Afghans hopeful ahead of parliament election

Most voters interviewed are confused about voting system, candidates

September 16, 2005|By James Rupert | James Rupert,NEWSDAY

KABUL, Afghanistan - With the first parliamentary election in 32 years set for Sunday, pro-democracy campaigners here have much to celebrate.

About 12 million Afghans, the vast majority of the country's adults, are registered to vote. And those interviewed by journalists and election observers say they are eager to choose a legislature to replace civil war as the forum for political debate.

The Bush administration, too, is lauding the election's virtual completion of a national government here that was designed under U.S. guidance to serve as a possible model for democracy in the Muslim world.

But if anything is as thick as the hope surrounding Sunday's vote, it is the uncertainty. Most voters interviewed say they are confused by the voting system, little aware of the candidates and unsure of their options. Many of the country's hundreds of local warlords are running for office, and Afghans and election monitors say local strongmen are buying or bullying voters.

The revived Taliban insurgency has left more than 1,000 people dead this year - 10 of them killed yesterday. At least five candidates and four election workers have been killed ahead of the vote, officials say.

"We are not prepared for a free and fair election," said Shukriya Barakzai, a Kabul writer and women's rights campaigner who is one of an unprecedented wave of women candidates on the ballot. "After so much war ... our electoral system has not excluded men from trying to legitimize [through the ballot] the power they have seized with guns" and money from drug-dealing, she said.

Officials of the United Nations, which is running the election jointly with an independent Afghan electoral commission, tell reporters that a "free and fair" election is not really possible, and that a "credible" and "legitimate" vote is their goal.

Establishing a viable parliament is vital to the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan after this country served as a base for Osama bin Laden to plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

While there is no true national mass media, nor any way of polling Afghans, every indication is that people want urgently to exclude from power the faction leaders from more than 20 years of civil war, many of whom still head powerful local militias despite a vigorous campaign to disband them.

The election law bars candidates with links to "unofficial ... armed groups." A committee of officials from military and intelligence agencies, including the Afghan and U.S. militaries and NATO peacekeeping forces, was given the job of recommending who should be barred.

Afghan and Western officials say the committee, called the Joint Secretariat, balked at excluding two groups of militia commanders: those it feared would lash back with attacks on Afghan or foreign targets, and those whose cooperation is needed for U.S. and Afghan military and intelligence operations.

In July, when election officials announced that 11 militia leaders among the 2,800 parliament candidates had been disqualified, criticism by Afghans was widespread. Scholars, newspaper editorials and human rights groups protested that the new parliament was being surrendered to warlords.

On Monday, election officials announced 21 more men had been disqualified. That raised a new storm, as the names will remain on the ballots, which were printed long ago. In a country that lacks mass media, or even telephones and roads, it will be impossible to widely inform voters about who is no longer a legal candidate.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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