Waiting for Godot
Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections have been postponed again, reports Peter Willems from Kabul
"Now that we are able to register to vote, we will be able to decide on our fate," said Ahmed Khalid, an Afghan holding his new registration card at a United Nations registration office in the outskirts of Kabul. "I believe that electing a government will give us what we have wanted for a long time."
But Afghans, enthusiastic to vote after a quarter of a century of continuous warfare, will have to wait. The elections that were scheduled to be held in September, after being pushed back from June, have been delayed again. On Friday, Afghanistan's Electoral Commission announced that parliamentary elections would not be held until April next year. Furthermore, the Commission also decided to go ahead and hold the presidential elections in October.
The main cause of the delay has been the surge in violence, which has included attacks on people working to prepare for the vote. Two weeks ago, a female election worker was killed in a mine blast in eastern Afghanistan. In June, three other female election workers were killed when their vehicle was bombed while they were travelling to a registration office in Jalalabad, east of the capital Kabul. In the same week, up to 17 Afghan men were executed by Taliban guerrillas in the Uruzgan province, apparently because the men had recently registered to vote. Indeed, the Taliban have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, with the aim of destabilising the country.
While US troops continue fighting remnants of the Taliban in the south, violence has spread to the north, often linked to Afghanistan's growing drug trade. Armed conflicts between warlords, who now control vast areas outside the capital, are frequent.
The warlords' ability to undermine elections by intimidating voters has caused much concern among Afghans. "To have elections, people must feel free to vote as they choose. But with the power of the warlords, people will be forced to vote according to what the warlords want," said Abdul-Latif Rahmani, professor of law and political science at Kabul University. "Warlords will influence the voters, so they will have a major presence in the parliament, and that will have an effect on democracy in the future."
So far, it remains unclear whether President Hamid Karzai will form a new cabinet after the projected elections. It was agreed at a conference in Bonn in late 2002 that members of the cabinet would be replaced within six months, but the president has stalled. According to Azizullah Lodin, president of Afghanistan's governmental anti- corruption agency, 80 per cent of the cabinet is made up of militia leaders who were installed by the US in return for their help in ousting the Taliban in 2001.
He added that if the cabinet remains the same, "all the help from the outside and the chance the country had to become democratic would come to nothing. Afghanistan would remain the way it has been through the last few decades: a backward country that lives in the dark ages."
To try and prevent the warlords from dominating the elections, the UN has been running a disarmament programme to try and collect 100,000 weapons from the country's militias. But with warlords refusing to cooperate, only 6,000 weapons have been seized so far.
The interim government is very aware of the fact that, with the militias so heavily armed, power is still far from being centralised in Afghanistan. "Any force not part of the Afghan National Army is a challenge," said Umer Daudzai, chief of staff of Karzai's administration. "But this is reality, so we ought to deal with it diplomatically and peacefully. I hope we will succeed."
Last month, NATO leaders at a conference in Turkey agreed to send another 1,500 troops to Afghanistan to help build security in the run-up to elections. Up until now, the international peace-keeping force amounted to only 6,500 soldiers, most of whom were stationed in Kabul. Now, NATO will also keep another 2,000 troops on standby.
But US-backed Afghan officials believe that the troops being offered by NATO are not enough. "This is not sufficient. We expect more," said Zahir Azimy, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defence.
Meanwhile, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has continued to register voters despite the increase in attacks. The coordinated effort between the UN and the Afghan government got off to a slow start last December: only 1.8 million out of 9.5 million eligible voters were registered at the beginning of May. But today, registration has reached six million, nearly 40 per cent of them women.
"Voter registration sites and teams have been increasing on a daily basis, and the coverage area has been expanding," said Said Mohamed Azam, JEMB's media relations officer. "We register more than 100,000 people daily all over the country. It used to be only 50,000 people."
The delay in parliamentary elections will help JEMB reach more eligible voters, and representation will be spread out more evenly across the country. The registration process has yet to begin in 50 districts, and according to David Avery, chief of operations at JEMB, three out of 33 provinces will not be touched at all due to instability.
Zakim Shah, chairman of JEMB, said that "holding parliamentary elections next spring will allow voter registration to continue so as to ensure even broader popular participation in parliamentary elections."
Pushing back the elections could also help Afghanistan face a funding problem. Although donor countries have promised $32 million to help run the elections, only $12.5 million have been handed over so far by the US. This is a minimal sum in comparison to the $101 million that JEMB has requested in order to carry out the elections properly.
According to the Afghan constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections should be held simultaneously or as close together as possible. And some believe that, even though the presidential elections will take place soon, postponing parliamentary elections for as long for as six months could cause a deterioration in trust among the people in the Afghan government.
Rahmani says that the delay in elections "will hurt the credibility of the interim government. I believe we have no choice: carry out the elections to make the government legitimate to the people."
A tribal assembly chose Karzai to lead the two-year interim government in June 2002. The mandate has now expired, which has put pressure on the president not to delay the elections further. Many believe that there is also pressure from the US President George W Bush administration, which wants to try and convince US voters that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan could actually yield positive results.
It is widely expected that Karzai will defeat his 11 competitors for the top job in next October's elections, and will thus remain president for another five years. But as Afghanistan is so ethnically divided, he may not win a 50 per cent majority, which could lead to a run-off two weeks after the elections are held.
If the constitution is honoured and the presidential elections are held in the autumn, it will be the first direct election of its kind in Afghanistan's history.