An election with many faces

By Martine van Bijlert Election Day 2009. After the suspense of the last few days, things seemed refreshingly normal. Kabul city was quiet, but people were chatting at the side of the road, riding their bicycles and allowing their children to play outside. I had decided to return to the areas where I had watched ...

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By Martine van Bijlert

Election Day 2009. After the suspense of the last few days, things seemed refreshingly normal. Kabul city was quiet, but people were chatting at the side of the road, riding their bicycles and allowing their children to play outside. I had decided to return to the areas where I had watched my first Afghan election enfold in 2004: the Shomali plains, just to the north of Kabul.

Voter turnout was not bad, all things considering, but it was probably only half of what it had been during 2004 (and even lower for the women). As the morning progressed there were long lines outside male polling stations, but mainly because it took voters forever to study the newspaper-sized provincial council ballot. The men-women ratio fluctuated between 1:3, 1:5 and even 1:7.

It was clear that many people had stayed at home. Not because of direct security threats because the area is relatively safe (unless you mess with local commanders), although people will have been affected by the feeling that things may not hold together. But the general push or pull to vote was clearly not as great as it had been in 2004.

After having spent most of the day in what is in essence a Karzai-Abdullah arena, I decided I wanted to see a different face of the election. I ended up in Dasht-e Barchi in west Kabul, with only half an hour to go until closing time. Polling was still in full swing.

Crowds of men and women, it varied per mosque, queued and pushed to ensure that they could still vote before the ballots ran out. Buses were organized to transport voters to areas where they had not yet run out of election material. Over three hours later I finally found a polling station that had managed to process all its voters and that was starting the count. The energy surrounding the vote was quite extraordinary and proves again that the Hazaras have become a major political force. (Karzai won in that particular polling station by the way, while Bashardost won in the neighboring mosque).

Did I see fraud or intimidation while hanging around in the polling stations? It’s hard to tell. You could feel the atmosphere become tentative as you entered the room, people exchanged glances, men in suits and radios hovered in the background, rules were explained in a loud voice. That’s usually as far as it went. The real manipulation and pressure happens when you’re not there or in the areas where you don’t really want to go.

In the meantime, I spent large parts of the day on the phone with the rest of the country. Scattered reports of a very different election. Suicide bombers in Paktia and Badakhshan; rockets on Kandahar, Lashkargah, Qalat and Farah; fighting around Baghlan-e Jedid; a bomb in Takhar; ballot boxes burnt in Shindand; massive ballot stuffing in Ghazni (apparently already on the night before); nasty threats and intimidation in Kandahar and Urzugan; shootouts in Kabul; arguments and fraud in Daikundi; secondary roads closed in more or less all insurgency affected areas. Another, very different, face of the election.

It’s too early to call what kind of election this was. The picture is too patchy and the urge to declare success too far removed from reality. The indications that there has been widespread and crude manipulation in insecure areas are strong. The impact of the so-called ‘minor incidents’ — many of which of were new to the areas in which they took place — will be considerable. It would be foolish to again act as if how Afghans perceive their own election is somehow not relevant.

Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, and this post was originally published there.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

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