Afghans vote, ready or not
In a historic step for their war-weary nation, some 10 million Afghans are set to cast their first-ever ballots for president Saturday.
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Deference to tribe is a common attitude all across southern Afghanistan, where the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, live. Individuals such as Sayid Amir, an astrologer waiting for loaves of bread at a bakery in Qalat, know that the new Afghan Constitution allows them full personal rights. But he still says he must defer to his tribal elders with his vote.Skip to next paragraph
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"It depends on our tribal leaders," he says. "Yes, I know it is my right to choose whom I want. But in my region, the tribal leaders will all get together and choose whom they will vote for, and then everyone will vote for that person."
Voter education programs, implemented by the United Nations, have aimed at telling Afghans that their vote is secret. Yet, according to one survey, the education efforts have reached only 14 percent of Afghan voters.
Flaws such as this have led many media and human rights organizations to be critical of the election process. Among other problems, pressure from Taliban insurgents and from factional warlords could persuade many voters to vote a certain way, or not at all. Apparent voter fraud is also a concern. The 10.6 million registrations exceeded the UN's estimate of 9.8 million eligible voters. Registration topped estimates in 13 of 34 provinces - four of those by more than 140 percent. UN officials concede that multiple registrations are "probable" and that President Karzai may be violating the letter of the law by using US military helicopters - i.e., foreign assistance - for travel to campaign events.
The darkest assessment may be the refusal of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send election monitors to Afghanistan, because "the present conditions in Afghanistan are significantly below the minimum regarded by OSCE ... as necessary for credible election observation."
The UN, for its part, agrees that this election will have its flaws, but says these flaws are manageable. "The degree of freedom and fairness is adequate to allow the will of the Afghan people to be translated at the polls," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The main point, he adds, is that "we are seeing the emergence of a pluralistic system that offers voters a gamut of choices" for its leadership.
Other democracy builders in Afghanistan agree that it's much too early to get pessimistic about democracy in Afghanistan, and it's unwise to hold the country to unrealistic expectations.
"They're going through a process that starts out Western, but where tribes end up doing things the way they've always done them. What's wrong with that if people have confidence in the way things are done?" says Grant Kippen, country director of the National Democratic Institute in Kabul.
But if the West and Afghan human rights activists have high expectations and low hopes for this election, the Afghan voters themselves seem to feel the reverse. For them, this is an unusual chance to participate in a historic event, and if things don't change all that much, well, it's better than war.
On Wednesday, the final day of campaigning, the place to be was Kabul's national stadium. There, the Karzai campaign filled the stadium with perhaps 6,000 enthusiastic supporters, and kept them entertained with live music from a number of national artists as well as a boisterous performance of the national dance, the ataan.