E-Day in Kabul

Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday may be the country's last chance to establish a true democracy.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — International election wonks here in Afghanistan call Saturday Sept. 18, E-Day. It isn’t accidental that this diplo-speak for the lower parliamentary elections, the second Afghan-led elections in the country’s history, evokes a cataclysmic military conflict. But the inevitable dull thuds of mortar fire risk muting a larger, more interesting, and more complex sound: the fitful cries of a precocious Afghan democracy.

Across Kabul, the official 48-hour campaign silence period means an end to the din blasted from roving megaphones and ominous, echo-enhanced television ads. For now the only political noise is the rustle of rows upon rows of posters bearing the names, randomly assigned symbols, and most importantly, the austere visages of the candidates.

The silence will not last. And the loudest noises on E-Day won’t be party rallies. SIGACTS, the aggregate term security officials call incidents of organized violence, spiked to their highest level in decades during last year’s highly contentious presidential election. Insurgents launched more than 400 attacks in less than 18 hours.

As was true of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Afghan insurgency’s military effort in 2009 was technically a failure — terrorism couldn’t stop the voting altogether — but it eroded the population’s confidence that the government could protect them. More than 800 polling centers closed due to insecurity. Insurgents killed 11 officials from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) and, during the runoff, launched a rocket attack against the five-star Serena Hotel in central Kabul, which then housed international observers. Only a third of eligible voters appeared at the polls, and the Taliban attacked a few of those who did, savagely mutilating at least three.

A year later, Afghanistan is now engulfed in a full-fledged war, and currently, SIGACTS are higher than ever. In part, this is the expected outcome of the surge of U.S. forces. Some security experts predict that the parliamentary contests will not draw as much violence as the presidential election. But recent trends point to a grimmer outcome: SIGACTS might reach an all-time high, possibly topping 3,000.

Although Afghan commanders have downplayed the threat of convulsive violence, they nonetheless have deployed 60,000 troops to secure the election, and national officials have already pushed back E-Day four months. This year, insurgents have killed four candidates, while 30 more have retained private security companies. On E-Day minus 2, the Taliban killed two election workers, and on the night of Sept. 16, they kidnapped 10 campaign workers and eight IEC employees. Unlike last year, E-Day falls after Ramadan, and security experts warn that extremists, freshly cleansed, may feel more prepared to meet their end.

"There’s no way that in an environment like Afghanistan we can have perfect elections," Abdullah Ahmadzai, the IEC’s chief electoral officer, said in an interview. Ahmadzai, 35, who comes from a prominent Kuchi (historically nomadic Pashtun) family, serves as the dapper new overseer of this year’s process. Some claim he is the face of the next generation of Afghan leadership.

Last December, in the wake of the turbulent runoff, U.S. President Barack Obama, while acknowledging Hamid Karzai as the victor, expressed his frustration with the massive fraud: "the days of providing a blank check are over," he said. Yet while Ahmadzai acknowledges feeling "enormous pressure to prove that we are committed to improvement," if politics is the art of beating expectations, then Afghan democracy has an unsung advantage.

Few inside or outside the country feel that the election will be clean. Afghans like Ahmadzai are working to ensure that what fraud does occur is contained and doesn’t become systemic, undermining Afghans’ already shaky belief in their fledgling democracy. E-Day represents a chance — perhaps a last chance — at consolidation.

There are signs of hope here. A recent poll conducted by U.S.-based Democracy International, an organization for which I am currently an election observer, found that 58 percent of Afghans surveyed still believe that their country is a democracy; and 76 percent said they planned to come to the polls on E-Day (last year, voters turned out at less than half that rate). Urban Afghans in particular believe that if they participate in elections, their lot will improve.

The challenges are enormous. This week, Afghan intelligence services confiscated thousands of fake voter cards apparently printed in Pakistan. The cards were a waste of some would-be vote-riggers’ time, given that they would only work if they were held by thousands of otherwise ineligible Afghan voters, a highly unlikely and nearly impossible feat of mass deception. But the cards captured local headlines and thus eroded the electorate’s confidence. Stuffing ballot boxes that are currently being transported, sometimes by donkey, over mountainous terrain, also remains a threat.

Another factor, albeit a licit one, that threatens to undermine public confidence, is Afghanistan’s current voting scheme. The system, known as the single nontransferable vote system or SNTV, is a blunt electoral tool that impedes the development of a multiparty system. Under SNTV, one voter casts one vote on a ballot listing dozens of candidates, and just the top few win office. Voters don’t rank candidates, and supporters of losers get nothing. Warlords and other regional power brokers love it because it all but ensures that any local opposition stays fragmented.

This fragmentation means that, while the last election galvanized the opposition to Karzai, Afghanistan lacks the caucuses and horse-trading systems that might otherwise affirmatively move policy and provide a durable check on executive authority. Afghans generally mistrust political parties, and the vast majority of this year’s candidates accordingly identify themselves as independent on the ballots, regardless of their de facto party affiliations.

SNTV also means that many of those voters will essentially "waste" their votes and thus feel alienated by the results. The last-place candidate from Kabul to actually win a seat in the lower house in 2005 squeaked in with just over 2,000 votes. In neighboring Nangarhar province, 81.23 percent of voters backed losers.

"Speaking as an individual, I think that SNTV is no longer a system that is practical in Afghanistan," says Ahmadzai, the elections chief. "Political parties need to be strengthened in this country."

As is true in the United States, there is broad voter dissatisfaction with the performance of the current national representatives. Seventy-eight percent of the incumbents are up for re-election, and many still have work to do to prove that they can do a better job of steering Kabul’s funds to the provinces. Saturday’s vote might well prove to be a broad rebuke of the existing parliament.

Any last-minute politicking to avoid such a fate, however, is taking place quietly. For a country on the brink, it’s a welcome calm, even if a storm will follow.

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