In a cynical reminder that Afghan politics is rarely what it seems, activists in Kabul question whether many female candidates running in Saturday’s parliamentary elections are actually champions of women's rights.
The record 386 women running for parliament is seen by many as one of the few clear-cut successes of an election campaign that has been marred by violence and fraud. Yet some women’s rights campaigners say that many of the female candidates are merely puppets for shadowy figures trying to garner influence in the new Afghan parliament.
“It’s quite clear that there are many, many women who are running not because they have interests themselves, but to represent the interests of warlords and power brokers,” says Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, an Afghan nongovernmental organization.
“Those being supported by a bank, a warlord, a tribal leader, these are the people able to spend money,” adds Wajma Frogh, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network, an NGO in Kabul. “I know villagers who have sold their votes [to a female candidate] for $20. People will vote for her. Another very honest women’s rights activist is not able to pay $20 a vote. She’s not going to make it into parliament.”
An age-old rhythm of patronage?
If Ms. Frogh, Ms. Nehan and others like them are right, it’s an uncomfortable truth for those trying to portray women’s participation in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy as a beacon in an otherwise dark and stormy country. And the proliferation of proxy candidates represents a wider problem in Afghanistan – the country’s politics still beat to an age-old rhythm of patronage.
But not everyone says that competition between female candidates has been compromised. Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Women’s Network, strikes an optimistic note.
“I know some of the [female candidates] and I know there is no one behind them, no warlords, mafia, drug dealers. We’ve been working closely with the election commission and people at the grassroots level and I haven’t heard anything,” says Ms. Hamidi.
Instead, Hamidi says, the participation of a record number of women is due to growing political awareness among Afghans and the march of women’s rights across the country.
Still, says Frough, the corruption that runs through Afghanistan's political structure has also affected the new role of women in politics.
“It’s a patronage system,” she says. “Here democracy does not mean that people’s voices are important. Whoever is in power is in power because of coercion, because of someone else’s power…. This parliament is only a check-the-box formality so the international community can say, ‘Yeah, Afghanistan has a democracy.' "
Women's seats used to garner broader influence
Saturday’s election will simply reflect how power is disbursed across Afghanistan as a whole, she says. Although parliamentarians in Afghanistan don’t wield the influence they do in some countries, they do retain important powers, such as a veto on cabinet appointments and oversight of the government’s budget.
“Although we have a very centralized government, there is still power in the parliament,” say Nehan, the director of Equality for Peace and Democracy. “Now everyone’s realized that they don’t want just one seat, they want as many as possible. The easiest and least challenging way of doing this is to fill the women’s seats because the competition between men is quite tough.”
With 25 percent of the 249 available seats reserved for women and just 386 candidates contesting them, the women’s field is far less packed than the men’s, where competition is about twice as fierce. Trying to exploit the women’s vote provides good value for money for patrons.
Proxy candidates entrench corruption
The problem with proxy candidates is that it entrenches the political corruption that has become a byword for Afghanistan.
“The country is already damaged and there is no room for more damage,” says Shinkai Karokhail, a female member of parliament (MP) from Kabul. Most MPs, she claims, are “in the service of others,” while others are only “thinking about their own pocket, how to empower their own group.”
“The country is sinking because of corruption,” she says, and every powerbroker wants “to take advantage” of the politicians they bankroll.