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Afghan Elections Demonstrate Democracy’s Inner Workings


A lesson in the mechanics of democracy.

"OK - This is an example of the ballot paper. Obviously, ballots for the Wolesi Jirga will be blue…”

Emilie Jelinek and other United Nations staffers taught Afghan women how to read and mark the ballot for the parliamentary election, so they could go back to their communities and teach others.

It was a complicated task. More than 5800 candidates ran for the 249-member parliament, leaving some voters wondering what the point was.

"They don't exactly understand why they should be voting for a parliament and what the point of the parliament is. Everyone thought that the elections were done and dusted with the election of the president last year," said Ms. Jelinek.

It was a colorful campaign in Afghanistan, a country emerging from 25 years of war that ended with the U.S.-led military intervention in 2001. The parliamentary and provincial council elections held the same day are the latest step in the process of forming a democratic government.

There were no political parties on the ballot -- just individual candidates. Still, that didn't stop some from banding together to campaign -- like this group, even if few voters took notice.

Candidate Ustad Mohammed Naibkhail said, "The advantage we have is that we are well-educated. We are people that, as parliamentarians, would be capable of judging government affairs. And we will care about the national interests of Afghanistan."

Not every candidate has such statesman-like aims.

With the lack of political parties, critics say candidates were encouraged to fall back on ethnic and regional ties -- the very faultlines upon which Afghans fought each other during decades of war.

Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, says that could mean trouble ahead.

"We're seeing campaigns that are very, very localized, very focused on individuals, very focused on ethnicities. And, of course, that means for parliament itself, you’re going to have 249 individuals in there -- so how that can work? Even the optimists say there won't be workable caucuses for six months to a year."

Worrying to some is the fact that former warlords were on the ballot as well. Others dismiss fears that there might be a parliament with blood on its hands as nothing more than negative campaigning.

Mohammed Younus Qanooni is described by some as a warlord-turned-politician, but he denies any involvement in violence.

"The government would like a parliament it can manipulate, and they know they have limited chances to win many seats,” he said through an interpreter. “So they're starting a psychological war with rumors.

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali says, in today's Afghanistan, decisions are made by the Afghan people.

"People have the right to vote for people they want to be elected, for the parliament. The voting is direct and secret and the people of Afghanistan in the past, showed that they have the wisdom to make good choices."

Still, it may be some time before the warlord-driven rule of the past secedes into memory. Just days prior to elections, President Hamid Karzai and much of his cabinet attended a rally to honor a fallen warlord, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed in 2001.

Vote counting is now underway, with final results expected to be announced in October. With that, many hope, Afghanistan's bloody past may be laid to rest.

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