Thursday, September 13, 2018

KABUL — Millions of Afghans will go to polls next month to choose lawmakers in the first Afghan-organized and Afghan-run parliamentary election since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

But 17 years after a U.S.-led coalition drove the Islamist militants from the capital, many say they won’t vote on Oct. 20 because of security concerns and doubts about the fairness and transparency of the electoral process.

The stakes for a smooth election are high, U.S. and Afghan officials say, because the parliamentary vote will be followed in six months by an even more momentous campaign for president.

“I will not participate in the upcoming election as my vote will not be counted. I do not believe anymore that it will be a transparent election,” said Mortaza Nazari, 20, who is unemployed and living in Kabul. “Only rich guys who collude with Afghanistan’s independent election commission can win the election. So it is just a show to fool the citizens.”

Mr. Nazari said he is not happy about sitting out the election but has no choice, given the deteriorating situation in the country.

“There is no security, no stable economy, no reliable leader and no hope,” he said. “Every day, there is killing, bloodshed and violence across Afghanistan. Here in Afghanistan, there is no news of reconstruction or hope.”

Despite President Trump’s crackdown just over a year ago, the violence has not abated and the Taliban continue to hold broad swaths of the country beyond urban areas. In the first six months of the year, almost 1,700 civilians were killed, the highest number in a six-month period since the United Nations began recording a decade ago.

In recent days, a suicide bomber killed at least 62 at a protest in eastern Afghanistan and Taliban attacks killed 10 soldiers and two policemen at an army base in Farah province.

As a result, the elections are considered a major test for Afghan security authorities. Taliban and other militant groups have vowed to disrupt campaigning and elections and have already targeted voter registration centers.

At the same time, the elections serve as a test for the fragile democracy created after the fall of the Taliban. The elections were originally set for October 2016, and the delay violates a provision of the Afghan Constitution that says parliamentary elections must be held every five years.

The delay shows insufficient institutional capacity to apply the constitution and to hold elections on time, said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research organization based in Kabul and Berlin.

Afghan institutions “are often very dysfunctional, and Afghan democracy is more a facade than reality,” he said. “And at the moment, there are no conditions to have a halfway fair election in Afghanistan — and that undermines institutions and the belief of people in [the democratic process] even further.”

Broad surveys of popular opinion confirm the deepening level of distrust.

The Asia Foundation’s annual Survey of the Afghan People, released last month, found that the number of Afghans who “are satisfied with democracy, have confidence in the Independent Election Commission, trust their members of parliament (MPs), and feel safe participating in public political activities are all in significant decline.”

The foundation reported that the number of Afghans expressing faith in their country’s democracy fell from 77 percent in 2006 to 57 percent last year. Confidence in the electoral commission dropped from 67 percent in 2009 to 38 percent last year.

The last presidential election, in 2014, did little to boost the faith of ordinary Afghans in their democratic process. The outcome was decided through a political deal — not votes.

A power-sharing deal between Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, allowed both candidates to claim a win but produced a government that is widely seen as too weak to tackle the country’s massive economic and security challenges.

“There is also a widespread tiredness — not of democracy, but of this kind of democracy where you have elections and in the end you never know whether your vote really has counted,” Mr. Ruttig said.

Ballot-stuffing at polling stations across the country was reportedly rampant. Analysts say they are bracing for a repeat next month, especially in remote and insecure areas beyond the reach of election officials and monitors.

Candidate problems

Meanwhile, the candidates themselves have issues. The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission has banned almost three dozen would-be and current members of parliament from running because of reported ties to illegal armed groups. Many others on the ballot have no experience in government.

Some districts lack a full slate of candidates, especially in the district council races, which are being held alongside the parliamentary election for the first time. The district councils are important to Afghans because council leaders provide closer links to the population, especially in rural areas.

Proposed electoral reforms after the last election never materialized under the Ghani administration, analysts said.

Naim Ayoubzada, head of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan in Kabul, said he worries that security issues, lack of transparency and the technical challenges of ensuring a fair vote might spill over into the presidential election in April and even prevent it from happening.

“The coming parliamentary election is a good start for the next year’s presidential election. It can guarantee our democracy and can help [deepen] the legitimacy of the democratic structures,” he said.

“But if we can’t hold parliamentary elections, then holding the presidential election could be impossible. In this case, people will lose hope of democracy, Afghanistan will head toward crises, ethnonationalism and defragmentation, and finally Afghanistan will turn into a safe haven for terrorists like ISIS.

“Considering the current situation, deterioration of political and economic situation is more likely to be seen rather than having our problems fixed,” he said.

Mr. Ruttig said it took more than eight months to get final results from the last parliamentary election and there is a chance that the full results from polling next month might not be published before the April election.

In spite of all the dire predictions and public pessimism, however, some say they are excited by the chance to choose their leaders at the ballot box.

“The current situation is totally not acceptable. The country is in a deep political and economic crisis,” said Asifa, 25, from Balkh province in the north, who asked that her last name be withheld out of security concerns.

“But I [will vote] for security and political and economic stability by participating in the election,” she said. “And I vote to bring change and have peace and stability.”

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