freedoms and censorship, which could be resolved by lifting the arbitrary restrictions of the Taliban regime. It is also a void that is being filled too quickly and indiscriminately with whatever is at hand.

Contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that equates all censorship with the Taliban, the advent of cultural restrictions in Afghanistan goes back much farther. While the Soviet-sponsored regimes saw a chance for propaganda in art and music, the subsequent mujahideen government had senior leaders whose conservative interpretation of Islam did not encourage music and the arts. What space remained was squeezed in the last years of the Taliban, when its leaders turned more brutal and censorious, systematically destroying the art and culture that they had earlier permitted to exist. The purge culminated in the infamous destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, an act that turned the Taliban into pariahs. But Bamiyan residents still talk of how, in earlier years, the mujahideen soldiers would amuse themselves by taking pot shots at the Buddha statues.

Omara Khan Masoudi is the director of the national museum in Kabul, which he joined 30 years ago. He was forced to leave the country in 2000 because of the growing pressure of the Taliban, but remembers that the destruction of the national treasures did not begin and end with them. Masoudi says most of the losses of the artefacts in the museum took place during the civil war of the mid-1990s, before the Taliban came to power. “When power changed from communist to mujahideen hands [in 1992], there was a security vacuum,” he recalls. “The museum was looted.” The area where the national museum is situated became a frontline in the civil war, and could not be accessed by the staff. “For two years, this area was cut off and we could not reach the museum,” he says. “Rocket attacks set the museum building on fire, destroying a large part of it.” Today the museum is undergoing refurbishment, but the Darul Aman Palace, right opposite it, stands shattered and pockmarked with the brunt of many attacks, a mute testimony to what took place in the area.

In the initial years after the Taliban took over power in Kabul, its members actually helped to rebuild the museum and to safeguard the remaining artefacts. Edicts were also issued by Taliban chief Mullah Omar calling for the safeguarding of the Bamiyan Buddhas. However, as the regime came under increasing pressure of al-Qaeda, it took an increasingly stronger stance against ‘un-Islamic’ activity, eventually desecrating the museum that it had until then worked to preserve. While al-Qaeda’s hardline ideology does not tolerate the more liberal arts, political analysts have said that its leadership pushed the Taliban to adopt a more intolerant attitude. The idea, some suggest, was to make the Taliban more isolated from the international community and, hence, more dependent on al-Qaeda.

Reflection and regeneration

Ommolbanin ‘Shamsia’ Hassani’s “Portal”
With the Taliban completing the process of emaciating Afghan art and culture, a new generation of Afghans grew up under the shadow of conflict, completely oblivious to the world of art and music. What remained from earlier years was lost as families migrated and were torn apart, losing the thread of continuity that had helped generations to pass on their knowledge, including that of art appreciation. While the removal of the Taliban has allowed art to flourish, most of what was produced in the initial post-Taliban years has been reproductions of postcard kitsch – the burqa-clad woman, the Bactrian camel, the old man in a turban. At its worst, this art recreated the stereotypes of Afghans and Afghanistan; at best, it was well executed but simplistic real-life representations.

With no link to the organic growth of art and the movements in art and culture in other parts of the globe, it has been difficult to shake the Afghan art scene out of its static limitations. One man trying to do this so, and who can testify to the difficulties, is Rahraw Omarzad, a teacher in Kabul University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, a department that was set up in 1976, just three years before the country began to explode with violence. Though Omarzad continues to teach at the Faculty, his real initiative has been in setting up the Centre for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan, where he has been trying to teach young men and women artists interested in exploring contemporary and abstract art. (For samples of works from the Centre’s artists, see Himal commentary sections for July-December 2008.) “I found that by the time students reached the last semester, where they learn about contemporary art, they had already forgotten how to think out of the box,” Omarzad says. “When they come to the Centre, I do not teach them theory or any ‘ism’. I just ask them to create art from what is inside them. It is only when they themselves have started expressing themselves, and are confident, that we go to theory.”

The first-ever exhibition of contemporary women artists, held early last year, bore testimony to this confidence. The young women artists who displayed their works appeared to follow no set pattern of painting, and many of them produced works that varied greatly in technique, style and subject. Sheenkai Alam Stanikzai is a multimedia artist who works in paint, collage, video installations and photography. She says that for her, the conceptual clarity of her work is more important than the technique. “Some think that to paint they should possess innate skills,” she says. “But I believe that possessing good knowledge, open vision and awareness is of no less value than innate talents and skills.”

Many of the artists have been nurturing their talent for years, through trying circumstances. Another artist, 21-year-old Ommolbanin Shamsia, says she has been painting for as long as she can remember, as a child and refugee in Iran and, later, after her family returned home to Afghanistan. One of her paintings depicts a woman with a layer of gold jewellery covering her eyes. “I tried to show a woman who cannot see the way because of the gold,” Shamsia says. “She is in a golden cage.” Another of Shamsia’s paintings shows a woman standing at the edge of a pool of water. Instead of her own reflection, she looks at a young, green tree. “This represents woman as life, as regeneration,” she says.

This year, Stanikzai won the first prize in a contemporary-arts competition organised by the Turquoise Mountain, an organisation that is working to promote the revival of traditional arts and crafts of Afghanistan. In October 2008, Turquoise Mountain organised a first-of-its-kind three-nation contemporary-art exhibition, bringing together artists from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The exhibition recently travelled to the Venice Biennale, where it received rave reviews. But perhaps its greatest contribution was in bringing this art to an audience never previously exposed to it. Explaining the rationale, the curator of the Living Traditions exhibition, Jemima Montagu, who formerly worked at the Tate Gallery in London, says, “The three countries share a strong bond, particularly in art and in the way Islamic calligraphy and painting evolved. These traditions can and need to be adapted if they are to survive.”

In order to organise the exhibition, Montagu had to insure the paintings against potential acts of war and violence, and face the doubts of painters who were too anxious to send their paintings into a conflict zone – as well as the scepticism of those who felt Afghanistan lacked the necessary audience for such a show. Eventually, the exhibition opened to a packed audience comprised of both Afghans and international workers in Afghanistan. But for Montagu, the real audience was in those who had never seen such art before. “This is not a project for expatriates,” she says. “There is no existing audience for arts and culture here. You have to create it.”

As a result, an important component of the exhibition was school visits. During these, schoolchildren were exposed to a specially prepared package of materials that not only explained the exhibition, but also challenged them to ask questions and express themselves. Eventually, 7000 Afghans visited the exhibition, a third of them schoolchildren. Visiting Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi gave a lecture at Kabul University, after which he expressed his excitement about the initiative. “This is historic; it is important,” he said. “Things may be primitive here after the impact of years of war, but they will not remain the same. We cannot control things, but we can make efforts to change it.”

Culture of nothingness

Shinkai Alam Stanikzai with her “Introvert”
Meanwhile, at the national museum, Masoudi wants more visitors. “This country has an ancient civilisation,” he says. “We have to be proud of it, about the pre-Islamic history.” Masoudi feels that it was a lack of education that led to the past looting, and he is keen to ensure that exposure to the museum now starts at a young age. “I hope some donors can provide us with one or two buses, then we could arrange to bring schoolchildren here and show them around for free. We could do this every day – we can host as many as 300 to 400 children at one time!” he says, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “We can show them our country’s rich past.”

