Big test for the Afghan elections: Turnout

Posted in Broader Middle East | 15-Sep-05 | Author: Somini Sengupta| Source: International Herald Tribune

Afghan women walk past posters of parliamentary election candidates in Kabul.
SHAJOY, Afghanistan Who's afraid of democracy? In Afghanistan, apparently, everyone and no one.

In the southern city of Kandahar one morning last week, Rona Tarin, a candidate for Parliament opened her front gate to find one of her campaign posters scribbled with terrifying threats.

Here in neighboring Zabul Province, suspected Taliban fighters offered the driver of another parliamentary candidate a huge sum of money in exchange for her life; the candidate said she no longer dared campaign anywhere outside the provincial capital.

And in this market town in the heart of Zabul, it remained unclear this week whether grown men would have the courage to travel even three kilometers, or two miles, through Taliban redoubts to cast their votes on Sunday, which is Election Day.

Nearly four years after the Taliban regime was routed from Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces, a newly emboldened insurgency has stepped up a campaign of threats and thuggery ahead of the parliamentary and provincial elections, particularly here in the badlands of the country's south.

But just as remarkable as that apparent resurgence is the degree to which many ordinary Afghans seem unfazed, even defiant, in the face of fear-mongering.

Whether Afghan men and women turn out in large numbers on Sunday remains the important test. For now, even candidates who have been threatened have vowed to stay in the race, although most have had to limit their activities sharply.

"The day I registered as a candidate I knew about these problems," said Tarin, 34, a preschool supervisor from Kandahar whose campaign poster was defiled and left in front of her home last week. With 68 seats reserved for women in the country's new 249-member Parliament, she is one of 9 female candidates for 3 reserved women's seats from Kandahar Province.

"How long should I sit at home?" a fuming Tarin asked. "How long should I close my eyes? How long should I shut my ears? I have to take my people's problems to Parliament."

The price of running, particularly in this part of the country, can be perilous. Since early June, six candidates and five election workers - all of them men - have been killed, with most of the killings occurring in the five southern provinces. The most recent incident came last week, in the mountainous heart of Kandahar, where the corpses of a parliamentary candidate, a local government official and three policemen were found by the local police, their throats slashed and their bodies pummeled by large stones.

Rockets have been lobbed at a school that was to serve as a polling site. Candidates have complained of threatening, anonymous calls. The Taliban's signature "night letters" have been dropped off at markets and mosques in several southern provinces, issuing warnings against any voting at all. In Khost, to the north, less than two months ago, a bomb went off inside a mosque that was being used for voter registration. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, the convoy of a parliamentary candidate, Safia Sadiqi, came under fire. Sadiqi was spared, but two campaign workers were wounded.

Meanwhile, the garden-variety guerilla attacks continue. In recent days, new AK-47s were discovered buried under the sand in Zabul Province, and a hand grenade was found near the bustling traffic circle near the bazaar in the provincial capital, Qalat. In Kandahar, 24 homemade bombs - cooking pots filled with explosives - were found inside a school designated as a polling site. On Election Day, international election observers are unlikely to venture out into the hinterlands to monitor polls.

Voter turnout will signal not only the nerve of Afghan voters but also their confidence in the still fragile government of President Hamid Karzai and his American backers.

In southern provinces like this one, voters and candidates said in interviews this week, life has become even more precarious than it was last year, when Afghanistan's first presidential elections were held, amid a fount of optimism.

"Slowly, slowly, morale is going down," said Talatbek Masadykov, the head of the southern region for the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, based in Kandahar. "The security is not improving - this is one. And the central and provincial government cannot deliver assistance to people in very remote areas."

In Shajoy town on Tuesday morning, the men in the market said they were unsure of what Election Day would bring. A stream of candidates had been swinging through, the richest and most powerful doling out cash and mobile phones. But how many would trudge to the polls from the villages, this no one knew.

Mohamed Aziz, a shopkeeper, was sure he would vote. He lives here in town. But his relatives barely three kilometers away would likely not venture into town on Sunday. The Taliban had carpeted the villages around here with threats against anyone voting. Just last week, Taliban fighters were suspected of having shot up two police checkpoints. "People are really worried about security," Aziz said.

Abdul Zahir, a farmer, said during last year's presidential elections, the men of his village, about four kilometers away, had come to vote, but those further out of town, did not have the courage. "This time," he said, "God only knows."

Troops in Humvees arrived in Shejoy this week to donate wheat seeds to the local government and hand out free radios and clothes to the children. American and Afghan troops, along with Afghan police, have beefed up patrols in sensitive areas nationwide. To Zahir, it made little difference. "In the daytime, this government is coming to us, and in the nighttime the Taliban are coming to us," he said. "We're stuck in the middle. We are scared."

Police and election officials were keen to deflect attention away from violence, noting that despite intimidation, 1.6 million additional Afghans had registered to vote this year, bringing the total up to 12.6 million, according to election officials. About 5,800 candidates had signed up to run for Parliament and provincial assemblies, and 44 percent of new registered voters this year were women.

"The people of Afghanistan have brave hearts," said Mullah Gul, a police commander in Kandahar, whose men found the latest corpse of the latest candidate to be killed. "They don't care about death."

Violence may not necessarily subside after the voting Sunday. For one thing, according to Afghan election law, in the event of the winner's death, the runner-up takes office - a provision some feared would heighten the likelihood of political assassinations.

In these elections, the stakes for women are particularly high. In a region where women customarily cover themselves from head to toe, several women have boldly displayed their faces on campaign placards. But tradition and terror have also sharply curtailed their campaigns.

Torpakai, a public health worker in Qalat vying to represent Zabul Province in Parliament, has not managed to get out to more than two of Zabul's 11 rural districts. In the cities, people will vote, even women, she predicted. In the country, she was not so sure.

Even a year ago, said Torpakai, a 40-year-old widow who like many in this region goes only by one name, she would not have expected to make such an assessment. "Not just me, all the people were optimistic about democracy, optimistic about security," she said.

One of her rivals, another health worker named Zarmina Pathan, has restricted herself to campaigning within Qalat city limits after gunmen tried to bribe her driver to hand her over.

Friends and well-wishers take her campaign literature into the districts when they can.

Pathan, 38, does not expect many rural women to vote. Women who come to vaccinate their children refuse to take the vaccination cards back home, lest Taliban fighters stop and search and accuse them of supporting the government. She approached the elections Sunday with a mix of gloom and determination.

"Every time they threaten me, it dashes my hopes," she said. "But I'm running for Parliament. I can't just run away from the elections."