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Afghanistan's Experiment in Democracy

Candidates prepare for the September 18 election.

7:50 AM, Sep 14, 2010 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Afghanistan's Experiment in Democracy

Afghan president Hamid Karzai

This iftar (Ramadan break fast) dinner for 1,800 people at Kabul’s Ouranos Hotel is barely over when the campaigning begins. The brightly lit, high-ceiling hall is full of parliamentary candidates trying to hand their cards to possible supporters. 

From amateurishly printed black and white business cards to sophisticated small booklets with pages of color photos, the campaign literature is a key tool in a contest with huge numbers of candidates. Here, in Kabul Province, 553 men and 109 women are competing for 33 seats, 9 of which are reserved for women. (Currently there are 68 women MPs in the 249-member lower house, more than the 64 mandated by quota.) Candidates’ cards bear not only their photograph and mobile phone numbers but also an neshan entihabati, or election symbol and number, so that voters have a chance of locating them in the huge, multipage ballot. The symbols – say, two telephones, or three airplanes – are to aid the many illiterate and innumerate voters.

Tonight’s iftar dinner of kabuli pilau, meat curry, potato curry, rice, and roast chicken, funded by the Massoud Foundation, is a de facto campaign event for the democratic opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

Such dinners are a key part of campaigning in Afghanistan, a visible sign of power and cohesion.  A group or individual that can afford to feed you is one that will safeguard your interests. 

Two of the women around my table fend off a man in traditional shalwar kameez bearing the ubiquitous cards. “We are also candidates,” one of the women explains to the man, smiling. Five of the seven women around the table are running, and another is the daughter of a candidate.

The problem here tonight is the same that’s in Afghanistan as a whole: There are too many contestants for the September 18 elections. The entire 249-person Wolesi Jirga or lower house of Parliament is up for grabs, and most of the incumbents are running for re-election. The requirements for challengers are so minimal – showing 1,000 supporters’ voter registration cards and paying $600 – that more than 2,500 people are running.

The election is widely expected to be marred by fraud on the part of President Karzai’s supporters and by Taliban intimidation. Candidates affiliated with Karzai operate with impunity. Though there’s supposed to be a vetting process to exclude criminals, one Karzai-linked MP, Mullah Tarakhel, shot five people, killing three, in a traffic dispute a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been removed from the roster of candidates, much less jailed. Nevertheless, these women candidates are trying hard, plastering the city with billboards that cost the locally significant amount of $100 a month and holding countless meetings with supporters.

All of these women insist, against the odds, that they have good chances. I ask them how many election monitors they have as a rough benchmark of their appeal; candidates are entitled to a monitor at each polling place. (How this can play out with 664 candidates in Kabul is unclear.) Numbers ranged from 100 down to 30.

Some candidates have extensive political experience or a high profile. Kabul-born Shakeela Naweed has been the president of the women’s and human rights commission for Afghan exiles in Peshawar, and she has 18 years of government experience. She claims 100 election monitors, and hands me a well-organized single page Dari leaflet detailing her biography, “cultural activity,” and 14 reasons to vote for her. Her confident, perky daughter Mina, an MBA student in Pakistan now, is working on her campaign and helped me conduct interviews in a mix of English and Dari.

Shahallan Mayhan Doost, a lawyer who has been the minister of women’s affairs for Kabul Province for the last four years, has 80 monitors and thinks she has a good chance because she is well-known. But, she said in English, fraud in the election “is very problem.” The election will not be “shafaf,” or transparent, she fears.

Brigadier General Nazeefa Zaki, another candidate, has had a 29- year career in the Afghan National Army in their equivalent of the Judge Advocate Genera’s office. “It is based on destiny if the candidates are winners or losers,” the heavyset woman says rather grimly.

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