Quentin Peel: An election at gunpoint

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: October 6 2004

This Saturday the people of Afghanistan will have a chance to vote, for the first time in their lives, for a new head of state.

By all accounts, there is great popular enthusiasm for the poll. After years of bitter conflict, the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war, there is a desperate hope among ordinary Afghans that a democratic election will somehow bring peace and security to their country. Yet the omens are not good. There is a real danger that such exaggerated expectations will be disappointed.

For a start, the election will be neither free nor fair. The country is in far too chaotic a state. Nobody really knows how many people will dare turn up at the polling stations. They may fear intimidation by gunmen backing the many and various candidates (there are 18 on the ballot paper) or being attacked by supporters of the former Taliban regime, who oppose the whole exercise.

After 25 years of fighting and massive dislocation of the population, no one really knows if the electoral register drawn up in recent months, with its 10.5m voters, is remotely realistic. Multiple registration has been rife. There is a desperate shortage of trained election staff to run the polling stations, and even fewer objective "observers", either domestic or international, who can properly monitor the process. Only 14 per cent of voters have had any instruction on how to vote, according to a new report*.

The determination of Taliban remnants to disrupt voting is causing havoc in the south and south-east of the country: in Jalalabad and Kandahar, fewer than 50 per cent of potential voters thought they would be "free to choose" their candidate, according to the same report. Elsewhere, the problem is rather the power of intimidation wielded by warlords and their militia.

"Political repression by local strongmen is the principal problem," according to Human Rights Watch**, the New York-based monitoring group. "Throughout the country, militarised political factions continue to cement their hold on political power at the local level, using force, threats and corruption to stifle more legitimate political activity and dominate the election process."

The elections have already been postponed once, from June this year. Since then, internal security has continued to deteriorate, partly no doubt because elections were in the offing. Between May and August, 12 election workers were killed and 33 were injured.

Parliamentary, regional and local polls have now been postponed at least until April next year. But the presidential election is still going ahead on Saturday, in spite of serious doubts expressed by independent observers.

The driving force behind carrying on, regardless of the security situation, has been the US administration. President George W. Bush needed to demonstrate to US electors that his game plan for bringing democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq was on track. So the US election timetable has been a vital factor in setting the Afghan polling date. That was very short-sighted.

"To be pushing for elections at this time was premature," according to one long-term Kabul resident. "Afghans were not demanding them. The elections have been an incredible distraction from more important issues of security and state-building."

It is too late now to go back. So the real question is whether, in such circumstances, the presidential poll will enjoy enough popular legitimacy to help stabilise the country and undermine the rule of the gun.

Everyone expects Hamid Karzai, the US-backed incumbent president, to emerge as the victor. None of the other candidates can attract as broad a base, particularly among the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group. Yet even he has been unable to campaign for the past month outside Kabul, for fear of attack. This week he finally made it to Ghazni, south-west of the capital, surrounded by hundreds of troops, police and US security guards, to address a rally of some 10,000.

Mr Karzai's first challenge is to get more than 50 per cent of the vote, in order to avoid a second round, further destabilising the country. He also must hope that, in spite of the obvious flaws in the election system, his rivals will accept the result and not simply take up arms again.

The failure to disarm the commanders and warlords who litter the country has been the greatest failure of the US-led allies in Afghanistan - and of Mr Karzai's interim government. Instead, they have sought to co-opt them into the administrative system. That was certainly not popular. Disarmament of the warlords was cited as "the most important thing to do to improve security" by 65 per cent of those questioned in a recent poll.

That will require huge international effort to back up the elected Afghan president. If it is not done before the parliamentary elections next year, the security situation is likely to get much worse. But it will require Nato to move its troops beyond Kabul - and the separate American forces to focus on more than just hunting Osama bin Laden on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

What is clear is that a symbolic election on Saturday is not going to be enough to bring peace to Afghanistan. That will be achieved only when the guns have gone.

*Take the Guns Away, Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium;

**The Rule of the Gun, Human Rights Watch.