Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

2010 Elections 7: Gardez on E-Day

Thomas Ruttig 6 min

Warning: The following are just some impressions from a limited area of Afghanistan. No conclusion should be drawn from it about the ‘Afghan’ elections as a whole. On the other hand, because Gardez town with its three polling centres has relatively clear borders, we were able to observe ‘all’ of it and a few trends might become visible from it. But, again, take it as just a little piece of the Afghanistan mosaic, not for the whole thing.

Last year, on presidential E-Day, I reported how my driver and I hesitated still behind the Unama compound doors in Gardez, looked at each other and wondered whether we were a bit suicidal before we drove to the other end of town to see the opening of our first polling station. There had been warnings about possible violence. But the day turned out to be relatively calm, with ‘only’ one suicide attack in Gardez, not far from the largest polling station, the Abdul Hai Gardezi lyceum. It ‘only’ cost the life of one of the two attackers on a motorbike – not even of the driver. It probably wasn’t a big bomb. All over the country, though, there was an unprecedented number of incidents but not many ‘big’ ones.

This year, E-Day started in an even more negative atmosphere. Everyone – UN as well as Afghans – warned that massive attacks might happen in Gardez organized by the Haqqani network and it would be better not to watch any polling centre at all. Afghans, among them some candidates, were a bit more relaxed and said the Gardezi lyceum and the neighbouring girls’ lyceum should be okay to watch. But don’t go further!
We decided to wait till 8:30 am and then departed. The day was even calmer than in 2009. Apart from a few rockets hitting dust somewhere behind the airfield in the early morning, there was not a single incident reported from Gardez and only minor ones (some rockets fired at district centres but without any casualties) from the nearby districts. Even if it turns out that the number of incidents was as high as in 2009 countrywide, it looks as if it barely interrupted the electoral process more than temporarily in few areas.

We became a bit more courageous and included Tera school at the northern edge of town which we also had visited in 2009. But after that, be careful, we were warned: ‘The bridges and culverts are unreliable’.

There also was no reason to go further. The polling stations further up towards the Tera Pass – leading towards Kabul – had been abolished.

As there were much less polling stations (‘boxes’) within the polling centres this time. In the all-male Gardezi school, they were down from 15 to eight, in the girls’ school even more, from ten to four. So, when we appeared at the Gardezi school in the morning it looks rather crowded. But at a second glance it became clear that it was because – assumedly – the same number of people had to share fewer polling stations, i.e. classrooms. At a third glance, you noticed the blue ribbons and laminated plastic cards around the necks of many of the people present. They were candidate agents, but not many actual voters were visible. Maybe, six to eight at a time, but most of the time the electoral staff was bored and had time to chat. Each polling station had between 60 and 120 votes cast by 9 am.

By our next visit at 11 am, the figures were up to 400/397/230/186/231/143/156 in the eight PSt’s. Indeed, turnout had soared a bit when the Gardezis realized that there were no incidents. Further during the day, they rose steadily up to closing time at 4 pm which was exactly honoured. Two boxes had been closed with 600 votes each already at 15:45 (each polling station had a maximum of 600 ballot papers) while the others still received voters. They stood at 444/344/270/303/222 then – the eighth one had been transferred to Gardez prison to give the inmates their constitutional right. (FEFA observers who were present and alert in all stations confirmed that everything had happened to their liking.)

Assume the prisoners brought PSt 8 up to 350 and considering some more late voters in the other ones, it brings us up to around 3,150 votes cast(*) in this by far biggest PC in town. Add estimated 600 votes from the girls’ school (there were 543 at 15:30) and 450 from Tera school (it had 347 at 14:45), you arrive at 4,200 votes cast all over Gardez.

The day before, the IEC head had given the number of Paktia province’s eligible voters with 500,000. Since nobody knows how many inhabitants Gardez has (some say 70,000), let’s be conservative and take 50,000, with 25,000 each in the town itself and the surrounding villages. This would put turnout in this urban centre at below 20 per cent. This would be slightly down from the 2009 participation (with a slight increase in the centrally located girls’ school and a relative sharp drop in Tera, at the edge of town which already more resembles the rural areas). Then, 4,100 men had voted for the four leading candidates at Gardezi Lyceum alone(**); 463 was the final count at the girls’ school and Tera school had 600 already at noon(**). Although I had no direct access, I doubt that turnout in most of the rural districts of Paktia would be better than Gardez town.

The IEC, in contrast, already gave 32 per cent turnout countrywide at noon (see here, based on a number of voters adjusted downwards from 12.6 to 9 million) and of 40 per cent at the end of the day – compared to officially 38.7 per cent at the 2009 presidential poll. If this is correct, then Paktia ended up considerably below the Afghan average.

Interesting is also the women’s turnout in Gardez. As said, in the centrally located girls’ school it seems to have even increased from 2009. Indeed, I saw a relatively steady influx of female voters, mainly arriving by taxi or private cars driven by a male relative. But in Tera school, the encouraging picture ended: There, a single women dared to come and vote. I just saw her disappearing though the schoolyard. The reason: There was no female electoral staff and no female searchers. The elders of the surrounding villages, from the Ahmadzai tribe, had initially completely rejected the participation of the women but then a compromise seemed to have been reached: elders from the same villages would ‘man’ the female PSts. But it did not work out.

Two elders, uncomfortably sitting there answered my question by said ‘Pashtuns would understand’, muttered something about rewaj (tradition) and sharia, that sharia and the constitution were two different things after all and that ‘the whole [electoral] system’ was ‘wrong’. Maybe, they are even right.

Finally, a word on the security: Why did the Taleban not attack, despite their recent belligerent statements? Were they unable or unwilling to hit? Have they been weakened by ‘the surge’ and the special ops or did they believe the election – with all the rumours about new fraud – will discredit itself? Or did Karzai’s last minute visit to Islamabad put a break on them? After all, the Taleban ‘faction’ here in the Southeast – the Haqqani network – is well-known for its close links with Islamabad.

The surprising lack of Taleban attacks made me think who actually had gained from the previous rumours. Maybe, some of the candidates just wanted not to be bothered while ballot stuffing in some area. It made me think of one of them who had warned me not to go to another school PSt a bit outside Gardez proper and even mentioned small arms fire there which later no one else confirmed.

When I asked the bored electoral staff in a women’s polling station where all the voters were, one replied jokingly: ‘Pe ghro ki’ – ‘in the mountains’. I thought he meant with the Taleban. But maybe, the remarks of the two Ahmadzai elders about rewaj and sharia explain what he indicated: Many people in the villages further away may not bother to participate in an exercise in which they do not believe any more (they said they participated in the first – Loya Jirga – (s)elections rather enthusiastically). That Taleban threats are the reason for this absentism might only be a half-truth.

All in all, we had a rather bland, unenthusiastic election day here in Gardez. But at least, no one was harmed.

Read some of Thomas Ruttig’s 2009 Gardez blogs here and here.


(*) This might include illegitimate votes cast by polling staff or by multiple voters. Reports and complaints about such cases already started to trickle in and are expected to swell to a flood over the next few days. The estimate of an ECC staffer on E-Day that the elections in the two PCs were ’85 per cent okay and 15 per cent fraudulent’ seems to make sense to me.

(**) I do not have the exact final counts available.


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