Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The New York Times ran a story on Oct. 4 about the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan. I started reading it only because of the headline, "Afghans Studying the Art of Voting": I thought it'd be about some cute Afghan PR tricks - poster-like rugs with candidates' slogans on them, fragile tea glasses with candidates' portraits, or something as exotic. But no, even though the story turned out to be quite a vivid read, much of it was, literally, about teaching and learning how to vote.

The Afghan election is in four days and there are 18 candidates to pick from. Here's one of the ways "Western election experts" and their local colleagues are spreading the "art" of democracy among the Afghan masses:

Across parts of Afghanistan, male and female teams have arrived in villages with mock ballots and boxes and a poster showing the photographs and symbols of all the 18 presidential candidates. They make the villagers act out the voting procedure, telling them that illiterate people can hold the marker pen in their fist and make any mark in the box of their choice. Relatives can help the blind and old people. Women will vote in women-only enclosures and so should familiarize themselves with the candidates' pictures. There is only one day of voting, and they can vote only once, they say.

And here's one of the biggest obstacles:

"We have our registration cards, but the main problem is we don't know the candidates; we do not know who they are," said Mirza Muhammad, an old farmer sitting at a teahouse where election posters were stuck on the windows.

Without modern communications, villagers like Mr. Muhammad do not recognize the candidates they are supposed to vote for. So for the many voters who are both illiterate and do not recognize the faces of candidates, voting is a real problem. Mr. Muhammad said he knew none of the faces.

The Guardian ran a similar piece one day earlier:

The burly nomad with a henna beard and a fierce scowl grips the pen between his thick fingers. Turgul cannot read the election material around him, but is determined to practise the first vote of his life.

The turbaned tribesman drags the pen across a scrap of paper. 'Just like that,' he says uncertainly, holding aloft the squiggle that will mark his choice.

It doesn't look too promising, and little can be done in terms of imposing higher standards. According to the Guardian,

Few elections have faced such a dizzy array of challenges as Saturday's presidential poll in Afghanistan. Taliban terrorists are threatening bombings and warlords may try to warp the result. The terrain is forbidding, the logistics maddening and, like Turgul, many voters are illiterate. 'It's been very difficult,' said Amandine Roche, a United Nations civil education officer. 'But Afghans really want this to work.'

The New York Times provides a similar assessment:

Only about 230 foreigners have come as observers or "special guests," according to United Nations officials. The United States is financing only about a dozen elections experts who have moved to Afghanistan to help develop democracy. Many aid groups and United Nations agencies have actually urged their staff members to leave the country for the election because of the security threat, and they are doing so en masse.

As a result of security problems, international observers will be largely confined to the country's eight largest cities, where ballots will be counted. But over 70 percent of Afghans live in rural areas where much of the expected intimidation, violence and irregularities could occur.

With so few international observers involved, 120,000 Afghans are being trained to run 5,000 polling centers on election day. Of 16,000 domestic observers, 12,000 will be political party agents, raising the potential for intimidation or fraud.

The Guardian story says the UN "is spending £111 million on the election." That's almost $200 million. Not much compared to other countries' election expenses, I'm sure. But still quite overwhelming if you consider that a significant number of potential voters have to be taught how to hold a pencil. And then they'll declare Afghanistan a real democracy, despite the New York Times' prediction that the result of this voting "art" would be "a uniquely Afghan democratic mélange."

But what would be so unique about this waste of money? On Sept. 27, Reuters reported that "the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan denied [...] that he was interfering" in the election.

While the United States and other nations have been careful not to publicly endorse any particular candidate, interim President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win the poll and is the clear favourite of the West.

But some of the 18 candidates standing for election have complained that Khalilzad [the U.S. ambassador], an Afghan emigre but now a naturalised American, had put pressure on them to quit the race in favour of Karzai, appointed interim president after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Candidates have also complained that Karzai has an unfair campaign advantage in being able to use state apparatus, much of it provided by the American government and military.

According to Reuters, Karzai "has barely campaigned because of security constraints" - but he "depends on U.S. bodyguards to protect him," so it's unlikely that much money has been saved this way. However, he's not trying to conceal his concern for the country's financial well-being:

"I hope for good reasons that the elections will not go to a second round, because it will be very expensive for us to have a second round and will be easier to have the results at the first round," Karzai told reporters after talks with German Foreign Minster Joshka Fischer.

The whole point of this election seems to be the change of Karzai's status from someone "handpicked" by the U.S. to that of a legitimate leader:

"Legitimacy will increase tremendously after the (presidential) election," [Karzai] added.

There's nothing unique about this approach. The much-criticized August 29 election in Chechnya appears to have had the same drawbacks - or perhaps those were just practical considerations:

"People will come to the elections. We expect the turnout to be high enough," committee head Abdul- Kerim Arsakhanov said in an interview Monday.

He said he expects one candidate to win 50 percent or more of the vote, which would remove the need for a runoff.

Given the predictability of the outcome, the election campaign has been smooth -- if not boring -- so far. Six candidates are taking part in the race in addition to Alkhanov. None is mounting a serious challenge because they are reluctant to upset Alkhanov or have been encouraged by the Chechen administration to run to create the semblance of a race, said Edilbek Khasmagomadov, an independent political analyst.

"These elections are senseless, as it is clear that there is no alternative and the winner is known beforehand," he said. "All they will achieve is to give a shade of legitimacy to the authorities, who rule as they please rather under the mandate handed them by society."

The Guardian had called that election 'farcical.' For the "Afghan nomads," however, theirs will be a rehearsal of "dawn of democracy."

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