Afghan democracy is put to the test as country goes to the polls

Fears that violence may disrupt election as 2,447 candidates, including former warlords and television celebrities, stand for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament.

A UN map of Afghanistan's hotspots, 2005 and 2010
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KABUL // Afghanistan's democracy will be put to the test tomorrow when a crucial parliamentary election is held amid fears of fraud, violence and low turnout. Candidates and analysts anticipate problems as the country gears up to vote at a time of rising turmoil, which has seen the Taliban gain a foothold in once peaceful northern areas, while continuing to fight across the southern and eastern heartlands.

Former warlords, suspected drug traffickers, ex-communist officials and television celebrities will be among those vying for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament. However, observers say that who wins will be of less importance to how ordinary people view the vote. Jandad Spin Ghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said: "They will see if the electoral administration did their best, the security institutions did their best and the international community did their best, but the general situation caused them problems. In this case, they will forgive that and accept the result.

"But if there is nothing done to support the [electoral] process and the result is negative, of course they will blame the process and the international community, and finally they will lose their trust in democratisation." A number of civil society groups eager to promote democracy and monitor voting established the foundation in 2004, ahead of the country's first presidential election after the US-led invasion in 2001. There have been two more major elections in Afghanistan since then for parliament in 2005 and again for the presidency last summer. Massive fraud marred that vote which was won by incumbent Hamid Karzai.

Mr Spin Ghar said that regardless of what takes place tomorrow, electoral reform is needed. This had failed to happen in previous years and had left the public angry and suspicious, he complained. However, the main concern for him and many Afghans was the fear of bloodshed. The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the polls and Kabul was expected to be in lockdown during the voting. "As you know, the security situation is not good enough and it will have an effect on all the process," Mr Spin Ghar said. "If security is not good, especially in the rural areas, it will be an opportunity for those people who have already planned to make some irregularities."

The potential for fraud was highlighted this week when thousands of fake voter registration cards were printed in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, at the request of Afghan parliamentary candidates. There is a widespread assumption that corruption will occur tomorrow. Ustad Qurban Ali Urfani is a former leader of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin now running for office in Kabul. He said candidates would try to fix the results in their favour and warned that poor security would overshadow the poll in much of the country.

"Personally, I am against this election and I have suggested a lot that we should delay it. But this is a political decision of the government. They want to have an election in Afghanistan. If it is not fair, or it is very weak and cannot be held in some districts or provinces, they do not care," he said. The reason for this, Mr Urfani claimed, is that a cancellation or postponement would be an embarrassment and suggest to the international community that progress was not being made.

Campaigning for the election quickly gathered momentum after it began in June. Posters, billboards and banners advertising candidates soon sprung up in Kabul and by the final day of the official campaign earlier this week, minibuses had messages from aspiring MPs blaring from megaphones attached to their roofs. The tension underlying the election has been evident even in the capital. Red paint or ink has been thrown over the pictures of former mujaheddin leaders and warlords, and images of female candidates have occasionally been defaced or torn down.

Rana Nooristani, 25, is one of the many young Afghans running for office in Kabul. The daughter of an MP for the eastern province of Nuristan, she said she could not afford the armed protection available to her more powerful rivals. Speaking before campaigning ended, she said: "Most of them have guards and security and it's easy for them to campaign in the villages, but for us it's a little bit hard. Besides being a young candidate, I am also female and for a female it's really hard to campaign in insecure places. "