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Special report on voter registration in Afghanistan

KABUL, 29 Jan 2004 (IRIN) - Gulsum rubbed her hands under her blue all-enveloping burqa and stamped her feet in the snow to keep warm as she queued patiently along with hundreds of others. She's determined to take part in the first ever democratic election in Afghanistan, scheduled for June this year, so she has responded to a UN-backed voter registration drive in the capital, Kabul.

Women in Kabul line up to register for forthcoming elections

Gulsum told IRIN she was keen to get a voter card to ensure warlords who currently occupy powerful positions in the government would not retain power after parliamentary and presidential polls. "We must replace them, may god show us a miracle," the 40-year-old widow, recently returned after two decades in neighbouring Pakistan, said. Gulsum said she would use her vote for the candidate who would guarantee to provide shelter, schools and clinics for millions of other returnees like her. But she was not optimistic. "I don't see anyone so far."

With just half a million Afghans registered since early December 2003, the process has a long way to go to enfranchise the estimated 10.5 million potential voters eligible to participate in elections this summer, in accordance with agreements reached at the Bonn international conference on Afghanistan in December 2001.

"It is very nice to have half a million people registered, but this figure is still far from the total estimated number of Afghans who are eligible to register as voters," Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a spokesperson for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told IRIN.

According to UNAMA, several challenges face the electoral registration in this traditional country devoid of infrastructure, ravaged by poverty and plagued by elements of the former Taliban regime and Al-qaeda. Geography, cultural issues, funding from the international community and security conditions will all be important factors influencing whether the elections go ahead as planned.

The US $78 million election initiative is managed by an 11-member panel, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB). The JEMB was formed after a presidential decree in 2003 and is composed of six Afghans including two women, and five international experts from the UN.

Voter registration is taking place in three phases. Phase one, which has already started, covers Afghanistan's eight major urban areas. Phase two spreads the process to provincial areas, and phase three will register people in rural areas - where most of the population lives. "To be able to do that, and to speed up the process you need to have security conditions and arrangements, not only for staff working in the process to go to the different places, but also for the people themselves, to feel comfortable and go and register," said e Silva.

Dateline and challenges

Growing insecurity in the country mostly in the south and east, poses one of the most serious challenges to a successful election. A series of attacks on UN and aid workers has meant that humanitarian and development work has been suspended across much of the south. This means voter registration in the region is lagging behind schedule. Around 500 people, including many militants, have been killed in Afghanistan in the last six months, the bloodiest period since the Taliban was deposed by US-led forces in late 2001.

The huge national registration campaign is labour intensive, and requires thousands of local and at least 100 international UN employees to make the programme work. But due to security constraints the UN has yet to deploy many international election supervisors. "We had expected 70 international registration supervisors, by the end of November, but only 20 have arrived. Because of the security situation the rest could not come to Afghanistan," Reg Austin, chief of UNAMA's electoral component, told IRIN.

"Our operations started at one third of the scale that we had expected. That meant quite a number of Afghan workers could not be deployed because of the lack of international supervisors," Austin said, adding that the problem was compounded by a lack of registration sites.

Despite these challenges and constraints, Austin said he was confident that registration would be completed on schedule by spring. "We believe we will carry out a register which should be a credible register by the end of May." Austin was confident that the process would be accelerated by using more Afghan staff in UN no-go areas. "In the present circumstances of security in Afghanistan, we must rely much more significantly upon Afghan registration staff not only to register but to supervise the process.

At the moment, some 50 teams composed of around 400 UN local employees are operating in the field. Voter registration teams have not faced any major security problems, but this is in part due to the fact that they have only deployed in urban areas. But observers are warning that the process will be much more dangerous in rural Afghanistan, where Kabul's authority remains very weak and regional warlords and armed opposition groups continue to hold sway.

The United Nations has appealed urgently for more international peacekeeping troops to provide security for national elections. "It is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions that do not permit registration teams to go throughout the country," a UNAMA spokesperson said.

A local think-tank has argued that holding elections as early as this summer is risky and could further destabilise the country as the situation on the ground militates against free and fair elections. "Holding elections prematurely could do more to promote instability and conflict rather than lasting peace," Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) told IRIN.

According to the AREU, about one third of the country, especially in the southern and eastern Pashtun belt, would be difficult or impossible to access by voter registration teams due to security concerns. "Even if accessible, in areas of Taliban influence voters and candidates may well be intimidated and pressured not to participate," said Wilder, warning that elections with inadequate participation and representation of the Pashtun majority would not produce stability.

The new US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmai Khalilzad, appears cautiously confident that elections would take place this year. "I am not of the view at this point that elections cannot take place this spring or this summer," said Khalilzad earlier this month, following adoption of the new constitution by the Grand Loya Jirga. Although Khalilzad admitted voter registration was slower than expected, he said Washington was seeking ways to accelerate the process and to make up for lost time.