Creating a receptive audience is also a challenge faced by Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the programme coordinator for the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia in Afghanistan. The programme teaches classical music to young Afghans, with classes conducted in vocal music and the traditional instruments of Afghanistan – the dilruba, rubab, tabla and sarinda. Initially, it was hard to find students to come and even harder to make them stay. As such, the classes remain free in order to encourage families to send their children, and students even get a small stipend as travel expenses so as to remove any disincentive.

The biggest challenge, however, has been creating a new appreciation for traditional music. Speaking painfully of the 5000-year-old cultural identity of Afghanistan, Sidiqi bemoans “the culture of nothingness” that has replaced it. What Afghanistan has now in the way of musical culture “does not belong to us,” he says. “It is imported in a nasty way to Afghanistan. It doesn’t have depth. It is a bad copy, a dark copy of Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Tajik and European pop and rap music – a mixture of all these things trying to become a culture.” Sidiqi emphasises that he is not against pop culture, but says that it also should not be allowed to wipe out Afghanistan’s own traditions. “There is space for everyone, for everything,” he says. “But right now, we need to create a foundation, to build what we lost in the last thirty years. After that, it is their wish what they put on top of it.” Sidiqi is also concerned about the passage of time, and about what could be lost before the skills are transferred from one generation to the other. The generation that possessed the traditional cultural skills is today old and dying. One of those who teaches at the music school is Ustad Amruddin, the only skilled exponent of the lute-like rubab. “If we lose his knowledge,” says Sidiqi, “we can bury the rubab.”

It is not just through students that the Aga Khan programme seeks to rebuild the musical tradition. It is also trying to create an audience that can appreciate such music through public concerts, radio and television broadcasts, by talking about these issues through the media and preserving the knowledge. Sidiqi had just returned from a visit to the remote northeastern corner of the country, in the province of Badakhshan, as part of a project to document and record the country’s myriad musical traditions. These first important steps, however, also emphasise the long distance that has yet to be travelled. Traditional Afghan music cannot be accessed quite as easily as the cheap copies of Bollywood and Hollywood. There is no funding for a recording studio, and no means of making or disseminating the music in easily accessible ways such as CDs.

More heart than money
Still, the Aga Khan Foundation is one of the lucky ones, as others struggle just to keep their initiatives afloat. When Montagu organised the three-nation exhibition, she faced the timeless question of arts versus bread: Why, in a country of so many urgent and competing needs, should anyone spend money on art? Likewise, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Omarzad has had to reduce the time he can keep the Centre open to just two days a week. Though there is widespread appreciation for his work, the enthusiasm has not been matched by funding. While the notion of young women artists creating unusual art has caught on in some circles, funding has only come through project-specific grants. The Centre has been funded repeatedly for exhibitions abroad, since these are visible, popular and help the donor nation to ‘preen’ itself. However, there has been no funding for the institution that could actually help young local artists learn, grow and instil a wider culture of art appreciation. The international community’s constant complaint that ‘good’ news stories from Afghanistan are ignored appears to apply to itself – and the Centre and others like it end up suffering from neglect, despite the billions spent in Afghanistan.

The bazaars of Istalif are evidence of the challenge of sustaining traditional crafts. Istalif, famous for its pottery, had been bombed into smithereens during the war. Yet when the families returned, the main demand was for gaudy artefacts, copies of the cheap, mass-produced objects sold in the bazaars in Pakistan and China. In an attempt to regain and preserve the tradition, Turquoise Mountain established a pottery school that has worked with potters helping them regain traditional skills and use new techniques. A year later, however, funding for the project has run out.

Those involved in arts and music also know they are up against more than one challenge. Though they are all loath to talk about it, Afghanistan has recently seen a resurgence of conservative culture and power of the Taliban – both attempting to assert themselves by defining the boundaries of Afghan identity and culture. It is against these odds that the younger generation is seizing upon the small spaces available to it, pushing against the boundaries and questioning both the conservative ideology and the pop culture that has been imported to fill the void. One of young Stanikzai’s paintings, called “Introvert”, shows the figure of a man crouching with his head held in his hands, depicted on a background of an array of geometric shapes of different colours that end in the shimmer of reflective glass. “He is an Afghan trying to find himself in the mirror of history,” she says. “He has returned home and is searching for himself – and wondering why he can’t find himself.”

Aunohita Mojumdar is a contributing editor to Himal Southasian.

A flawed democratic exercise

September 2009
By: Aunohita Mojumdar

Defying the ban from the Taliban, the Afghan people came out to vote amidst tight security. But it might be too early to celebrate the victory of democracy.

Polling booth in Tajurbai High School, Charikar
Aunohita Mojumdar
Afghans struggled with their hopes and fears to take part in their second presidential and provincial council elections on 20 August, with uneven participation across the country, reflecting the ground realities. As the Kabul government claimed success and the international community rushed to proffer congratulations, there were initial signs that the electoral process may have been compromised through disenfranchisement, inadequate preparations as well as electoral malpractice. While the extent of these problems was difficult to judge, the initial reactions of the Afghan people, as reflected in the local media, indicated that unless these were acknowledged and addressed, the lack of legitimacy could further undermine the stability of both Afghanistan and the region.

The 2009 election was unprecedented in terms of the intense political debate and competition surrounding it. The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, faced a challenge due to the disenchantment of a population tired with the lack of economic growth, non-delivery of services, growing violence and high civilian casualties caused by the international military forces. While a fragmented opposition still allowed Karzai a clear lead in the contest, the presence of at least three high profile candidates opened up a political debate on issues and personalities. The campaign had none of the trappings of other Southasian electoral campaigns which resemble a jamboree as much as they do a political contest. Insecurity has been growing in Afghanistan, making life increasingly unsafe for ordinary Afghan citizens as well as their leaders. Election meetings, Afghan style, were carefully calibrated interactions with the public, with several layers of security mechanisms.

On a campaign visit with Karzai’s challenger Abdullah Abdullah, this writer flew in a military helicopter which hugged the ground, rising and dipping with the contours of the mountainous terrain in order to avoid hostile fire. A gunman at the open door was keeping a sharp eye out for gunners on the ground. Most meetings, especially in rural areas begin with a gathering of the village elders – inevitably all men. And so did Abdullah’s that hot August day in the Pashtun belt of eastern Afghanistan. While Abdullah insisted to reporters that the elections had gone beyond ethnic divides, making him a national rather than an ethnic candidate, during meeting after meeting on this day his supporters appealed to the electorate on grounds of tribal affiliations, reminding would-be voters of Abdullah’s Pashtun antecedents from his father’s Kandahari Ghilzai family.

While calculations on ethnic grounds were a sine qua non of the electoral process, the 2009 polls revealed a more complex mix of motivations and issues that came together to determine the vote. Abdullah’s hosts in Hesarak were a traditional Pashtun family, the Khans of the area, who had never supported any non-Pashtun candidate. Abdullah is half Tajik and a leading member of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. “Yes, it is difficult to ask for votes from Pashtuns, but we did it. In politics you have to take sides, and we decided to take the risk this time” said provincial candidate Abdullah Arsala, who had staved off appeals for support from tribal compatriots who were also in the contest.

