Election 2014 (3): Snapshots from the provinces before the vote
While the countdown to the vote is nearly finished, the situation ahead of it differs widely in the various parts of the country. Reports from the provinces can convey enthusiasm, insecurity, suspicions of fraud or just resignation. Depending on the person talking to you, they can become extremely detailed mappings of the security situation and the local political networks, or instead try to capture the atmosphere of a place through an anecdote. During the last few daysĀ AAN has been listening to friends and acquaintances in manyĀ provinces, and offers here a short selection of what their voices said.
Nangrahar has nearly two million eligible voters for participation in the election. However, increased insecurity has meant that from its 22 districts, the number of districts where it is deemed possible to hold elections safely has shrunk to only five. Even the provincial council candidates did most of their campaigning in Jalalabad itself and nobody reached the remoter districts. At the presidential campaign rallies, there were few women. I personally went to Ustad Sayaf, Ghani and Rassul’s rallies and the interesting thing for me was that the participants at the rallies of all the candidates were often the same people. For example, I saw same women who had gone to see Sayyaf, joining Ghani’s meetings too. I questioned them and they told me they saw most opportunities with Ghani’s team. Moreover, at least the participants I talked to did not want to come in front of the camera, either because they were afraid of being recognized as supporters of one specific presidential candidate or for other reasons. Local provincial council candidates have also helped the presidential candidates in their campaign and these presidential candidates have their people in the Independent Electoral Commission who in turn will help the local candidates.
NGO worker, Nangarhar
Jalalabad is very quiet these days, with most the movement on the Kabul-Torkham highway stopped on Friday and Saturday. Even the taxi-drivers in the city have become scarce, either by order of the government or because they themselves fear the possibility of an attack in the city centre. Peopleās main concern after insecurity is the possibility of fraud. Opposition to fraud has been the main topic of the electoral campaign and Haji Zaher and other provincial powerbrokers have given fiery speeches saying that they are ready to take up arms against the government if their votes are stolen. The polling stations which have been closed are mainly located in two types of environment: in remote areas (Pachir o Agam, Deh Bala, Shirzad, Khugyani) where there are serious concerns about the security. In any case, there would have been only a smallĀ turnout there if centres had opened. Even the road leading to those areas is not safe and it would have been necessary to deliver the electoral material by air. Other districts with closed polling stations are closer to Jalalabad and more accessible (Chaparhar, Surkh Rod, Batikot), but these are areas where people have been threatened not to participate in the elections, both in the mosques by preachers and the insurgents through night letters. The big difference with previous elections is the increased participation of the population which shows the will for a change of the present situation. The electoral campaign here was very big. Ghani for example managed to gather a big amount of people the last time he came. They had to go and search for a bigger venue when they realised the numbers and they finally got to the new Cricket Stadium. Contrary to previous elections, all classes of people engaged in talking about politics in the street this year.
Journalist, Sar-e Pol
This year’s electoral campaign was better in Sar-e pol compared to previous elections, although insecurity poses a big challenge for residents. People were eagerly getting voter cards despite the fact that insecurity has worsened a great deal since the 2009 elections. However, women had very limited opportunities and female provincial council candidates were not campaigning very actively or in a visible way because of insecurity and threats by strongmen and armed groups. And these were not empty threats: one candidate, Masuma Shadab, was attacked by unknown armed men as she was traveling to Balkhab district for campaigning. Then it was rumoured in the provincial centre that she had reached Balkhab safely. But she has not returned to the city. Some unofficial sources say that she is in Balkhab, but who knows what happened to her. Most of the provincial council candidates are members of Jamiat-e Islami or Jombesh-e Melli; the latter’s rallies were more colourful in Sar-e pol city. The programmes and agendas of the provincial council candidates also sounded better than in previous elections because this time they were not exaggerating their promises like then, and were rather saying that they will try to do this or achieve that under certain conditions.
Not a single candidate came to campaign in Farah province. They were fearful because the security here is really bad. However, there was some campaigning on the part of their teams. Ashraf Ghani was particularly active and has the support of the Afghan Millat party and will get most of the votes, followed by Rassul who also has some support. The residents of the city have displayed a lot of interest in the elections, while there was very small or no interest at all for elections in the countryside and little campaigning took place out there. Even the provincial council candidates are mostly young and educated people with urban background. The Taleban have been very active as of late, but have not targeted the electoral rallies or offices so far. There is the concern that they will try to stage a high-profile attack inside Farah city on the day of the elections and there are reports that ten suicide bombers have infiltrated or will try to infiltrate the city in the next days. Come the elections, we will see.
The main three candidates all came to campaign in Badakhshan and they all seem to have some support in the province. Dr Abdullah is the strongest candidate among former mujaheddin; he has the support of Rabbani’s family and many commanders from central Badakhshan too. However, most of the parliamentarians from Badakhshan support Rassul: Fawzia Kufi has joined Zalmai Mojaddedi in supporting the government camp as the other woman MP, Nilufar Ibrahimi, was doing already and even Latif Pedram is closer to Rassul through Ahmad Zia Massud. Saranwali Abdur Rauf was an ally of Dr Abdullah, but it seems he will support Sayyaf at least for the first round. Sayyaf has some more support in his old stronghold of Shohada district. Important Badakhshi personalities like Wahidullah Shahrani and Abdul Ahad Afzali, after their running mates Qayum Karzai and Rahim Wardak left the race, will support Rassul too. Ghani has some support among the Ismailis and Uzbeks. Security is better than last year. Warduj district has been cleared of insurgents effectively by the latest operations and now there are security checkpoints every few hundred metres on the main road through it. The insurgents have relocated from Warduj towards Jorm and Kuran wa Munjan, the latter district they briefly occupied this winter.