Women's participation lower than expected

"Women in rural areas are not allowed to go out for a vaccination or health check, so how they can go long distances to register to vote?" Wolanga, a teacher at a girls' school in Kabul, told IRIN. The 35-year-old mother, who comes from a conservative area in the eastern province of Jalalabad, said women's mobility was a serious issue in rural regions, which would impact on registration. "I think we should make the men understand that the more voters they have, the more benefit to their community, and that is only possible if they encourage women get registered too," she maintained.

So far, of around half a million Afghans who have registered to vote, only around 100,000, or 22 percent, are female. The UN has expressed concern at the low number of women registering. In an effort to encourage women's participation, given the reality of Afghan society, UNAMA's electoral component will deploy mobile registration teams in conservative or inaccessible areas, so women would not have to go very far to register to vote. The problem is that so much of the country could be described as conservative and isolated and resources are limited.

"What we have learned so far is that if you provide the service and make it culturally acceptable and easy for women not to have to go long distances from their homes, the people will respond to this process," Austin said. UNAMA is trying to ensure women are registered entirely by other women and to use mosques in rural areas as registration sites for women, wherever possible. "Unfortunately we don't have the resources for door-to-door registration. But we have found that with registration in mosques, women feel more safe to come," he ascertained.

And Afghan women are fighting for their right to vote. Last week, in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, 500 women marched through the centre of the city in a show of support for voter registration. Nafeesa Ghyasi, a well-known local personality who hosts a television programme for women, called for women to join her on the march and register at a local school. The women were registered and then received new civic education posters that encourage women's participation, according to UNAMA.

Public awareness

Surrounded by elders and religious dignitaries in a mosque on the outskirts of Kabul, Sayed Hashimi began an election public awareness lesson by recalling a tragic moment during Afghanistan's bitter civil war when a child lay crying on her dying mother during a battle for Kabul, more than a decade ago.

"Do you want those days back? Of course not, then lets make the people understand and encourage men and women to participate in forming a new Afghanistan!" Hashimi exclaimed to participants, while pointing to posters illustrating images of destruction and war with other images showing a prosperous post-election Afghanistan.

According to Hashimi, mullahs were the most effective way of spreading public awareness about the benefits of an election, particularly in conservative rural societies. "They are very helpful in spreading the message, mainly in convincing men to allow their women to register," the civic educator said.

But given Afghanistan's bloody history and series of autocratic rulers, convincing ordinary people of the benefits of democracy is no easy task. Suhrabuddin, one of the participants in the civic education session, told IRIN there was much scepticism. "Well, having been cheated by presidents and regime after regime, now people are too reluctant to participate in politics," the 40-year-old school watchman said.

"I have witnessed tens of campaigns and civic education messages designed to serve people over the last 30 years but things went from bad to worse," he ascertained, adding that most Afghans were not ready to participate in a political process until the powerful warlords had been disarmed. "When a man can no longer express himself with a gun, then people will take this [election] seriously."

Despite this palpable sense of cynicism among many Afghans, civic educators are trying to impress upon sceptical community leaders that the election process has international backing and will be free and fair. "We are not anticipating much intimidation from warlords," Austin said.

According to UNAMA, civic education activities continue, with awareness-raising through local mass media and open meetings and discussions. "Over 19,556 face-to-face meetings have been conducted, 5,697 community mobilisation events and 15,172 briefings throughout the cities where registration is ongoing," a recent UNAMA press statement on the election read.

Other means are being employed to get the message across to Afghans who have never experienced an election. Dramas, soap operas, street theatre and inserts on local radio are all being used, as well as officials shouting out the message through megaphones when the registration team hits town. Famous personalities, including Afghan president Hamid Karzai have been registering in recent days. "There was a spike in the number of people registering to vote in Kabul after the high profile registration of President Karzai on 18 January," said e Silva.

Other institutional and legal challenges

Another difficulty is that according to rules set by the JEMB, at least three people from different political parties should be observing the voter registration process at every site. But to date, no political parties have registered, as a new law regulating party politics was passed only a few months before voter registration started late last year.

As the concept of opposition parties is as novel as elections to most Afghans, the UN is trying to get round the stipulation by inviting community leaders and elders to be official observers. "We are working to create what we call a monitoring committee composed of mullahs, elders and citizens who can be authorised to sit and watch the process," Austin maintained.

In addition, there is still an immense amount of work to be done in establishing electoral districts and constituencies across the country, another important prerequisite to geographically representative parliamentary elections. "This is not a security issue, it's an institutional issue that has to be decided by the government. It is a very important element if you're going to have legislative elections," said e Silva.

Another problem the government faces is how to give an electoral voice to millions of Afghans currently living in neighbouring countries as refugees. "The JEMB has decided that we should examine the possibility of registering Afghans in Pakistan and Iran. Whether we can register beyond that [Afghans in Europe and US] is perhaps a much more difficult question and it would be extremely expensive," Austin acknowledged.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

... Payvand News - 1/29/04 ... --

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