Afghanistan's troubled start to democracy

Vote rigging has some Pashtun leaders calling for a boycott of the June 10 loya jirga.

As a United Nations election observer, Haji Habibullah has not seen any hanging chads, but he has seen much more troubling types of election irregularity: vote-buying, intimidation, and even rocket fire.

The worst incident came a few weeks ago, when Mr. Habibullah and other UN election officials came to this southeastern city of Gardez to hold the first voting phase of the upcoming loya jirga, or traditional Afghan assembly. Instead of allowing Habibullah's delegation into the city, he says, local commander Shireen Agha Abdullah fired rockets at them.

It has been enough for Habibullah to lose faith in the ongoing loya jirga, which in two weeks will choose Afghanistan's first freely elected government in more than 23 years.

"We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters," says Habibullah, sitting on cushions in the Afghan guesthouse of a local warlord. "This is the first time that people have to vote for their leaders. People are poor, and they love money, but they are angry at what the central government is doing."

Such complaints are common in these heady, tense days as Afghanistan sheds decades of warlord culture and moves toward something close to democracy.

Proponents of the loya jirga say that no election can ever be perfect, especially in a country that has faced 23 years of war. But rumors of vote-buying have created deep splits between the powerful Tajik-led Northern Alliance and Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Now, some Pashtun leaders are calling for a boycott of the loya jirga, a prospect that could destabilize any future Afghan government.

Once a Pashtun tradition where village elders from across Afghanistan would choose the Pashtun elders who would become king, the loya jirga has been embraced by other ethnic groups as the best chance to unify Afghanistan under an elected government. Pashtuns, however, say the assembly has been hijacked by the Tajik-led Northern Alliance militia to impose its will over Afghanistan.

"The loya jirga is in the hands of the Northern Alliance," says Badsha Khan, a blustery Pashtun militia commander and a leader in the boycott movement.

Turning to some visiting UN officials of the loya jirga, including Habibullah, the warlord says, "I have to tell you, you are also working for the Northern Alliance, and you are creating a civil war."

The central issue of dispute, Mr. Khan and other Pashtun leaders say, is over how many of the 1,451 loya jirga seats each province should receive. The southern-based Pashtuns make up the country's largest ethnic group (Pashtuns claim to make up 70 percent of the population, but past census figures put that number closer to 40 percent), but Tajik-dominated provinces in the north have been awarded the lion's share of seats by the Loya Jirga Commission. For instance, the northern province of Badakhshan, home to Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, has 47 seats, while the Pashtun province of Paktia received only 22 seats.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful warlord in Mazar-e Sharif, was elected to a tribal council, even though militia leaders were meant to be excluded.

In the Kabul offices of the Loya Jirga Commission itself, Prof. Mahbooba Hoquqmal admits that any emergency election is bound to have problems. But in a country hungering for security and a stable government, the only way to maintain peace is to stay firm, keep moving ahead with the election, and reduce the power of the gun.

"We have many incidents where commanders elected themselves, or used their power and influence to be elected," says Professor Hoquqmal, vice-chairwoman of the Loya Jirga Commission. "But the interim administration stopped their activities and held new elections, and when people had freedom, they selected new people."

"The loya jirga will decide the future of this country," she adds. "We lived a long time without justice, without human rights, without security, especially for women. Now, all our family members want a normal life."

According to the Los Angeles Times, a consensus is building that the former king could be chosen as head of state, while much of the power will be given to the prime minister, a role which would be filled by Karzai.

In most villages, the elections are boisterous, competitive, noisy affairs, full of campaign promises and door-to-door handshaking, and for the most part, quite safe.

But the loya jirga process has been anything but smooth. Last week, one recently elected representative was murdered in the central province of Ghor.

Atiqullah Stanekzai, a former pilot in the Afghan Air Force who now flies UN officials to distant villages for loya jirga elections, says he has seen darker incidents of vote-buying, mostly by commanders allied with the Northern Alliance.

"I have seen past loya jirgas, and I have seen this one, and it is not democratic," says Mr. Stanekzai, a Pashtun who flew planes for the Taliban air force before it was destroyed by US bombers in the early part of the war. "But in spite of this, the people are very tired of fighting and war and they will participate. In sha'allah (God willing), this election will be honest."

But UN official Habibullah is not so sure.

"We tell people to vote in the election, and then give us [their] written complaints and we will take them to the head of the commission," says Habibullah with a sigh. "We keep telling the Loya Jirga commission ourselves, but they tell us 'do whatever we order you to do. We will take care of the problems in the next election.' "

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