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AFGHANISTAN: Interview with chief electoral officer, Peter Erben


KABUL, 30 Sep 2005 (IRIN) - After almost three decades of conflict and violence, Afghanistan marked its entry back to a civil and lawful rule last October when Hamid Karzai was elected president with a 55 percent majority in a direct poll held across the country. Eleven months on, on Sunday another historical milestone was reached when the country held its parliamentary and provincial council elections, under an Afghan-UN Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), which also administered last year's presidential polls.

Since the run-up to 18 September election began by the end of March, Peter Erben, as chief electoral Officer at the JEMB, has been administering polling arrangements nationwide. In an interview with IRIN in the Afghan capital Kabul, Erben discussed the many challenges and remarkable features of Sunday's Afghan election.

Q: Since it was the first general election in Afghanistan after almost three decades of conflict, do you consider this any different from other post-conflict elections held in recent years in various countries across the globe?

A: With all its shared similarities of other post-conflict situations, Afghanistan's elections also had some distinct features making it somewhat more challenging than the elections held in recent years in Bosnia or Iraq.

Since it was a relatively long period of conflict where an entire Afghan generation was affected, very little of the infrastructure was left behind whereas in other countries at least a road network was in place. So logistically it was a huge challenge to conduct an election exercise in such a vast country without any established road network. In addition, continued conflict in some parts of the country was also an obstacle to a peaceful general election. Then women's participation in the electoral process was another challenge on the cultural front.

Q: What sort of logistical challenges were there in holding these elections across this wide rugged terrain?

A: Holding two elections on the same day was itself not a difficult task, as in many countries of the world this is what happens. Here, it was a relatively complex electoral system, with 69 different kinds of separate ballot papers (34 different provincial council ballot papers, 34 Wolesi Jirga [lower house] ballot papers, and one Kuchi ballot paper) ranging in size from one to seven pages, depending on the number of candidates per province. Kabul for example had 400 candidates. With bigger ballots, we had to bring new ballot boxes in, and then transport them all across the country to urban, rural, remote and mountainous areas. In short, in terms of weight and volume, this year's election material was 10 times greater than last year's presidential polls.

Q: This time female participation has increased a lot both in terms of voter registration and participation in the elections. But, are there still pockets without any registered women voters, or very low registration figures? Also, are there women candidates for every seat reserved for females in the national and provincial legislatures? If not [as in some cases in southern provinces] what will happen to the seats?

A: Women participated in these elections all over Afghanistan both as candidates and voters. It is a distinct cultural change visible across the country. This year's voters' list of over 12 million carries 44 percent female registrants. Women representation in legislatures is guaranteed, with 68 seats reserved in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga and 25 percent of seats in provincial councils set aside for females. Last year, there were few districts with no females registered, however this time all the 398 districts have women registered voters. In fact, it has increased in the southern region. For example, in Uruzgan province it increased by 35 percent and in Helmand by 23 percent. [Also], in Ajristan district of Ghazni province, no women registered last year, but this year 13,000 women registered.

As far as women representation in the Wolesi Jirga is concerned, it will be up to its capacity. However, of a total 34, two of the provincial councils in Zabul and Nangarhar provinces are likely to have some of the women's seats remain vacant due to a lack of candidates. Uruzgan province had no female contestant at all, so its provincial council will be without any female representative.

Q: How many of the more than 6,200 polling centres were operational on polling day last Sunday? And did they have separate polling stations for women?

A: Of over 6,200 polling centres only a few were not operational for security reasons, in the provinces of Daikundi, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Helmand. Each polling centre had women's polling stations as well.

Q: There was no polling arrangement for a large majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) settled in the south from the north [almost over 150,000], and an equal number of returnees? Why not?

A: Yes, Afghanistan has a significant [level of] internal displacement. But logistically it was not possible to arrange [for voting] with 69 different ballots where these people are living now. The same was true for Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran.

Another way of accommodating this population was to reserve seats for them in the parliament, and likewise for the Kuchis [Afghanistan's nomadic people]. However, there was no such provision made for out of country or displaced electorates.

As far as returnees from Pakistan or Iran are concerned, all those who returned under the [office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] UNHCR's voluntary programme, were given the opportunity to get their voter registration cards at the encashment centres for their province of residence. However, for the unofficial returnees, there was no such provision because it could have given more opportunities for irregular voter entries in the absence of any proof of identity.

Q: The JEMB had an extended public outreach programme with several traditional and innovative techniques used to target some 1 million people, but apparently it didn't focus much on the Kuchi community, where, according to some observer reports, there was extremely low awareness about how to cast votes.

A: As a matter of fact, there was much more money for the Kuchi community in our public outreach programme than any other community. Of over 1,800 civic educators about 110 were from the Kuchis. But, we have to see this from the perspective of a post-conflict situation; let me make this point as well, our programme was for public awareness about this election, and on the election day everyone knew that there was an election in Afghanistan. In a six-month period, it was a great achievement. Had there been more time, it could have been extended. But, often, even in developed countries, not everyone knows each and every thing about the electoral process.

Q: How are you dealing with complaints regarding election irregularities?

A: For complaints, we have a procedure of internal investigations, of quarantining suspicious ballot boxes, and then there is a separate Electoral Complaints Commission to hear the complaints. After a generally peaceful election without any significant security incidents anywhere in the country, now ballot counting is under way. The results are expected sometime in the middle of October, followed by a five-day complaint and audit period after which the JEMB will announce certified results to put the lower house of parliament and provincial councils finally in place.

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

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