Political Landscape

2010 Elections 4: Gardez déjà vu


Gardez-women-cand-poster

In 2009, author Thomas Ruttig witnessed the presidential elections – and some of its irregularities – in Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia in South-Eastern Afghanistan and tried to get a remote-view idea about what happened around it. So, it made sense to go here for the parliamentary elections, too, to check see what has changed and what not. Some first impressions from the dusty town a not-possible-any-more three hours’ drive south-southeast of Kabul and Paktia province.

On the first glimpse, Gardez today differs not much from last year. When you fly in to the airstrip north of town, the same steel-concrete skeletons of multi-storey buildings started in the hopeful boom years after the Taleban collapse catch the eye. They lie abandoned on the dusty plain west of the main road that winds down from Tera Pass to town. (‘Gardez’ is pashto for ‘dusty’.) The budgets of most hopeful private entrepreneurs obviously have run dry. Large elections posters hung up on their sides bring in some colour, at least.

In contrast, the road itself got a second two-lane tarmac strip that would make overtaking less hazardous – if it did not end a kilometre or so from the central chowk. There, the usual traffic jam has built up because South-Eastern Pashtuns are proud people and do not like to be overtaken even if that means to crawl along the street with 25 km/h. Melons, grapes and radish are piled up at the roadsides ‘downtown’ where the main bazaar is. (The elections take place in the same season as last year.) Men with ankle-free trouser legs and pizza plate-sized pakols – some of Gardez’ villages are Tajik, some of them Shia – or balloon-like turbans are frozen in minutes-long greeting embraces during which one party often lifts the opposite of his rubber slippers made from car tires.

Unchanged is that there are almost no women visible in the streets. Only a few deeply veiled ones hurriedly carry their babies as if eager to reach the shelter of their walled homes. An exception is a proudly erect, uncovered, henna-haired kuchi woman following a whitebeard with glasses as big as bathroom mirrors and thick as airplane windows. Still – what a contrast to the large-sized posters of the women running for the one Paktia Wolesi Jirga seats reserved for them: sitting MP Sharifa Zormati who is said to even command the respect of the local Taleban in her district, one of the most volatile ones in Paktia; Razia Sadat Mangal who seems to be the favourite this time, dark horse Halima Paktianai (picture) or the untiring but hitherto unsuccessful Dr Nazdana who works in the local hospital and is one of the rare icons of women rights in this conservative area. Under these circumstances, one is prone to agree with one candidate who proudly calls the posters: ‘What a progress!’

Election posters are virtually up everywhere. As they reportedly are in Chamkani and Jaji Aryoub, two more relatively stable areas. In Zurmat, in contrast, one Afghan interlocutor says, there are only posters of Rahmatullah Wahedyar, a former Taleban deputy minister who had been back in the country for a number of years and who is close to the group around Senator Arsala Rahmani. He takes it as a sign that the Taleban have endorsed him. Indeed, last year the Taleban prevented all (real) voting in Zurmat, putting up posts checking people’s fingers for election ink.

All in all, everything in Gardez looks relaxed – if it weren’t for the first bullet-proof vested soldiers and policemen that took up vigilance in the bazaar on Wednesday. But that was practically (although not officially) the first day after Eid and everyone came out of the holidays extremely slowly, probably a bit late to prevent insurgents with suicide vests from infiltrating the town – about which the whole world here is concerned but practically easy-going. Although the insurgency has steadily increased since summer of 2009, reflecting the ineffectiveness of military countermeasures, over Eid the number of incidents went down. It looks as if Paktia’s local insurgents – Mansur’s Taleban in the West, Haqqani’s Taleban in the central parts andHezb-e Islami in the northeast – also have been busy visiting families.

Few incidents were reported: nightletters, Taleban showing up in mosques just outside Gardez, in Seyyed Karam and Ahmadabad districts, warning everyone against participating, or setting up ‘check posts’. Even the areas just outside town that were still accessible last year, are not recommended for visits: the stretch of road between Gardez’ northern limits and the Tera pass, barely a 20-minutes’ drive away, which had a Elysian polling centre last year with no voters all day except the young staff; Chawni where the Taleban staged a ‘search operation’ a few days ago or Bala Deh on the road to Khost. The biggest incident today was reported from neighbouring Ghazni, a bazooka shot taken at the helicopter of the incoming IEC District Field Coordinator in Rashidan district which did not hit him fortunately.

The question is: Is this the lull before the storm on E-Day or will there be more rumours than actual violence, like in 2009? No one is really in the mood to find out personally, so everybody – Afghans and foreign security people – recommend to take it easy on E-Day morning and wait for incoming reports. That’s also what most Paktiawals did last year; the turnout started very sleepily in the morning. Some Afghan interlocutors also express their belief that the rumours might be spread by non-Taleban to prevent even a superficial observation.

In any case, the convoys with elections material went out heavily escorted by ANP, border police and other Afghan forces in Humvees, armed with machine guns and bundles of PRGs, this morning. On E-Day, private car traffic will be prohibited like last year (we still have to get a permit.)