Flawed system
A new feature of the elections this time was the televised debates involving the top incumbents, which saw millions glued to their radios and television screens. Karzai’s electoral platform seemed to be based on continuity, feeding off fear of change, as he repeated earlier promises of negotiations with the armed opposition and rewriting of the agreement with the international military forces. Ramazan Bashar Dost travelled on the negative ticket, criticising the incumbent for his failure to deliver good governance to the people. Meanwhile, the international high-flier Ashraf Ghani produced a minutely detailed blueprint that was more focused on programming than politics. Abdullah Abdullah, on the other hand, was vague on programming but more forthcoming on the political component, campaigning on the promise of ushering in a parliamentary democracy.

In the current circumstances, a change of the horse in the presidential saddle, if it happens, is unlikely to make much more than a superficial initial difference to the polity. Afghanistan’s present political and administrative system concentrates all decision-making authority in the president, marginalising both parliament and provincial bodies. The attempt to rule this complex, diverse and difficult country from a single point of power was initially seen by a Western compact, led by the US, as a means of control and stability that would avoid the messy business of a more democratic polity. Wider administration was to be enforced through a series of strongmen – warlords, commanders and leaders backed by armed power – appointed to control their individual areas. After having witnessed the failure of governance, the international community still continues to toy with the idea of changing the man rather than the method, looking for suitable individuals rather than building institutions.

Afghanistan’s electoral system reflects this concentration of power and the attempt to keep the polity fragmented. Its bizarre electoral system is followed only by three other countries: Jordan, Vanuatu and the Pitcarin Islands. It combines a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) with a multi-seat constituency. What this means is that each voter picks one candidate from a list which names many candidates for several seats. Under the specific formula used, the candidates win by a preferential system which picks the top scoring candidates. Consequently, many of the votes cast are ‘excess’ ballots, so to speak. To address just this situation, a number of countries use the single transferable vote (STV) system under which voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. In this way, no vote is wasted. This is not the case in Afghanistan where the SNTV system discourages the participation of political parties. Political parties are, in addition, also banned from contesting as political parties, but their members can contest as individuals. The ban on political parties’ participation was ostensibly in response to the Afghan population’s dislike of them after years of war. But insiders say this was put in place in order to keep the Afghan polity fragmented, thereby strengthening individuals rather than political groups and formations.

Eight years into the reconstruction of Afghanistan, there is still no census and no electoral roll. Furthermore, there are no checks and balances on voter registration since no standard proof is required, resulting in registration of underage voters or multiple registrations by the same individual. The result is an incredible 17 million registered voters out of an estimated population of between 25 to 30 million. While there has been no census, the estimated voting population in 2004 was a mere 9 million. Observers maintain that the high registration numbers arising out of successive cycles of voter registration in 2004, 2005 and 2009, was a sign of multiple or fake registrations.

While there is indelible ink in use, much of the checks and balances are dependent on polling station officers, who are vulnerable to many pressures – political, monetary as well as threats of violence. Initial reports indicated that proxy voting had taken place in many places, as was expected, with boxes of voter cards being brought to the polling station. Counting took place at the polling station, thus further minimising oversight by independent monitors. The Independent Election Commission’s own independence has been in question with its members appointed directly by President Karzai, who turned down a move to bring these appointments under parliamentary scrutiny. At a press conference to announce the completion of voting, the IEC appeared with a galaxy of senior government ministers who used the platform to hail the elections as a success.

Assessing realties
While the polling day passed off without any major acts of violence designed to cause large-scale casualties, sporadic incidents did occur, affecting the voting. Overall, the threat of violence loomed large. The result was a turnout that was much lower than for the elections in 2004 and 2005, suggesting that a substantial part of the population may have been disenfranchised. Reports also indicated that a major portion of the disenfranchised were women, who were unable to access polling booths because of insecurity as well as prevailing conservative attitudes. However, the immense lack of transparency accompanying the process – even voter turnout percentages were not available several days after the polling – suggests that the full extent of any malpractice may never be fully understood. Adding to the absence of a full flow of information were censorship curbs imposed by the government prior to the elections. In a carefully calibrated order, the government advised the international media not to report on any violent incidents during the polling, but ordered the national media not to do so. While not all Afghan media complied with the order – some bravely and publicly opposing it – the extent of compliance was commended by the head of the National Security Directorate at the end of it all.

Both Afghans and internationals linked to administering the polls had heaved a great sigh of relief that the threat of widespread violence had not been fulfilled. While there were a long list of incidents including rocket attacks, arson and the chopping off of the fingers of two voters, the final civilian death toll nation-wide was nine persons. Blasé as this may sound, that is not a very high number for Afghanistan, as well as in terms of expectations. While the Afghan National Security agencies claimed success in defeating the designs of the Taliban to disrupt the polls, an assessment of the incidents suggested that the armed opposition may willingly have refrained from carrying out major strikes in order to win hearts and minds. However, the insurgents’ behaviour differed not just from province to province but from district to district and polling station to polling station, ‘allowing’ the process in some areas while attacking it in others.

Giving credence to the idea that there was a deliberate policy of reduced violence was recent evidence of the striking power of the Taliban. In the week before the elections, they managed a rocket attack inside the presidential palace compound, a suicide attack on an international military convoy on the outskirts of Kabul and a massive bomb blast outside the gates of the NATO headquarters in Kabul. This suggested that the absence of violence on polling day was as much a result of the Taliban decision not to cause large scale disruption as a dividend of the preventive steps taken by the Afghan and international security forces.

Keeping this context in mind, projection of the election as an achievement against the insurgency and other forces which have sought to disrupt polls by the Afghan government and the international community is simplistic and one-dimensional. Desperate for some signs of progress to justify their involvement in a country sucking up their human and financial resources, the Western international community, including the UN, has rushed to congratulate the Afghans on their achievement and success. Troop-contributing countries have especially been desperately seeking a symbolic event that would help validate their military engagement, which has becoming increasingly unpopular with domestic constituencies back home.

While there has been some acknowledgement of the anomalies and malpractices, the international community has concentrated on celebrating the fact that elections were held at all under the existing difficult circumstances. Unlike 2004, however, when the outcome of the results was a fait accompli, there has been a real contest this time. (Though the results were not out at the time of this writing, and the reported numbers are inconclusive, both Karzai and Abdullah are claiming victory). The competition was driven by a combination of disenchantment, an appetite for change and greater awareness of democratic principles on the part of Afghans. Unwillingness, on the part of the Afghan government and the international community, to acknowledge and address shortcomings in the democratic process could lead to further disengagement of the population, not just from the government but also the state-building project.

While a less than free-and-fair election was to be expected, Afghans do, however, expect that the international community will at least acknowledge the compromises made with democratic principles, rather than pretend all was well or that these do not matter. Leading members of the international community have repeated ad nauseam that the elections showed the engagement of Afghans with the democratic process. Until now, the international community itself has not shown a matching engagement with the democratic principles of the electoral process. Indeed, it is clear that they are treating the election as an unmitigated success story mainly because they desperately need one. In this way, the community is essentially telling the Afghan people a flawed process is good enough for them. By doing so, it is eroding the faith of Afghans on the all important democratic exercise that an election represents. If the realities of the elections just past are ignored, the result could be the loss of faith of Afghans in the democratic polity itself, a point of view which has extracted a great cost from both Afghans and the rest of the world in earlier decades.

Aunohita Mojumdar is a contributing editor to Himal Southasian.

Afghanistan: Blanket Election Support Damaging Internationals’ Credibility

Aunohita Mojumdar

After rushing to endorse the Afghan elections, the international community may emerge from the process with its image scathed, having squandered a valuable opportunity to improve its bona fides. In their hurry to score quick gains, some international observers and diplomats have placed a stamp of approval over a process that looks patently flawed. Now they find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: unable to swallow their early cheerleading statements or take a more critical stance without offending the Afghan government.

“They were too quick to endorse the elections. All they need have done was make their approval more conditional,” said a diplomat who requested anonymity, speaking on an issue growing more sensitive each passing day. A conditional approval would have provided internationals the elbowroom to modulate responses according to emerging realities, a space that was nearly closed off by the early ringing approval, the diplomat added.

“In terms of the international community and its role in the elections, its reputation in Afghanistan and worldwide very much depends on the success of the rest of the process and also on the aggressiveness and comprehensiveness of the Electoral Complaints Commission’s [ECC] review of claims and frauds,” said Candace Rondeaux of the Brussels based International Crisis Group.

Observers have questioned the capacity of the ECC to address these complaints, both because of the limitations of its mandate and its resources. While saying he had no doubt about the intentions and credibility of the ECC, Hamid Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, in response to a question from EurasiaNet, said, “their capability remains to be seen.”

“If we see, as in the past, patterns which indicate that bodies like the IEC [Independent Election Commission] and the ECC remain under-resourced and unsupported, then investigating these claims would remain a challenge and yet everything depends on the sanctity of this process,” Rondeaux added.

The international community’s early endorsement the elections, she said, had been disappointing: “The risk of appearing too enthusiastic too soon is that you undermine your own credibility as an impartial observer and guarantor of the democratic processes.”

While diplomats have stressed that the elections were Afghan-led for the first time, this hardly absolves foreigners of their perceived influence and role. Afghans have a complicated relationship with the international community, seeing foreigners as having undue influence over their lives, while still looking towards them as impartial arbitrators. That much of the anger until now has been directed at the internationals rather than the national players who are accused of having vitiated the democratic process, underlines this tendency.

Though most of the diplomatic community’s comments have been confined to celebrating that the elections took place at all, the endorsement of selective facts about the elections, on a day when a large section of the Afghan voters found their voice hushed either through inability to access the vote or through fraud, has lent credence to charges that the international community has biases.

The attempts to pass off the elections as a success against the Taliban have not surprised observers who see domestic political agendas of the donor countries lurking behind such statements. “What does it say about the British-American effort in Helmand if days after they poured troops into the province in order to make it safer for people to vote, the turnout is a bare 5 percent? Can they admit it was a failure?” asked an international analyst.

Yet not everyone agrees about the international community’s motivations. “The internationals probably spoke too soon and should have acknowledged early on that there were allegations of widespread irregularities that needed to be addressed before issuing an elections report card,” said John Dempsey, the Kabul director for the U.S. Institute of Peace. “But again, I think that they wanted to mute any potential violent reaction from supporters of one candidate or another on polling day as well as acknowledge that millions still turned out in the face of security threats and that there were no spectacular mega attacks.”

Efforts to minimize the impact of flawed elections have helped introduce imaginative arguments into the mix. New buzz amongst internationals in Kabul has it that since most of the disenfranchisement took place in southern provinces where the bulk of Karzai’s voter base is supposed to be, ballot stuffing has merely made up for the votes that were rightfully his in the first place.

Long before the votes have even been counted, moreover, the internationally community has also begun pushing for a “government of national unity.” While the rationale for such a move, which attempts to bring leaders above self-serving political divides, is laudable in theory, it cannot replace the electoral mandate to which Afghans are entitled.

Responding to a flawed election by telling the major candidates to go beyond the results may help silence the losers. However such unity of purpose should come from processes that are based either on post-conflict peace agreements, such as were decided in 2001 at Bonn, or be based on initiatives of legitimately elected governments. A unified government cannot succeed an electoral process in which millions of Afghans risked their lives to cast votes which were subsequently ignored.

Editor’s Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.



Aunohita Mojumdar 8/26/09

Six days after Afghanistan’s presidential poll, the legitimacy of the outcome appears threatened by a lack of electoral transparency, negligible pressure from Afghanistan’s international sponsors, and a complaint mechanism stymied by its lack of mandate and resources.

At a press conference in Kabul’s plush Intercontinental Hotel on August 25, an audible murmur of disbelief swelled as Afghanistan’s Chief Electoral Officer Daud Najafi read from a list of numbers showing President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah in a neck-and-neck race. The actual totals appeared to contradict rumors that had been circulating in the capital that Karzai was winning by a healthy margin. The figures released by Najafi covered only 10 percent of the ballots cast.

While most western correspondents rushed off to file reports emphasizing the closeness of the race, the primary significance of Najafi’s numbers was that they helped deflect the growing anger and lack of credulity in the electoral process. Some believe the release may have been timed to do just that. One Afghan observer also suggested that the timing of the daily press briefings -- scheduled to begin at 5 pm every evening (though invariably starting later) -- reflects a government effort to keep the chances of spontaneous protests to a minimum. "People will be too busy with prayers and Iftar [the meal breaking the day-long Ramadan fast, which begins around 6:30 pm local time] to protest," the observer said.

Two competing narratives are now vying for attention in Afghanistan. One consists of the official count, sanctioned responses to criticism and the international community’s reactions. But a parallel narrative of claims, counterclaims and rumors of back-room deals is growing.

So strong are these rumors that Abdullah, who has charged the government with conducting widespread electoral fraud, felt compelled to hold a news conference to dispel rumors he was seeking a deal. "My message to our people is that I will not make deals based on your votes. I will not compromise your rights in exchange for anything," he told journalists on August 25.

Meanwhile, though the count is still officially weeks from completion, some Karzai supporters appeared to have no difficulty accessing figures. Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, for example, announced as early as August 24 that the incumbent had secured 68 percent of the votes.

With reports of low voter turnout and fraud trickling steadily out of the provinces, anger among Afghans is rising. Behind the scenes, negotiators are working "to lower the margin of victory to give the perception of a more legitimate outcome," according to one foreign diplomat.

One important mechanism for determining fraud is the release of data on the number of votes cast in each polling station at intervals throughout Election Day. If the reporting shows an abnormal spike, it does not automatically certify fraud, but it warrants investigation. Were these numbers available, observers would be able to compare and detect anomalies.

But in the six days since the vote, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) has refused to provide any figures on the total turnout of voters -- which it, by law, must have. The commission also has not provided provincial breakdowns that could enable observers to compare figures with what they witnessed on the ground.

IEC officials claim they need to "tally" the documentation -- check and recheck -- to make sure it is accurate. Western diplomats have supported this argument, which puts the value of the process above the transparency and credibility that could have come from the early release of provisional figures, as was done in the 2004 elections.

