Paktika is not one of the most accessible places in Afghanistan. Hit by insecurity and forgotten by most development actors , Sharana, a dusty small town and the provincial capital, is a place rarely visited by outsiders. But thanks to the eager support to NGO involvement by the civilian team at the PRT in Paktika, our guest blogger Tina Blohm(*) was able to get on a flight to Sharana. Here is what she saw during a short stay in Sharana.
What might campaigning and election preparation look like in this province about 34 days before parliamentary election, I asked myself when I was about to travel to Paktika’s provincial capital Sharana. The short answer is: grim – and that despite many actors – international, electoral or candidates – trying their best to make this undertaking somehow workable and less fraudulent then past year.
The large dilemma in Paktika – as in many places in the Afghan south and south east – is the question on whether to open a larger number of polling centers on election day, which cannot be observed and thereby are highly prone for fraud, or whether to keep a considerable number of polling centers closed, creating less accessibility for voters and admitting that insecurity is widespread. In the 2009 presidential and provincial council elections there were 265 polling centers (for an estimated population of 400,000). The number has this year been reduced to 190 due to insecurity (and the linked level of fraud). Any considerable lesser number would be seen as loss of face for governmental authorities.
According to the provincial head of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), after the 2009 election, 1555 of its staff members were blacklisted in Paktika alone due to allegations of fraud. Hence, hiring around 3000 qualified and trustable electoral staff, with the goal to have at least 10 per cent females, over the next weeks in districts heavily marked by the insurgency is possibly the worst job one can imagine. Some staff do not want to work in their own district because they fear to become known and hence more vulnerable to attacks by the Taleban. By consequence, in some districts staff has to be hired from the bordering provinces of Khost or Logar.
Meeting candidates is quite difficult in Sharana, not because they are all busy campaigning in the districts – no, because most of them are simply not there. Out of 22 candidates (one of lowest numbers in the country), six were in the province during my visit, the rest staying in Kabul mainly due to security concerns. Only two of them were said to be campaigning in the safer districts. This already tells you loads about the possible (and in certain cases wanted) presence of MPs in their constituency
once they are actually in parliament.
Out of the five female candidates, one is said to be campaigning in Paktika, taking high risks. The others are in Kabul – which does not mean that they are inactive or unpopular. Their campaigns in the provinces are run by males and all their candidate’s agents are male, since finding female campaign staff is almost impossible. As is finding female FEFA observers for the provinces: as the FEFA provincial representatives stated, having one or two female FEFA observers on election day for the whole province is probably realistic. So, one asks oneself what will happen in the 42 per cent of the polling stations that are meant to serve female voters. As during the last elections, many of the female votes are going to be handed in by male heads of the family anyhow.
As for the other present candidates, there is the mix of powerful incumbents likely to succeed, of sons of current MPs, of those with strong power basis in Paktika and/or Kabul and of unknowns (a deeper analysis of the Paktika candidates will follow on this blog) for the four Paktika seats in the Wolesi Jirga, one of them female. The anti-international, especially anti-US and anti-UK, rhetoric and mistrust rings high. One of the candidates I spoke to,says he is going to build ‘bridges between the Taleban and the Government’ – having had a post in provincial government under the Taliban regime, he is of course perfectly fitted to do so. The slogan on his visiting card is ‘Serving weak families and bringing back prisoners who did not commit a crime ’ – which makes you think on how current reintegration efforts are aiding his campaign. In general, the level of acute or perceived threats by the Taleban to candidates seems high – and it remains to be seen what general level of intimidation this creates on election day.
Being in a place for three days (with limited chances to move around), it is of course hard to get a sense of the general motivation to vote in these elections. But my feeling is that it is very low. And if this is coupled with a high risk, who is willing to go out and vote? Rumors and stories of empty polling centers, bought voter cards and stuffed ballot boxes last year do not make for a good incentive either.
So who will observe these elections in Paktika – giving you at least a sense of what happens on election day and in the crucial days thereafter? In Sharana, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, through local partners, organises observation training for candidate agents these days, who on election day can go into polling centers and observe the process for their candidate. There is no limit to the number of agents a candidate can register, making it again easier for those with power and money to enlist high numbers of them and increase their influence inside the polling centers. In the different sessions held, there was a total of 55 agents – and the IEC did not estimate a much higher number to be registered. However, some candidates at least claimed that they will have over 100 agents.
FEFA stated it would try to find one national observer for every polling center. As for international observers, there were a handful in 2009, being limited to the provincial capital. For the presence of national and international observers to make sense this time, the question of movement beyond the provincial capital is central – and in case of the internationals this is unrealistic. Also, it would be important that observers stay days after polling day observing the transfer of sensitive material and salaries for electoral staff as well (it took some ballot boxes ten days to be transferred last year, and the lack of payment due to corruption and difficulties of transportation has been a huge issue last year).
And let us not forget about the Electoral Complains Commission: the three ECC commissioners for Paktika were sitting in one room with toshaks but no desks, no computers and no internet. They said they air radio messages about their role and presence and people come to them with complaints. But since they do not have any means to note, file and transmit them properly to Kabul, they currently do not do so. Once a week they can check their mails at the IEC but beyond that, there is no exchange with that body.
In general, many people I spoke to saw weak and corrupt governance alongside the mistrust of NATOs efforts as the main reason for the growing support of the insurgency. Flying out, there was the nagging question of what sense it makes to hold parliamentary elections in Paktika on 18 September – and what they will actually change in the lives of people. While there is an inclination to give a pessimistic answer, I still tell myself that it is too early to judge – if not at least out of deep respect for those voting, supporting and running in Paktika.
(*) Tina Blohm is heading the Kabul office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German political foundation. All views expressed in this blog are her own
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020