Political Landscape

2010 Elections 11: A cab ride through Herat voting

Impressions from one of the biggest and richest Afghan cities where high turnout and low levels of fraud were expected highlight how the appearance of a highly organized election can distract from the fault-lines all around: just few kilometres out of the nicely accessible Herat city centre, a whole slew of fraud techniques were being employed and security incidents taking place – as AAN’s Political Analyst Fabrizio Foschini discovered.

Herat, the “Florence of the East” – at least the epithet owes nothing to the authors of the ‘Swiss connection’ previously explored by AAN, but rather to the Orientalist, René Grousset (1885-1952) who glorified Herat’s fifteenth century Timurid ‘Renaissance.’ The nickname has been revived by the relative prosperity of the city and, why not, possibly by the presence of the Italian ISAF.
I myself never realized the depth of the comparison until I heard a British friend calling home at our arrival, “Don’t worry, being in Herat is like being in Italy: tree-lined boulevards, sunny weather with a nice breeze…” Well, the city is undoubtedly charming, even coming from the ragged beauty of Kabul, and it has the advantage of having less traffic than its size would make one expect. This was even more so on Election Day, when few private cars were allowed inside the city and most people could move only by taxi, bicycle or on foot.

It became quite an easy and pleasant job then to move around the various parts of the city, driving in a cab and crossing the sparse but constant flow of voters who found that election day brought sport and exercise benefits as they walked briskly to their nearest polling centre (PC). Security forces appeared quite capable of checking the few passing cars without hindering traffic in the slightest. The city no longer looked like Italy, but much better than Italy – at least as regards traffic.

Even though in some places the election failed to start on time, it was immediately apparent that a major feature of this poll would be the massive presence of candidates’ observers and their active, almost aggressive behaviour. Inside one small polling station, I counted as many as 29 of them occupying almost every inch of the available space, but still representing a small fraction of the almost 150 candidates running in the province. This may have created logistical problems in many crowded polling centres, but altogether their presence probably resulted in less small-scale fraud happening inside the city. They spotted and chased away under-aged voters, had an eye for fake cards, and put the electoral staff, major suspects according to pre-election worries, under constant pressure – this at least during the early, high-spirited morning vote. In the afternoon, the observers seemed to thin out and became more relaxed, often chatting outside the half-empty polling stations and waiting for the count to begin so that they could return to activity.

As the day progressed, it also became clear that the situation on the ground varied considerably. By afternoon, while some PCs had already become jobless, others were under siege by hundreds of voters waiting to cast their ballot. In some places, boxes and ballot papers had become rarer and more precious than rubies, setting in motion a massive exodus of the electorate in search of voting lands. The problem was far from unexpected, as the head of Provincial Election Complaints Commission (PECC) had told me the day before the elections. According to him, the Hazara neighbourhood of Jebrail – where the scarcity of ballot papers was most keenly felt – had already asked for additional polling stations to be allocated. Last year, too, they had experienced an insufficiency of ballot papers in the presidential elections. But this year the scale of the problem was amplified, to the extent that several PCs in the area had run out of ballot papers as early as 11.00 in the morning (*).

Notwithstanding the emergency polling stations plan which had reportedly been ready for weeks, it turned out that the local IEC had to ask permission from Kabul for each single additional box they needed to send. This could, if only partially, explain the long hours that intervened between the finishing of the first stock of ballot papers and the arrival of new ones in places like Jebrail High School (2401431) or Masjid-e Mahdieh (2401009). They did not receive their second batch until 15.30. That meant, allowing for an additional half hour for new electoral staff to show up, that voting there re-started at around the same time that, according to national rules, it should have stopped. (**)

The massiveness of the Hazara community’s participation in the vote and their tenacity, with some candidates providing hired minivans to take their voters to other polling centres, reduced the impact of these shortages on the results. When I reached Fakhr al-Madares PC (2401025) at around 9.30, people from Jebrail were already flocking there and constituted some 70 per cent of the voters. At the same time, other PCs (like Salahuddin High School 2401026) with an estimated potential of around 1500 neighbourhood voters received almost double the amount of ballot papers they needed. These were left largely unutilized (or possibly, as many feared, to be arbitrarily used by local electoral staff after the closure of the PCs).

