Female MP: Afghan leaders "do not believe in democracy"

Women running again do so under a growing security threat, while others stepping down are raising awkward questions.

People walk under posters of female parliamentary candidates in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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KABUL //Candidates' posters are already plastered across Afghanistan, more than two months before parliamentary elections. They show a variety of relatively unknown faces, as well as television personalities and notorious old militia commanders. But five years after breaking new ground and taking their seats, some female MPs are entering the campaign season with a mixture of frustration and concern. Women who are running again do so under a growing security threat, while others are stepping down and raising awkward questions about the legitimacy of the voting process and the role of the national assembly itself. "Building a nice beautiful building and naming it parliament is not enough. This is what happened," said Sabrina Saqib, an MP for Kabul. "Those who are in charge of the leadership of this country do not believe in democracy. That's why they used any means possible to weaken this parliament." More than 2,550 candidates are standing in the elections for the lower house, scheduled for September 18. Of those, 406 are women who have a chance of winning one of at least 68 seats guaranteed them under the constitution. It will be only the second time in decades that people will vote directly for a national assembly here. The first, five years ago, saw warlords as well as former members of the Taliban and communist regimes run for office alongside a new generation of young Afghans encouraged to put their faith in the ballot box, rather than the gun. At parliament's inaugural session, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, gave an emotional speech with the ex-king, Zahir Shah, and Dick Cheney, then US vice president, among the dignitaries in attendance. A markedly different atmosphere will probably greet those who take their seats this time. In the period that has followed, security has deteriorated, tens of thousands of extra foreign troops have arrived and support for the government has weakened. Democracy has, in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans, come to be associated with violence, instability and corruption. Ms Saqib, who describes her age as "almost 30", is not running for re-election, preferring to continue her education. Although she is still passionate about politics, she feels that parliament cannot fulfil its principle responsibilities "in a country in which the rule of law is not in place". She said she believes the "needs and demands" of the people have not been met by the assembly, in large part because the government and the international community ignore the wishes of its members. "MPs will come and go, but we have to work to strengthen this institution," she said. "I am not a candidate, but I will continue my work to support democracy, to support women's rights, human rights, civil society, all the universal values we gained within these nine years. If not in the parliament, as a citizen of Afghanistan I will do it." When a number of cabinet nominees were rejected by MPs this year, it was seen in some quarters as a rebuke to Mr Karzai for the way he has treated parliament. Most of those positions have now been filled, but others remain open. The build-up to September's vote has also not been without controversy. In March, the 249-seat lower house agreed overwhelmingly to reverse the president's decision to take control of the country's election watchdog. However, it was only after pressure from the international community that he backed down. Najiba Sharif, another Kabul MP, has decided not to stand, despite being proud of parliament and its members. She maintains that the voting process will be fixed to ensure as many pro-Karzai candidates win as possible. "I will struggle to make a fair, democratic election system, then I will select myself again," she said. Speaking privately in the spring, one female MP from a province that is a rebel stronghold, also voiced concerns about fraud. She said most of the districts in her area were too insecure to hold a free and fair election. Voting cards were being sold there, she said, for US$100 (Dh367). According to the independent election commission, 6,835 polling centres exist around the country, of which 6,000 have so far been cleared by the security services. The rest are still being checked. However, the Taliban have denounced the ballot and violence is expected to increase in the months and weeks leading to September 18, with candidates in particular targeted. Shakila Hashimi, an MP for Logar, is taking the risk of standing again, but admits it will be hard to campaign because of the growing insurgency in the province. "We should keep the members of parliament in their posts until we have enough peace and security to run the next election," she said. csands@thenational.ae