Tallies are no check against ballot stuffing, says a detailed account by Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network. His blog report on Paktia Province in southern Afghanistan indicates ballot stuffing was neatly performed on the eve of the elections. "If [ballot boxes were] delivered from the polling centers together with the legitimate ones, it would become very difficult to find them and quarantine them, in particular when they are accompanied by the required documentation," writes Ruttig.

Unofficial estimates suggest that around 5.5 million votes were cast. The figure is substantiated to some extent by the IEC’s announcement that the 555,842 votes counted so far represented 10 percent of the total. It is impossible to estimate what percentage of the actual electorate these figures represent, however, since there is no record or even estimate of the actual number of voters in the country. Officials accept that the figure of 17 million registered voters is inflated and represents multiple registrations, fake voter cards, under-age and proxy registration. In the absence of a real number, even official figures, when they are available, cannot enable a full assessment of the degree of fraud.

While the international community and IEC officials have claimed the August 20 polls had better checks and balances against fraud in place than was the case for previous elections, these safeguards depended to a large extent on how they were implemented by officials tasked with administering the vote. And, in many instances, officials are facing accusations of fraudulent practices on August 20. Even in relatively secure areas of Afghanistan, such as Parwan Province, EurasiaNet saw free and reasonable access denied to accredited reporters who were made to wait for lengthy periods outside some polling areas: sufficient time for anyone attempting to conceal fraud.

The Electoral Complaints Commission’s work, moreover, has been compromised by the IEC’s declaration on August 24 that nothing the ECC finds will have a bearing on the final results. This remarkable statement also overlooks the impact of small margins in provincial council contests that may be decided by narrow voting margins.

Some western diplomats allude to annoyance at the media’s strong coverage of fraud, complaining of an unproductive debate undermining the electoral process they quickly approved on Election Day. Since Karzai was expected to win anyway, "why waste time and energy on a second round," appears the prevailing argument.

Such an attitude may provoke a backlash. Because for Afghans who voted, at stake is more than western opinion. If allegations of fraud are ignored, they could lose their right to speak and to be heard -- a promise the West was quick to deliver after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.


Aunohita Mojumdar 8/24/09

Diplomats have rushed to declare Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential and provincial council elections a success, while downplaying credible reports of disenfranchisement and widespread electoral irregularities. The apparent reluctance to acknowledge circumstantial evidence of substantial vote-rigging could have damaging, even irreparable consequences for Afghanistan’s democratization process, some experts contend.

In Kabul and donor capitals, the emphasis has been on celebrating the fact that elections were held at all, rather than on the likelihood that the voices of a considerable number of Afghans will not be heard. Both Afghans and internationals heaved a sigh of relief when polling day passed with a much lower-than-expected level of violence.

Noting the extremist challenge, US President Barack Obama characterized the elections as an important step forward. The European Union Observer Mission (EUOM) and the observer missions of the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) also termed the elections successful, adding that the voting offered evidence of Kabul’s commitment to democratization. Meanwhile, in his congratulatory remarks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon referred to the "extremely challenging environment."

In their assessments, international observers appeared to focus mainly on the Taliban’s attempt to disrupt the polls. They paid far less attention to other electoral problems, including alleged irregularities carried out by government functionaries.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an Afghan body, documented a widespread "lack of impartiality of election staff at the local level." It also recorded numerous cases of proxy voting and some voters’ use of multiple cards. It reported underage voting, and said it was difficult to judge the credibility of the elections at this stage.

Independent reports from around the country echoed the foundation’s findings. In her blog post on the elections, former EU diplomat and analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, Martine Van Bijlert, wrote: "consistent and credible reports from the south and the southeast have been coming in for days now: massive and blatant ballot stuffing; the removal or invalidation of votes for rival candidates; complete overhaul of ballot boxes; intimidation of witnesses and IEC [Independent Election Commission] staff; systematic removal of the publicly displayed tally sheets."

Given the preoccupation with the insurgent threat, there has not been much attention paid to the possibility that low voter turnout provided more space for electoral manipulation. There are signs that suggest a large number of people have been deprived of their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

Addressing the issue of disenfranchisement during a news conference on August 22, the head of the NDI delegation, Kenneth Wollach, stated "disenfranchisement here takes on a different meaning" since it is "not the work of partisan actors, but the result of those trying to disrupt the elections. You cannot blame the IEC for it."

Regardless of who was responsible, Van Bijlert told EurasiaNet, voters were still deprived of their rights: "If there was a flood in the country and half the country couldn’t vote, that’s nobody’s fault but that doesn’t mean that the voters weren’t disenfranchised. That doesn’t mean that it was fine."

The European Union Mission, which termed the holding of elections as a "victory for the Afghan people" said the IEC "generally functioned efficiently" and that "the process seems at this stage to have been largely positive." Currently, the EU seems reluctant to address questions of fraud, saying it is too early in the process for any definitive assessment, and that only Afghans themselves could make the judgment.

By remaining tight-lipped, the EU mission threatens to undermine its credibility, some human rights advocates say. "An assessment this positive will be hard to [believe] for millions of Afghans in insecure parts of the country," said Rachel Reid, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The initial findings of the observer missions lauded the polling process and its fairness. Many local experts, however, say that irregularities appear to have been most prevalent in the insecure southern provinces, where most observer missions were unable to deploy. Some observers who did make it to southern areas remained confined to secured military compounds for the better part of election day.

While acknowledging that insecurity hampered their movements, the missions have been reticent in providing details of their election-day activities. Their conclusions, based solely on observations from the more secure areas where polling was less tainted, therefore may well provide only a partial, if not distorted, perception of the proceedings.

While the lack of official statistics from the IEC is certainly a constraint for diplomatic missions and international observers, even the right questions are not being asked at this stage, experts say.

Of half a dozen observer groups and a plethora of diplomatic representatives, only Democracy International (DI), pointed out the problems related to the IEC’s decision to withhold the vote count until five days after Election Day, terming it "unfortunate." DI has noted that releasing the partial results would be a way to enhance confidence in the process by increasing transparency.

Concerned analysts say that downplaying irregularities could have practical consequences for the democratization process. "Most observers are treating the election as if it is over, but I think the real contest is just beginning. The main question is how much blatant breaking of the law will be accepted for the sake of [what seems to bring] short-term stability," Van Bijlert said, adding, "Much of the fraud has been widespread, blatant and linked to government or electoral officials. If that is left unchallenged and unacknowledged, the message to the population is clear: this is how it is going to be."

Echoing these sentiments, Reid said, any attempt "to deny the full extent of the flaws in this election would only serve to further disenfranchise the Afghan electorate."

Afghan Women's Vote Hindered by Taliban and More

Run Date: 08/20/09
By Aunohita Mojumdar
WeNews correspondent
Afghan women's participation is expected to be low in Thursday's national elections. Security fears and conservative customs are expected to hinder female voters, candidates and poll watchers.

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)--On a hot summer's day early this month, the loya jirga, or grand council, here in the capital was buzzing with activity.

Women--students, professionals and activists--milled around, exchanging stories, ideas and laughter, readying themselves for the fusion of two voter turnout efforts: The 5 Million Women Campaign and the 50 Percent Campaign.

The two campaigns, one focused on demanding the government secure women's right to vote and the other on ending discrimination and ensuring women's participation, came together in the face of worries that few women would make it to their polling places.

The activists face what are widely considered extreme difficulties.