Hazara neighbourhoods were not alone in experiencing organizational problems. The women’s section of Amir Ali Sher Nawai High School (2401022) in the Qol-e Urdu area was in a terrible situation when I arrived there at around 11.30. It was not only that voting had apparently started much later than in other PCs due to technical delays, but that the women where loudly complaining about the lack of space inside and asking for the opening of new sites for them, all the while violently arguing with the IEC staff who tried to keep them in line. Some of the voters were also abusing a woman candidate (Nadia Saleh) who had spent far longer inside the PC than was required to cast her vote.

What must have come reasonably close to a nightmarish situation for many an Afghan man represented a good and unexpected chance for me to chat and joke with Afghan women, as I think my status as a foreign observer gave the impression that I might be able to help them with their complaints. Then the District Field Coordinator (DFC) in charge of the area arrived and, somewhat intimidated by the women’s riot, endeavoured to reassure me: the IEC had been alerted, he said, the commissioners had come to assess the situation, but also had to leave urgently for Gozargah. He himself admitted that he did not know when and if they would be back and agreed that he could hardly imagine any problem in Gozargah, a less crowded spot outside the city. In the male stations at the other side of the school, people were queuing confidently and looking satisfied. A teacher started to inculcate me in the advantages of education while four passing-by kids bragged about how they were going to vote for the second time.

Had these been the only problems the election in Heart faced, it would still risk drawing a not too bad comparison with Italy. Inside the city, yes, apart from the feeling among people other than Hazaras that voters’ turnout had been low, things went smoothly enough. But a short drive outside the city’s outer safety checkpoints, just a 20 km thrust in all but one of the four directions, sufficed to show how badly the situation had deteriorated beyond Herat city bounds.

Since the morning, reports had been coming in of incidents in the more remote areas of the province: armed clashes in Koshk-e Robat Sangi and explosions in Shindand and Gulran, and violence came closer to the city in the afternoon, when insurgents fired rockets in Guzara. In case the threat of violence did not prove enough to scare people away from the PCs, in many parts of these districts, local commanders both those ‘legally recognized’ and ‘insurgent,’ had taken possession of the boxes during or after the voting and removed them from the polling centres. Elsewhere, they did not even take the trouble to let the ballot happen. In a remote area of Chesht-e Sharif district, a notorious insurgent commander reportedly filled the boxes on Friday night, maybe with a view to keeping Saturday free for the family.

We heard reports that a votes racket had developed to such an extent that corrupted IEC staff, candidate agents and local commanders from areas where firing had kept the voters at home, were phoning different candidates to ask how many votes they were interested in buying. The price of a vote seemed to fluctuate between 5 dollars (in Zerkoh area of Shindand) and 20 dollars. We also heard that some candidates were pairing off in order to play the noble sport of box-stuffing, each having their related commanders casting ballots in the name of the partner, just to make investigations more exciting for ECC officials.

The day after the election, of course, all the candidates I saw went out stating they had gathered enough votes in the city to make it through to the Wolesi Jirga – though themselves variously convinced of the truth of it. Only sitting MP, Ahmad Behzad, when questioned, preferred not to indulge in forecasts, for: “The success in the cities can still be spoiled by the results of the districts.” I am not sure whether he was talking about his particular candidacy or of this year’s election as a whole.

(*) The fact that the mentioned sites were located in the major votes basins for figures widely known for their oppositional stance to Karzai and his entourage, like Ahmad Behzad and Ghulam Ali Haqju, did of course raise many suspicions on the possibility of a deliberate targeting of those candidates by the IEC. It is safe to maintain that the cautious allocation of polling stations to the Hazara-inhabited areas of Herat reflects the concern for ethnical balance which characterized the decisions regarding the opening of polling centres countrywide.

(**) Some PCs fared even worse. Voters were still queuing in Fath High School (2401017) after 17:00 to cast their ballot in the emergency polling stations that had arrived about one hour before. The gates had been shut before 16:00 to prevent more voters from coming in, but, even so, the crowd was pushing against the thin barriers and the electoral cabins situated in the open, in what bore a striking resemblance to the pogo in front of the stage in a punk rock concert. IEC staff, especially the women, were complaining about the delays louder than people themselves, foreseeing a votes’ count lasting over midnight, and being sceptical about the possibility of extra-time top-up in their wages.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape