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Afghan Refugees Could Constitute 10 Percent of Vote - 2004-09-28

With less than two weeks to go before Afghanistan holds its first-ever presidential election, a United Nations-sponsored agency is trying to register hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan so they can vote.

The three-day drive to register eligible voters among the U.N.-estimated 1.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan begins October 1.

The U.N.-sponsored International Organization for Migration (IOM), has set up more than 1,600 registration points in Pakistan's two provinces bordering Afghanistan (Northwest Frontier Province, Balochistan) and in the capital, Islamabad, to try to register as many as 800,000 Afghans living in refugee camps and urban centers.

IOM's country director Peter Erben is enthusiastic about the huge task, saying the refugees are optimistic - and realistic - about the elections.

"They are realistic about the enormous challenges that their country faces," he said. "However, they see this as a turning point. They hope this will bring stability and security and that it will finally allow them to return home."

Afghans go to the polls on October 9 to decide who their president will be for the next five years. Eighteen candidates, including the incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai, will take part in the race.

The poll has been marred by election-related violence in Afghanistan. The country's ousted Taleban militia and other extreme Islamic groups are blamed for trying to disrupt the election.

The IOM's Mr. Ebren says supporters of these groups are also active in Afghan refugee camps and are distributing anti-election letters during the night.

"There have been threats to both staff and potential voters by small groups who wish to disrupt these elections," he said. "Letters have been circulated in the Afghan communities warning people against participating in the election process."

Mr. Erben says IOM officials take the threats seriously, and have informed Pakistani officials responsible for ensuring the refugees' safety during registration and voting.

The election is getting widespread publicity in Afghanistan, where more than 10 million voters have already registered.

The U.N.-sponsored agency is also working in Iran, the second largest home to Afghan refugees. Mr. Erben estimates more than 400,000 Afghans living there could vote. Voter registration is not as big a job in Iran as it is in Pakistan, because all Afghans there are documented.

Potential voters living in Pakistan and Iran could constitute 10 percent of the votes.