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.

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

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.

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.

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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.”

Attacks at the polls?

Analysts expect that insurgents will again launch a surge of attacks around polling day, lowering turnout particularly in the south and east. The attacks are a reminder of the insurgency's reach, but are unlikely to shut down the election.

Recent decisions by the country’s election commission to not open more than 1,000 polling stations due to poor security will also affect some candidates like Roshanak Wardak.

A member of Parliament from Wardak province, she says four closed polling centers are in her key districts. And in many areas that still have polling centers, her voters tell her – by phone – that they are afraid to go to the polls.

“If my voters cannot go to the polling stations, how do we expect this election will be fair?” asks Ms. Wardak by phone. “It will be the same as the presidential elections … everyone will try to fill the ballot boxes.”

Fraud and intimidation

She alleges that provincial leaders including the governor have already selected a slate of candidates to win – and her name is not on it.

“If there is no fraud and people could go to the polls, some [other] candidates they have a good chance for success,” she says. But she’s not counting on either.

Malalai Ishaq Zai, a member of Parliament from Kandahar, decided to run for reelection from Kabul “because of security reasons.”

But the insecurity she faces isn’t from the Taliban, but from provincial government leaders including President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Last year, Ms. Zai came out in support of President Karzai’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

She says that during the presidential election, President Karzai’s supporters stuffed so many ballots into boxes they had to push them down with their feet. This time around, she calculated that Karzai’s political machine would use fraud again to make sure she would not win.

“If I get a lot of votes from my own districts, they are going to quarantine these ballot boxes,” she says.

What it means for Kabul

Zai says she is counting on the votes of large numbers of people who have moved from Kandahar to Kabul because of the bad governance there. Analysts say that insecurity in the provinces has brought many newcomers to Kabul, and some candidates like Zai have followed them.

She spent her final campaign day in the Pashtun farming village of Chaso, a half hour outside Kabul city. Some 50 men crammed into a room to listen while volunteers handed out melon slices and brochures with her biography. Her pitch: accessibility once elected.

“My secretary doesn’t answer my phone, I answer the phone myself,” she told the crowd. “Today if you vote for me, tomorrow I will be your servant.”

In response, a member of the audience said, “Before you, nobody came and asked us about our problems.”

Such face-to-face politicking is possible within the security bubble of Kabul.

“You have two narratives going on in Afghanistan. You have elections in Kabul and elections in the rest of the country,” says Janan Mosazai, a young candidate in Kabul.

He has campaigned longer than many established figures and claims he has met some 12,000 people.

“The campaigning I can do in Kabul I wouldn’t be able to do 10 percent [elsewhere] because of the lack of security,” he says.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan election

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