When it comes to the election, the dominant reaction by Afghans not directly participating in its organisation is a lack of interest. So, many here in Gardez won’t bother to vote and Afghan observers believe that the turn-out will be even lower than 2009. But there is also concern about the democratic quality of the election. As one Afghan interlocutor states:

‘There are not the candidates running that should be running. There are warlords, commanders, some who have killed a lot of people. There is even one who fired rockets into town who now puts up his photos all over town and is a candidate.’

(I am not sure whom he is talking about because there are two who are accused of this; one was brought to Guantanamo, the other was elected in 2005.)

Another Afghan interlocutor says:

‘The people even don’t trust their candidates of their own area.’

And a third one adds, pointing at a poster of a candidate that had run in another province in 2005:

‘He did not do anything for his people in the past five years. That’s why he tries it here now.’

Also one candidate sounds sceptical about the quality of elections:

‘These are not the kind of elections we wanted. They are just a formality.’

And another one, linked to an Islamist party, makes the tribal system responsible for ‘the blockade of democracy’ because there is ‘no independence of the vote’ and that people ‘doubt that their vote remains secret’. He demands that education is made the priority in the coming years so that ‘after two, three more elections, the spirit of democracy starts to influence the young ones of today’. Finally, somewhat surprisingly, he states that:

‘There should be no weapons.’

Candidates are concerned about the security situation but even more about fraud. The Pakistani-made false voter cards which are said to be sold in packages of hundreds in the bazaars of Gardez and Chamkani are said to cost between 200 and 500 kaldar (Pakistani Rupees, the currency of choice here), are the talk of the town. There are a few sitting MPs who are said to have lost the support of their local communities – amongst them the famous Pacha Khan Dzadran –, so people believe that they will help themselves by adding fake votes, in particular in volatile areas where there will be no or very few local observers(*). The Dzadran districts Waza and Shwak, Lajja Mangal, Ahmadkhel and even the more stable Jaji-inhabited border districts are regularly mentioned. (False ballot papers are also said to be available.)

Although naturally none of the candidates admits it one gets the feeling that counter measures are prepared by some. Why should they lose while being honest while the cheaters get the prize? That is likely to lead to more although smaller scale fraud instead then less than last year – just to be on the safe side. I have been shown a few examples of the false documents in the local FEFA office and the officials there say that they cannot easily be distinguished from the real ones, in particular when laminated.

The election institutions, meanwhile, give an ambivalent picture. The IEC and Provincial ECC staff present themselves as alert and able. The ECC, however, resides in a compound in the side street of a side street not known to many people – where it had moved to just three weeks ago from the AIHRC office which provided it with shelter. (According to the ECC executive director, the candidates have rented all available space.) Maybe therefore they only received 24 complaints yet – 12 of which they said they have processed. Most came from candidates, they say, some from voters and two from the provincial administration – about posters posted at wrong places. Apparently, also former provincial police chief Hai Gul Suleimankhel’s disqualification as a candidate for still holding a police officer’s post was caused by a leak in the welayat. He is a former Khalqi and many pro-mujahedin people dislike him.

The IEC seems to be technically and organisationally stronger than last year – confirming a trend in the whole country. But that is relative, as even regional chief Najibullah Ahmadzai admits. ‘There is no law and order in the region’, he says, ‘so there will be fraud – this is 100 per cent sure.’ And he points to the drastically reduced number of polling stations himself (Paktia down from 207 to 127; Khost 175/104; Paktika 265/190; Ghazni 379/272; this is not fully compensated by an increase of polling stations). On a whiteboard outside his office it is written that ‘1,288,800 people can use their right to vote in this region’(**). This also means, on the basis of IEC-estimated 2.4 million voters (or voter cards distributed, who knows), that half of the people remain deprived of this right, mainly in areas outside the immediate population centres.

Ahmadzai insists that the ANSF are solely responsible for ‘the closure and opening’ of polling centres and that the IEC ‘has nothing to do with it’. This already seems to be part of the prophylactic blame-game, passing on responsibility for eventual glitches on E-Day and after from one to another. (In this vicious cycle, many of the expected complaints might get stuck.)

Another Afghan interlocutor summarises the dilemma facing the organisers: ‘From the point of security, the decrease in polling centres was justified in most cases. But we are concerned that it will influence the legitimacy of the elections.’ And he adds another big problem these elections will face:

‘We will not be able really find out what will happen in the districts.’

 

See the first of the author’s 2009 Paktia blogs here and follow the serial numbers.

(*) Observer figures: FEFA has 100 observers for Paktia, including 3 women, which will travel to the centres of four districts close by or considered to be more stable. The AIHRC has 17 for the four Southeastern provinces, including 4 women. 30 (with some women) come from IRI for the three provinces of Loya Paktia, each with a car available – they must have excellent funding. The 7 ECC people also observe on E-Day. (These figures might still change.) NDI has an office in Khost and might cover Paktia etc from there. And there is one observer from AAN.

(**) This figure is the result of the following mathematical operation scribbled by the IEC regional head into my notebook: 2,184 polling stations to be opened x 600 ballot papers.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape