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Afghanistan election: How to campaign in a war zone

Parliamentary candidates in the Afghanistan election to be held Saturday say the only way to campaign safely is by telephone.

By Staff writer / September 15, 2010

Afghan women walk past by election posters of parliamentary candidates in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 15.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP

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Charso, Afghanistan

On the final day of campaigning for Saturday’s parliamentary election, NATO’s secretary general said that security in Afghanistan should allow for “a free and fair” contest. But some Afghan candidates say in this election "free and fair" is relative. For them the only safe campaigning is done by telephone.

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In many provinces, campaign rallies are increasingly part of a bygone era replaced with long-distance campaigns. Outside Kabul and a few safer cities, election gatherings – when they happen at all – tend to be intimate meetings indoors. Some incumbent members of Parliament cannot safely drive from Kabul to their home districts anyway.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan election

The curtailed campaigning is a loss for Afghan voters, as it tends to limit their chances to question candidates and helps local power brokers and those who will game the system.

“When you have poor security it affects turnout, and light turnout leads to a proliferation of blank ballot papers that can be manipulated,” says William Maley, an Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University.

Daoud Sultanzai, a member of Parliament from southeastern Ghazni province, somberly compares this month’s campaign to his successful 2005 run. Back then, he traveled without guards and slept in hotels as he visited five different districts in the province.

“We could go around, gather people, and address them. It was very people-oriented and it was involved,” he says by phone from Ghazni. Now, “it’s basically a very low-key campaign, very dull, and it lacks energy that a campaign should have.”

He has only been able to make three trips to Ghazni from Kabul during the campaign. During the day, small groups visit his home. At night, it's not safe for anyone to go out.

“Thank God in some parts of Ghazni the availability of phones has helped. It’s a telephonic campaign, contacting people in different districts and directing them what to do,” he says.

Not just the candidate's lives at risk

But it’s dangerous for campaign workers too: The Taliban shot and killed Mr. Sultanzai's cousin two months ago.

At least three candidates and some 20 campaign workers have been killed so far, according to the Fair and Free Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA). Just in the course of the past month of campaigning, more than 200 incidents of intimidation occurred.

Election-related violence and threats “did limit the scope of the campaigning, especially in rural areas,” says FEFA chairman Nader Nadery, who added that candidates relied more on closed-door campaigning and posters. He says that insurgents were mainly to blame, but also local power brokers and warlords.

The general security situation has deteriorated since last year’s presidential election, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO). The presidential vote took place in August 2009, which saw 1,093 attacks by antigovernment forces. This year, attacks in August jumped to 1,449.

“It’s worse now that at any point since we’ve been keeping records,” says ANSO director Nic Lee. “And it’s not just in areas where ISAF is pushing into.”

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