Afghanistan held its second parliamentary election on Saturday amidst evidence of widespread fraud, voting irregularities, and violence. As an exercise for democracy, it fails to impress outside observers, but considering the country’s violent past, the election did bring some measure of hope that even though flawed, Afghanistan does have at least a system in place.
Despite over 10 million eligible voters and 249 seats in the lower house of the parliament up for grabs, only slightly over 40% of the electorate showed up to cast their ballots according to the Independent Electoral Commission, the body that oversees the elections. Over 2,500 candidates took part in the election, about 500 of them women.
Afghanistan is unique in its democratic system in that a quarter of the seats in both houses are reserved for women — ensuring women get some measure of representation. A young democracy, the country has yet to have established political parties and candidates often run on name recognition rather than party platform. And in a country that’s suffering from innumerable problems, issues did not seem to be of any significance at all.
Even though 300,000 soldiers of the Afghan National Army and Afghan police along with 150,000 international forces were out to keep the country’s 34 provinces calm, violence erupted early and continued throughout the election. Taliban insurgents had vowed to disrupt the election, but failed to make the impact they had promised.
The day started with Taliban insurgents firing rockets on the capital Kabul and the city of Jalalabad, the provincial center of Nengrahar province. Later, more rockets were fired on civilian targets as well as polling stations in the provinces of Kunar, Nimroz, Helmand, Ghazni, and Paktika — all in the restive south where Taliban control most of the countryside.
Elsewhere, some polling centers were blown up in Kunar, Khost, and Kandahar provinces. Insurgents also managed to capture some polling stations in Laghman, Kunduz, Badghis, and Helmand provinces. There were multiple explosions across the country, some claiming lives. A landmine exploded in Balkh killing nine and injuring dozens more while another in the province killed three. Thirty four people were killed in separate violent incidents in Nengrahar and Khost. Kabul, Nengrahar, Kunar, and Kandahar provinces were also targeted by insurgents using bombs to disrupt the election. The governor of Kandahar province managed to survive an explosion that shattered his car’s windows.
Taliban tried to take over polling stations in at least two provinces — Kunduz and Nimroz — but were beaten back by security forces. In total, 303 attacks were recorded on Saturday compared to 479 during last year’s presidential election. The number of casualties cannot be fully confirmed yet. Afghan government sources claimed 11 people had died and 40 were injured. Independent sources put the number of civilian deaths in dozens.
Even as people braved such harsh conditions to vote, 8% of polling stations either did not open or failed to function. Some polling stations failed to open at 7 AM and others ran out of ballot papers. Fraud was rampant. Fake voting cards — mostly printed in neighboring Pakistan — were sold by the thousands, mostly in the south. The “indelible” ink that was painted on voters’ fingers to prevent them from voting twice was easily washable. Even worse, ballot-stuffing was rampant, as this story by the Christian Science Monitor suggests.
FEFA — a monitoring agency reporting on the election — released an early report of voting in the morning that highlighted other voting irregularities as follows:
– A large majority of observed polling centers – 4,716 – opened on time, while 1,584 opened late.
– Ink quality was a widespread problem, with voters able to easily wash the ink off their fingers in at least 2,950 polling center in half a dozen provinces
– Lack of female IEC staff was another extensively reported challenge. FEFA observers reported 1,062 polling center without any female poll workers.
– Intimidation was carried out by insurgents, powerbrokers, and candidates at the outset of voting.
The best example of the chaos is the storming of a polling station in Uruzgan by voters. Hundreds of voters overran the station, stamped all the available ballot papers for their candidate, cast them, and then, simply left. There were no additional ballot papers available when other voters arrived. Ballot papers ran out in multiple locations throughout the country because of mismanagement and large numbers of voters.
Mohsen, an Afghan journalist who refused to give his last name, described the election over the phone as another shameful travesty of democratic values. “I voted in Kabul. It was peaceful. But out there outside the capital, it’s chaos. I don’t even trust [the government] with my votes here in Kabul. How can I trust them with people’s votes elsewhere?”
But there were glimmers of hope amidst all of this. Women showed up in large numbers to vote — just like the past elections. In some areas, women represented the majority of voters. In Nimroz province — a province in the south and among the poorest in the country — 60% of voters were women. Women also showed up in large numbers in the north and west of the country.
Another Afghan woman, who lives outside the country, used Twitter to express her sentiment. “Women have significant participation, so more women in north will compensate fewer women in south! A significant number of candidates in this year’s election are male and female youth … at least this is a ray of hope!” she said. And then there was humor when she made light of people cleaning their inked finger tips to vote twice: “There comes one day in each five years that men use whiteX, a whitening liquid mostly used by women washing clothes!!!”
The vote count will resume tomorrow and it will take days, perhaps weeks, to certify all the seats contested. One thing looks sure, though. Afghanistan has survived another election. “We can fix this system if we have more elections,” Mohsen said. “But if we have no system, we have nothing to fix.”