Local resident, Nuristan
It is snowing in Parun right now ā weāre gonna have a snowy election! But the snow will not be the problem for people’s movements on election day, the roads are more likely to be blocked because of insecurity. Waygal district is cut off from the rest of the province. And Kantiwa area, which is administratively part of the provincial centre’s district, is now impossible to reach. The Taleban built up some support among the population there, the people of Mawlawi Dost Muhammad (killed in an airstrike in June 2013)Ā are still there and some days ago, 50-60 people came down on the road leading to Kantiwa (the seat of two male and one female polling stations) near the village of Chuwad and squatted there saying, “If somebody tries to bring up the electoral boxes, we will kill them.” In Doab, the only remaining polling centre in the district centre is under the threat of the insurgents, while all polling centres in Mandol have been closed because of security concerns. If they had managed to have elections in Mandol, that would have been quite a success, but ultimately the state could not guarantee security. Eastern Nuristan also has problems: in Kamdesh, people will vote in the district centre, but will be scared into not doing so in the rural areas; in Barg-e Matal, intimidation is taking place everywhere. From the last election, the number of polling centres in Nuristan has gone down from 73 to 50, and 16 of those 50 will remain closed because insecurity, so there are only 34 left. Anyway, people in Parun will vote for two candidates: the supporters of Jamiat-e Islami will vote for Dr Abdullah and the others for Sayyaf. Dr Abdullah’s campaigners did not organise a very strong campaign here in Parun, while Sayyaf’s people have been more active, even the governor is on their side. In Kamdesh and Nurgram, Ghani could win some support, too.
My younger brother is head of a trade association. I sent him to Pakistan, there was so much pressure on him, all the campaign teams were coming to ask his support. I am also under a lot of pressure. The campaign teams come and want to gain entrance to my factories so they can persuade the workers to vote for them. I refused. I said I have one vote and that is the only one that is under my control. We did get together, traders and intellectuals and former generals with the purpose of fielding a provincial council candidate. He is a good man, but he has no money, so we gathered money for him. We all gave a few thousand dollars. We figured it was worth the try. We had a meeting and we chose him, at first he did not want to accept to become a candidate and then we persuaded him. We have all been campaigning for him. Recently, we organized a large gathering in one of the wedding halls.
At the office of Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a crowd of supporters, political parties’ representatives had gathered to arrange the management of their agents as observers in polling stations on election day. Local media representatives were also present and it was clear the local media support Ashraf Ghani. His chief of campaign in the province, MP Gul Bacha Majidi, had just arrived from Kabul and he announced this piece of news that Hanif Atmar has told him the previous night President Karzai had called Ashraf Ghani to congratulate him in advance.
At Zalmai Rassul’s office, there was a crowd of people too: many of them stated they were there because the office had not paid the rent of cars which they had driven to their rally about two weeks ago. Three guys from Jaji and Sayed Karam district said they had been told to bring minibuses full of men on election day and that they would be paid 5000 Pakistani rupees for each bus, but they had now changed their mind. The district governor of Ahmadabad was also there, very busy allocating the agents to their respective polling stations.
No one was at Abdullah Abdullah’s electoral office, except the staff. The security measures of this office were also tighter than in Ghani and Rassul’s offices.
The overall atmosphere of Bamian is encouraging and people are enthusiastic to participate in the elections. However, there are few posters and billboard of presidential candidates compared to Kabul, and these belong only to the three main contenders: Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassul.
Khaliliās Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami’s provincial office has been used as Ghaniās campaign office. This is the historical provincial office of Hezb-e-Wahdat and it was its main office throughout the civil war, before Bamian fell into to the Taleban. In the office they were complaining about not receiving enough financial budget for elections day from Kabul. They told me that they need that money to hire vehicles for bringing people to vote in districts where people live far from polling stations. For many remote areas it would be hard to reach the polling stations due to the snow. Also, they were complaining that the Electoral Complaints Commission has just opened its office in the province. The commission had their first seminar for observers scheduled for only two days before the elections.
Provincial council candidate, Bamian
Bad weather condition on polling day might dramatically decrease the number of participants in remote areas. The IEC of Bamian has registered many new voters in the provincial centre but failed to reach many living in far-off areas. I know people who have more than five voter cards and there were cases where the IEC staff took only one hour to register new voters in a valley where it might take a day to do so. As a result many remained unregistered. Many of the vehicles available will not be used to bring residents of distant villages to the polling stations but rather for taking the multi-card owners to different places where they can vote using each time a different voter card.
In Kandahar streets have become completely empty as security was tightened hard. Schools have been closed for most of the last week. From Friday at noon, the movement of vehicles within the city would be banned, apart from those with special permission (journalists, observers, electoral teams). It looks like a virtual curfew is enforced towards the evening, already. Many say that the empty streets really do not bode well for the turnout.
The IEC provincial head, he was not much optimistic about a higher turnout, although there have been five massive rallies for the main candidates: Rassul, Abdullah, Ghani, Sayaf and Sherzai. All electoral materials have been already transported to all the districts. There were no particular problems so far. The far-flung districts were supplied with airplanes, the rest with trucks. The materials have arrived in district centres and on Friday they will be moved towards the polling centres. The main concern in some areas is that the roads from the district centres to the villages might be mined by the insurgents. On Wednesday, an IEC worker lost a limb in an IED explosion in Panjwayi. Ten polling centres have been closed in four districts (Shah Wali Kot, Khakrez, Maiwand, Mianeshin) because of insecurity. The IEC chief said they had proposed ten more polling centres be closed because of poor security, but the Afghan security forces disagreed and promised to secure those areas. The IEC chief was skeptical, but would not disclose the location of these centres.
Late on Saturday, reports have started to spread about early episodes of ballot stuffing in two districts of Kandahar province.