While Thursday's elections are sometimes hailed as another step in Afghanistan's slow march towards democracy, a large section of the country's women stand in danger of being disenfranchised through a combination of increasing violence and a resurgence of conservative attitudes inhibiting women's political involvement.

The elections occur in the bloodiest phase of an eight-year conflict. The war has caused a 24 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties in the first seven months of 2009 compared with the same period a year ago, according to July 31 U.N. report that says actual deaths may be much higher due to difficulties collecting information.

Large Areas Off Limits
Large areas of the country are categorized as either under enemy control or at high risk for attack by insurgents. An official map obtained by Reuters in April showed half the country in this situation. Since then security has worsened, especially in the week before the elections with militants carrying out several targeted strikes in Kabul, including a suicide-bombing on Tuesday that killed seven.

Voter registration could not take place in several districts because of the presence or control of the Taliban. The government officially admits to 8 of the country's 364 districts being under Taliban control, but polling may not take place or may be severely compromised in many more.

While the increasing insecurity affects all voters, women are likely to be far more severely impacted, says Leeda Yaqoobi, deputy director of Afghan Women's Network, the umbrella organizations of over 70 women's groups that organized the loya jirga meeting.

"Security is one of the major problems that prevents women from voting on election day," she told Women's eNews.

In addition to the generally violent atmosphere, women's rights advocates worry about targeted attacks on women in the public sphere.

"Women participating in public life face threats, harassment and attacks," a July 8 U.N. report on violence in Afghanistan found, and contributed to an effective imprisonment of women in their homes.

Local Traditions Also Blamed
Despite a tendency to blame violence against women on the Taliban, the July report says women in public life have also been targeted by "local traditional and religious power holders, their own families and communities and, in some instances, by government officials."

In Thursday's provincial council elections, not enough female candidates were found to fill the 25 percent quota for women.

In Kandahar, for example, three women are running for the four reserved seats. None of these candidates was able to either live or campaign in the province because of the threats to them, according to the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

A joint verification exercise of political rights carried out by this commission and the U.N. mission in Afghanistan found "women's right to vote appears to be at risk in insecure areas."

Within days of the election, despite several months of preparatory time, the country's Independent Election Commission had not been able to locate women to staff many of the polling booths in at least 8 of the 34 provinces in the country. It was sending out desperate appeals.

Without female staff at polling booths to assist and frisk women voters--a necessary security precaution--many women are likely to be unable to cast their votes.

Dangerous Travel Required
Polling booths in many of the insecure areas are also likely to be moved, forcing voters to traverse large distances through insecure territory, a hurdle more likely to discourage women.

In culturally conservative parts of Afghanistan women still are still required to have permission from their families to leave their home; participation in the polling exercise is not considered appropriate.

In some parts of the country this has been legally enshrined by the new Shia Personal Status Law signed by President Hamid Karzai in mid-July. Among other things, that law--governing the minority Shia Muslim community--makes it illegal for a woman to vote without her husband's permission, if custom dictates.

Vote tallies are unlikely to reflect the full extent of women's disenfranchisement. In conservative areas, men cast the votes of the women in their families, a practice that is accepted by polling staff in deference to the conservative attitudes.

"We will of course give our votes (voter registration cards) to the men," a young Pashtun woman in the eastern province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan, recently told Women's eNews. "We do not have permission to go out to vote."

Firebrand parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai fears such "proxy voting' may be widespread. "This is a concern, that in the name of women, men may vote," she said in an interview in Kabul.

In some areas the registration of women did not require photographic identity cards, creating the opportunity for massive forgery of registration cards, says Martine van Biljert, an analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, a think-tank based in Berlin.

Biljert, who has spent several years working in Afghanistan, says "the absence of a credible voter registry, or any other reliable form of registry, and the lack of effective safeguards against multiple registrations has greatly facilitated the widespread incidence of multiple and proxy voting."

In the parliamentary elections of 2005, high female turnout was initially hailed as a sign of progress, but later attributed to the kind of fraud that may be repeated on Thursday.

Women's ability to vote is expected to depend on the local conditions.

In the village of Langarkhel in the Pashtun belt of Nangarhar province, for instance, no women were visible in the campaign rallies when presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah came to visit. However the provincial council candidate Abdullah Arsala, said a meeting of male village elders had decided that women could be allowed to vote.



Aunohita Mojumdar 8/20/09

Counting the ballots in Afghanistan’s second presidential and provincial council elections has begun. Despite some reports of attacks and election irregularities throughout the country, polls closed on August 20 without any major violent disruptions by insurgents.

At an evening news conference in Kabul, the Independent Election Commission and the Afghan government declared the process a success. Meanwhile, representatives of the international community rushed to offer congratulations on the completion of the process that many had feared would be disrupted by a much higher level of violence.

Voter turnout appeared to vary widely across the country, with some areas, especially the more volatile southern provinces, reporting low polling. No official polling figures were available and the country’s Independent Election Commission said the actual voter turnout would not be made public for three or four days.

Preliminary results of the counting process are expected to be available by August 25. The certified results will take much longer, however, and can be released only after the Electoral Complaints Commission has completed its investigation into any complaints it receives.

If no candidate clears 51 percent in the first round, a runoff will be held. Opinion on the advantages of a second round is sharply divided. While some feel that the best option is to complete the process as quickly and cleanly as possible, leaving no room for dissension and possible instability, others believe a second round would be a healthy precedent for a nascent democracy, demonstrating the complexity of their options to voters.

Sporadic complaints of electoral irregularities were reported. But in the absence of any definitive election-related data, it was difficult to judge the extent to which the voting -- the first to be led by Afghan institutions -- was free and fair. Moreover, an August 18 government directive that called on media organizations not to report on any incident of violence during the polling hours further hampered the flow of information.

In the Tajurbai High School in Charikar, about an hour north of Kabul, Zubaida Shaheeba a doctor in the local hospital arrived in a burkha and with three children to cast her vote. While she refused to say for whom she had voted, the area is a stronghold of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance and most voters were casting their ballots for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.

Nearby, at the Mir Ali Ahmed Shaheed High School, 205 men and 88 women had voted by midmorning -- a reasonable turnout -- and election observers were closely monitoring the process.

While the ethnicity of the candidate appeared to be a primary motivation in these districts, voters also cited disenchantment with the President Hamid Karzai’s administration. In an indication of apathy, even polling staff in several polling stations in the area did not appear to have voted, with several telling EurasiaNet they were too busy or had lost their cards or had found it difficult to obtain one. In a mosque that was serving as a temporary polling station, and situated only 200 meters from the US military base at Bagram, Ismatullah and Mohammed Fahim said they had voted in the hope of peace.

Journalists visiting that station were prevented from asking questions about the polling process after initial difficulty in getting entry, despite being accredited to observe the electoral process.

Back in Kabul, the streets were deserted and most businesses closed. Some polling stations saw a brisk turnout, according to voters. Farid, a taxi driver, who had told EurasiaNet last month that he would vote for Karzai even though he didn’t like him, opted to vote for Abdullah instead. Though Ramazan Bashardost was his favorite candidate, he decided to back Abdullah who had a better chance of winning against Karzai, he said.

In addition to sporadic incidents reported around the country, violence hit the capital when two armed insurgents holed up in a building were reportedly shot dead by security forces.

