Nikita MENDKOVICH (Russia)
Despite all the difficulties caused by the war, a peaceful economic and social life has been emerging in Afghanistan for the last nine years. One way or another, the people in most provinces have managed to adapt to having the Taliban as neighbors and to their conflict with foreign troops and Afghan security forces. Old schools have been renovated and new ones constructed, homes and businesses have been built, and modern means of communication, foreign goods and political pluralism have come into the everyday life of Afghans. Despite those successes, however, all of the national elections have turned into a test of strength for the government and society: the Taliban become more active, and systemic opposition and foreign players are destabilizing the situation in the country in a struggle for power.
The recent elections for the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, were no exception. According to official reports, the armed opposition made 305 terrorist attacks on September 18 and 237 the day before. The Taliban itself announced that it carried out 739 operations to disrupt the elections. Those reports cannot help but be alarming despite the fact that some of the incidents included in the statistics were bombings and shootings that produced no casualties. According to the Interior Ministry, three policemen and 11 civilians were killed in one day. However, those numbers are unreliable: on the following day, the Central Election Commission announced that 21 voters had been killed; and the statistics did not include a number of casualties, including eight children who were killed by rockets in Kunduz Province.
Of course, things were somewhat more stable than during last year’s presidential elections, when there were 422 attacks on voting day (27% more than in the recent elections); but this improvement came at the cost of doubling security forces for the elections. This year, the Afghan authorities devoted 280 thousand soldiers and police to the elections. A 150 thousand-strong force of foreign troops was also engaged in providing security.
The election campaign was also very tense. The authorities were unable to open about 1000 polling stations out of 5800 because of an inability to provide security for them, and some stations were closed before voting ended on September 18 for security reasons. During the campaign, there were more than 30 cases of kidnapping and assassination of candidates and their authorized representatives. The situation in Afghanistan’s southern provinces was particularly serious: female candidates (68 parliament seats were reserved for women by law) had to completely avoid face-to-face meetings with voters because of the risk of terrorist attacks; others had to run in safer regions.
Despite all of the dangers, however, it cannot be said that the Taliban succeeded in intimidating the populace and disrupting voter turnout. The Afghans showed even less caution than the authorities: in Faryab Province, for example, a decision to close some polling stations for security reasons resulted in protests. The residents of 15 villages in the Pashtun Kot District threatened armed revolt if they were denied the right to vote.
During the Asia Foundation’s nationwide survey last year, more than half of the Afghans who responded acknowledged feeling afraid as they went to the polls (16% had a lot of fear, 35% some fear). However, the majority did not shirk their civic duty; they perceived voting as a matter of honor. Seventy percent are convinced that their decisions during the elections will affect the country’s future. According to currently available data, 40% of registered voters took part in the elections, a good turnout considering Afghanistan’s infrastructure problems.
The populace is quite politicized, and that at times has led to conflicts. For example, in the Khoja Saripusht District of Faryab Province a conflict between supporters of two candidates resulted in fight in which six people were knifed.
For now, the political outcome of the elections is quite difficult to predict. The election campaign itself was difficult and confusing for the government and the voters. Most heavyweight politicians, such as the influential opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, refused to personally participate in the recent elections, and the politicians that nominated candidates avoided emphasizing their party affiliation. Therefore, experts say that actual opposition representatives from outside the system—the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party of Afghanistan)—could turn up in the halls of Afghanistan’s parliament.
Despite the elections being somewhat impersonal, the fight for parliament seats was hard and brutal. “The increase in campaign costs provided indirect evidence of that. Local experts estimate that the costs were at least three times higher than during the 2005 elections. And the money came from various financial groups with a high degree of interest in the campaign,” notes the Director of the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies, Omar Nessar.
Political analysts attribute problems with election funding to the scandal surrounding Kabul Bank’s change in leadership, which occurred in early September and panicked depositors. The Kabul Bank is controlled by President Karzai’s family clan, and it apparently played an important role in supporting the election campaigns of pro-Karzai candidates.
The action against Kabul Bank was possible because of the dismissal and, by some reports, the arrest of two of the bank’s top managers, Sherkhan Farnood and Khalilullah Ferozi, for illegal real estate purchases using depositors’ money. The two managers were removed by an organization called the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), which is controlled by US Law enforcement agencies. We can assume that action was intended to weaken the “Karzai faction” in the future parliament and thus provide greater opportunity for putting pressure on Karzai, who has lately been showing more independence from his Western Allies.
The future parliament could be largely split among ethnic factions. The conflicts among them in Kabul have recently become more acute. Karzai’s steps to “pashtunize” the security agencies and oust the “Tajik lobby,” which formed from members of the Northern Alliance immediately after the Civil War, are indicative of that. The Tajik politicians could react sharply to Karzai’s initiatives. Among other things, they could oppose him in parliamentary debates.
Preliminary election results should be announced within one or two weeks. They will let us draw more accurate conclusions about the balance of power in the Wolesi Jirga, while the upcoming opening of Parliament and results of the first votes will decisively clarify the situation.
Nikita Mendkovich is a historian, economist and expert at the Center for Modern Afghanistan Studies.
Source: New Eastern Outlook