Although journalists complained that security forces barred them from covering the Kabul clash, the government’s directive not to report on violence had a mixed impact. International media ignored it and some Afghan media outlets like the independent Pajhwok Afghan News opposed the ban with a strongly worded statement, saying such orders did not have any basis in the Afghan constitution or principles of democracy.

But many Afghan media outlets appeared to have bowed to official pressure. Outlets that followed the directive were praised by the head of the National Security Directorate, Amrullah Saleh, "for complying with the government’s rules and regulations." The head of the Independent Election Commission Azizullah Lodin -- who had supported the directive -- said the media were free to criticize in a positive way, as long as it did not interfere with the Commission’s work.

In a joint press conference during the evening of August 20, a phalanx of top government officials flanked Lodin and proclaimed the elections to be a success, describing election day as a government victory over the radical Islamic insurgency. At the event, the ministers of interior and defense and the head of the National Security Directorate described several instances where security forces had discovered and disrupted insurgent plants of attack.

Responding to the election process, the UN’s top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said the fact that elections had taken place was itself an achievement since the possibility of holding elections in the current situation had itself been in doubt.

Some observers, however, disputed the notion that the relative calm on August marked a major triumph for the government. They pointed out that the Taliban and other insurgent groups had already demonstrated their capabilities in recent weeks, staging targeted attacks, showing they could have disrupted the elections if they wished. That they did not, the observers add, indicates that the opposition is growing more sophisticated and concerned for civilian casualties.

The UN envoy said the security situation was better than had been feared, that young Afghans had shown their confidence in the democratic process and that, overall, the day had been good for Afghanistan. He said the international community expected the political leadership and the other parts of the establishment to make sure there was no instability following the elections and to come together and unite behind a common agenda.

The game continues

Hindustan Times

August 20

Aunohita Mojumdar

Afghanistan will take one more baby step towards democracy and the international community one more towards its exit strategy as the country goes to the polls today to elect a new President. The 2009 presidential elections will take place in the midst of intensifying violence that has reached levels unprecedented since 2001 when the Taliban were removed. Unlike the presidential elections in 2004 and the 2005 parliamentary polls, which were viewed as the last pieces in the jigsaw puzzle which would complete the framework of the new Afghan State, these elections are taking place at a time of enormous political flux.

In 2004, the results appeared a fait accompli and the emphasis was on how the technical exercise involving logistics and security of the polling could be carried out with minimal disruption. This time however the mood of the country is considerably different with a real appetite for change. Three serious contenders threaten the political position of incumbent President Hamid Karzai who needs to secure 51 per cent of the votes in order to stave off a run-off involving a second round of polling. Current opinion polls suggest Karzai is well short of the mark and a second round of polling could consolidate the fragmented opposition vote.

The slow pace of economic recovery and delivery of services accompanied by credible evidence of wastage of resources and corruption has created strong resentment against the incumbent regime. Though the Taliban’s brutality and rigid intolerance continues to alienate Afghans, public support for the State-building exercise now comes with increasing conditions attached.

Afghans would like to see greater sovereignty restored to them, whether it is through control of the resources spent in their name in their country or through more checks on the operations of the international military forces which have taken increasingly high tolls of civilian lives. Antipathy towards the Taliban may not express itself through the ballot and a large section of voters may choose to stay at home given the surge in violence in the week ahead of the polls.

While there has been a great deal of focus on the likely winner, it is unlikely that either change or continuity through these elections will throw up any real answers. The current administrative and political system, which concentrates decision-making authority in the presidential office, marginalising both Parliament and the provinces, ensures that any man put in the position will have limited impact.

However what could be significantly different is the approach of the next incumbent to negotiations with the Taliban, which are being increasingly seen as a sine qua non for peace in Afghanistan by the western countries and a section of Afghan polity.

While the Taliban have threatened to disrupt the polls asking voters to stay away, it is not clear whether they will carry out large-scale violent attacks on the population, not least because of divisions within the Taliban’s own leadership on the long-term strategy and eventual peace talks. A section of the insurgent group may also prefer to see more sympathetic candidates being elected to the provincial councils, elections to which will also be held simultaneously.

The fear of polling day will not be the only factor keeping voters away. With some districts in the volatile south and south east of the country out of government control, no registration of voters has taken place. The incredibly high number of registered voters — which stands today at 17 million — is viewed with alarm by independent observers who see it as a sign of electoral malpractice and multiple voter cards. With no voter rolls or census and little substantive proof required of identity, much of the checks and balances on electoral malpractice may be dependent on polling staff whose ability to work independently is in question. Proxy voting, tampering of tally sheets, ballot stuffing were observed and documented in the past and are expected to be repeated again.

In past elections such malpractices have been by and large condoned by internationals engaged in the electoral process including those tasked with oversight. The prevailing opinion then was that political stability was more necessary than pursuing electoral malpractices that might undermine the credibility of the elections and lead to instability. Current indications are that this will also be the approach this time.

Troop contributing countries in Afghanistan hope to tout the Afghan elections as a sign of the progress made in Afghanistan towards a democratic polity, that will eventually allow them to withdraw troops from an increasingly unpopular military engagement. Fearful of possible unrest and violence that may rock the fragile stability holding the country together, the international community is likely to, by and large, endorse the elections as the lesser of two evils.

In Afghanistan, however, there is a discernible change in the perception of voters. Debates about a level playing field, the misuse of State resources and the past record of the incumbent government have been part of a lively debate. While internationals may be willing to compromise on the credibility of a democratic exercise in a country in conflict, Afghans are less willing to do so than before. In these elections, as in the entire State-building exercise, Afghans are being asked to choose ballots over bullets. The appeal to their democratic credentials must be matched by an equal commitment from the international community.


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: 8/19/09

Polling for the second presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan will open early on August 20 in a milieu of competing hopes and fears, uncertain logistics and precarious security conditions. The 2009 polls also take place in a state of political flux unprecedented since the forced removal of the Taliban in 2001.

How many polling stations will open, where they will be located and how much of the electorate will be able to access the ballots remains as uncertain as the level of anticipated violence. Equally uncertain is the extent of expected electoral malpractice, how much this will compromise the vote's legitimacy, and the tolerance of ordinary Afghans to fraud.

Less than 48 hours before polls open, the Election Complaints Commission said on August 18 that it was "possible that irregularities may occur during polling, and the counting and tallying of votes," and ruled out setting a final date for the results to be released. Reacting to the increase of targeted violence from anti-government elements, including rocket attacks and suicide bombings in Kabul this week, the Foreign Ministry called for censorship on Election Day, urging a blackout of all reporting on violence. "All domestic and international media agencies are requested to refrain from broadcasting any incident of violence during the election process," a statement from the ministry read, in order to "ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people."

Local conditions, interests and security, rather than media coverage, are more likely to determine voting conditions, however.

Unlike the previous elections where a positive outcome for incumbent President Hamid Karzai appeared a fait accompli, this time voters approach a real contest with a widespread appetite for change. One opinion poll, a US government-commissioned survey conducted in July by Glevum Associates, gave Karzai 36 percent support among registered voters, well below the 51 percent mark he needs to stave off a second round of voting. While polls indicated a fair number of undecided voters could change these figures, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has emerged as a strong contender at the head of a fragmented opposition.

The four top presidential contesters -- running in a field of 41 candidates, including two women -- represent both the complex wishes and the competing interests of Afghan voters. Karzai exemplifies the Afghan penchant for deal making by appearing to have secured the support of major power brokers, including a catalog of former warlords. However, the campaign of Dr. Abdullah, who has inherited the Northern Alliance's political movement -- the foremost anti-Taliban faction before the US invasion -- is challenging the expectation that votes will be delivered solely by strongmen. Another contender, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, represents an alternative facet of Afghan politics today: the western-returned technocrat with strong links to the donor community. The fourth major contender, Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister, has made a name for himself by tapping into the public mood of disenchantment with violence, lack of development and corruption.

When Afghans go to the polls, they will do so with a mixture of hope and fear of change. While disenchantment with lack of economic development, delivery of services, increasing insecurity and high civilian casualties has shaped opinion in favor of change, the ongoing conflict also makes voters fearful that the situation could deteriorate further, pushing many to conclude that a known devil is better than an unknown one.

Whatever the outcome, change is unlikely to start merely with a new president. The current administrative and political structure has concentrated all decisions in the office of the president, marginalizing the role of the parliament and depriving provincial councils of any authority. Over the past eight years, the internationally supported central government has set up structures that bypass local decision making in an attempt to administer this large, unwieldy and varied country from a single seat in Kabul. The result has been a powerful presidency that is a source of patronage -- by the central appointment of governors and dishing out of development projects -- rather than legitimate authority, in the eyes of many Afghans.

Abdullah, calling for a parliamentary democracy more suited to Afghanistan's diverse and disparate population, has presented the most formidable opposition platform. But even if elected, he would find it difficult to dislodge powerbrokers embedded and strengthened through a combination of government backing and international support.

The major difference any of the candidates could bring to office immediately would be in the approach to negotiations with the armed opposition, often lumped together misleadingly under the rubric of the Taliban. A significant section of the international community and the Afghan polity view negotiations with armed groups as the sine qua non of any progress in Afghanistan, and pressure for the resumption of talks is likely to resume soon after the elections.

For the international community, desperate for some sign of progress in an engagement that is becoming increasingly unpopular back home, the elections are a needed signal of the legitimacy of their intervention. To that end, it is unlikely that foreign policy makers will make any significant criticism on the credibility of the vote, even if it is marred by lack of inclusiveness or electoral fraud. However an unquestioning endorsement of the electoral exercise could also be counterproductive. Afghans, who have been repeatedly asked to understand and adopt democracy and eschew conflict, have higher expectations of the democratic process today than in 2004.

Of course, the biggest question before the polling remains: How will the Afghan electorate react? The perception of legitimacy will be even more important than the actual legitimacy of the polls. In a context of growing public disenchantment and low tolerance for fraud, public anger could increase support for violence and other non-peaceful means of changing the status quo. If the August 20 elections and the response both lack legitimacy, those voting with the ballots for the building of Afghanistan's democracy today may vote against it with bullets tomorrow.



Aunohita Mojumdar 8/17/09

With only three days before presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan, the Independent Election Commission is sending out desperate appeals. In nearly a quarter of the country’s provinces, despite repeated pleas, the Afghan institution charged with managing the elections has been unable to recruit enough women to staff polling stations. Female staff members are necessary for searching women coming to vote, an essential part of the security matrix in polling stations across the country. Unless they are recruited -- rapidly -- in many areas women may be unable to cast their vote.

The possible disenfranchisement of a substantive section of the country’s population is more than a mere logistical concern. Increasing insecurity, including violence specifically targeted at women, as well as conservative attitudes, may combine to prevent many women from entering polling booths on August 20.

Despite certain advances in women’s rights, especially in some urban areas, women are facing increasing levels of retributive violence for participating in Afghanistan’s public space. Threats, attacks and even high profile assassinations have sent a clear warning to women to curb their participation in public activities. The result, said the UN in a recent report, is that the "pattern of attacks against women operating in the public sphere sends a strong message to all women to stay at home. [. . .] The effective imprisonment of women in their homes in an electoral period raises additional concerns" about the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

On the surface, it appears woman have made great gains since elections were last held in 2004. This time, there are more female candidates contesting for provincial council seats. But in southern provinces such as Kandahar and Uruzgan, despite the fact that 25 percent of the seats are reserved for female delegates, there are not enough female candidates to fill the quota.

In Kandahar Province, where the incumbent president’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai heads the provincial council, there are just three female candidates, despite four seats set aside for women. According to Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the three women "cannot live there because of the insecurity." Elsewhere, she said, there are examples of female candidates whose families and communities, opposed to their candidacy, forbid them to campaign. A joint monitoring exercise conducted by the AIHRC and UNAMA (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) found that community leaders in some provinces had called upon people not to vote for female candidates.

Initially, observers touted the high rates of female voter registration, especially in conservative areas, as a sign that liberal democratic values were taking root. The reality is somewhat different, however. Often, male family members not only register the women in the family, but also vote for them, especially in conservative areas where women traditionally are not allowed to appear in public, something that was reported by international and national observer missions in past elections.

The system of proxy voting appears likely to be repeated in the current elections, said the feisty female parliamentarian and champion of women’s rights Shukriya Barakzai. "This is our concern. Our legal right to vote may be taken away. Women’s voter cards are not required to have photographs. So the male members of the family can use them," she told EurasiaNet.

In the village of Sarkot in conservative Nangarhar Province’s Sherzad District, on the Pakistani border, this female EurasiaNet correspondent was invited to visit the home of the largest landowning family, the local power brokers. Over 20 women of voting age live in this large extended family, but queried on whether or not they will vote, they do not comprehend the question until it is repeated several times.

"Of course not. We will give our votes to the [male] elders in the family and they will cast them," said a young woman. "We don’t have permission to leave our homes for the polling station," she added.

Despite concerns about the participation of women, female activists are not sitting by idly. On August 4, between 1200 and 1500 female activists launched ’The 50 Percent Campaign’ and the ’Five Million Campaign’ in Kabul’s Loya Jirga -- Grand Council -- tent, where equal rights for Afghan women were written into the country’s constitution in 2004.

The idea is to boost female turnout.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a female rights activist who mobilized women from the eastern provinces for the campaign launch, is hopeful. "Yes there is insecurity. But I think people will put this to one side and come out to vote, because the voting is about a democratic transition of power and we have all experienced the violence of a non-democratic transition. You can see how 1500 women came together the morning after Kabul had a series of rocket attacks while the internationals stayed indoors," she said.

The activists have certainly managed to put women’s issues higher on the agenda of some prominent candidates. While most campaigns scarcely mentioned women at first, this week prominent challengers Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah took time off from their busy campaigns to participate in a discussion on women’s rights hosted by an Afghan activist, Mahbouba Seraj. Missing from the platform was the incumbent president.

The government’s lack of support has not gone unnoticed by the female activists. In the Loya Jirga tent where a photograph of Karzai looms large, the activists first tried to remove the image. Unsuccessful, they asked media outlets not to include the portrait of the president in their footage or photographs. "We don’t want him using our event to get votes," said an activist. "We want the government to ensure our security so that we can go out and vote."