Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Campaign Trail 8: A multipolar election in the Afghan West 2

Fabrizio Foschini 7 min

The second part of an analysis on elections in Herat province mainly deals with how candidates campaign and their worries about the increased insecurity as well as possibilities of fraud in the upcoming elections. AAN analyst Fabrizio Foschini tried to gather their opinions and confront them with reported facts.

One candidate still considered to be on the opposition side towards both the government and Ismail Khan is MP Ahmad Behzad. The former radio journalist has recently been extremely outspoken in criticizing Karzai as a major obstacle in solving Afghanistan’s problems of bad governance and corruption. He is now complaining about a campaign against him (he calls it a ‘boycott’): first some candidates spread the rumour that he was a candidate in Kabul, and now ‘somebody’ is active in systematically removing all his posters from central Herat. He has not lost his usual sharpness, however. “Karzai wants a tame parliament, made up of businessmen who care only for replenishing their pockets, and moreover a parliament elected through fraud and irregularities, to share his own lack of legitimacy”, he says.
Other current MPs may have it easier to win back their seats: the names of Muhammad Saleh Saljuqi, Haji Zarin, Sayyid Shafiq and Najla Dehqan-Nezhad are often mentioned in this respect. Ahmad Wahid Taheri, the brother of former foreign minister Spanta (now head of the Afghan National Security Council), also might be expected here. But the high number of rival candidates in his home district of Karrokh is said to probably push his vote under the winning threshold. As Behzad argues, the terrain for the electoral campaign is much more difficult now than five years ago: if on one hand people have better awareness on what elections and parliament are, the level of economic expenses made by candidates who are themselves rich or supported by power-groups makes it hard for independents or newcomers to compete.

An example of a ‘well-funded’ electoral campaign features the printing of several tens of thousands of posters and brochures (for clerks and students), several hundreds thousands simplified visiting cards (for illiterate people) plus an unspecified quantity of CDs with recordings of speeches, telephone video messages sent through Bluetooth (featuring footage from a public protest against kidnapping and a nice rubab tune in the background) and even Facebook networking to attract youngsters. Given the fact that the candidate in question was complaining about excessive expenses made by other, richer candidates, it may be assumed that things can be even much more grand than this.

In a typical electoral situation, candidates tend also to make promises to potential electors: that they would build hospitals, schools, mosques, improve security etc. But the tale goes in Herat of a candidate, Nesar Faizi Ghuriani, promising nothing less than the delivery of electricity for free. He denies saying so, and there is evidence – supported by the ECC who had received complaints – only that Ghuriani provided free electrical equipment (poles and wires) to some photocopy shops relocated by the municipality, but of course, the fact of him being the brother of the provincial director of the Energy Department, and himself the owner of Liberty Corporation, a big company dealing with energy nationwide, might have added to the ambiguity of his act among the public opinion.

The extent to which another classical feature of any electoral campaign, travelling through the countryside to hold gatherings and meetings, has been possible is controversial. Some candidates boast of reaching out to almost every district without serious security problems, while many others complain about the impossibility of safely venturing even outside the suburbs of the city.

The security of Herat province is in fact a matter difficult to assess: lines between the insurgents and simply criminal networks, who have since long specialized in kidnappings, as well as between the Taleban and armed groups with no direct political affiliation to them, but who occasionally indulge in anti-government activities, are extremely blurred. Some Taleban infiltration from Farah occurs in the southern districts, but as the province was until recently be seen as a transit link for men and weapons – the first directed to the fronts in Badghis and Faryab, the second purchased from Iran – Taleban presence seems to be still weak and rather unstructured.

The presence of armed groups with a political stance is, however, ubiquitous. Many of them stem from former mujahedin groups often affiliated with Jamiat-e Islami who fought the Taleban during the 1990s, but who now find themselves more and more at ease in striking deals with them, or at least in pursuing their same objectives locally, either behind payment or out of political dissatisfaction(*). This gives the Taleban the opportunity to quickly raise their perceived operational level through claiming such groups’ activities as their own.

The 16 districts of Herat province present thus an ambivalent situation: if none is completely or even mainly under Taleban – or other armed groups’ – control, there is not a single one, including the city’s nahia (districts), which does not experience some kind of insurgent presence. In particular, Shindand, Koshk-Robat Sangi, Obeh and Pashtun Zarghun have been frequently pointed out as districts where insurgents activity makes it impossible for candidates to campaign freely(**). Notwithstanding the fact that only ten polling centres are to stay closed – and some of them due to the absence of the Kuchi for whom they were intended – violence is on the rise, and after the kidnapping and release of a candidate in July, the last weeks witnessed a significant increase in the number of election-related incidents in the province. On 22 August gunmen killed the brother of Abdul Hadi Jamshidi while he was campaigning in Khosk-Robat Sangi. According to a local journalist, the Taleban had previously warned him not to come campaigning in his original constituency. On 26 August, ten electoral workers of Fawzia Gailani were abducted on the road from Adraskan to Farsi – two remote districts bordering Farah and considered unsafe. The bodies of the majority of them were found after a few days, and while nobody claimed responsibility for the crime, there are talks in Herat of this being linked to the deteriorated between Fawzia Gailani and her estranged husband Ahmad Nurzay who turned himself, too, into a candidate in this year’s election.

In the same days, Taleban activity was reported in Khoshk, Gulran and Guzara districts, where they or other armed groups distributed ‘night-letters’ in broad daylight, forbidding people to participate in the elections. Then, on 28 August, one candidate from Shindand district – by all standards the most problematic area of the province – was killed by gunmen after the evening prayer. Abdul Manan Hashimi, a former army officer at Shindand airport, was a relative of Amanullah Khan, the Nurzay commander who in 2004 was instrumental in weakening Ismail Khan’s grip on the southern district and was afterwards killed during the local Nurzay-Barakzay (plus Ismail Khan-government) feud. Recently an arbakai militia project has been implemented by the US Special Forces in the district, trying to recruit from the same Nurzay community that constitute the backbone of the local Taleban (Amanullah’s sons are reportedly among the few insurgent leaders of the province in direct contact with the Quetta Shura), but both non-Nurzay locals and Afghan and international observers resent the unbalancing effect that this development will have on the district.

This is not the only candidate involved in an armed feud. Heratis were extensively present on some of the proposed lists for the vetting of candidates for links to armed groups, some of them unjustly, but others with much reason. Beside Abdul Manan, at least 12 names were forwarded in a first draft of the list, but the vetting finally resulted in just two exclusions from the province: one, Ghulam Hazrat Amini, a thoroughly innocent young doctor; the other, Mullah Rasul Shahidzada, a more plausible ex-mujahed with links to Ismail Khan.

The presence of insurgents and armed rivalries makes observers worry about the level of fraud that will happen on 18 September. There are major unclear points, starting with the role the Independent Electoral Commission, which many accuse of a lack of neutrality. Many candidates maintain that there is a plot to bolster the votes of Afghan Millat (see the blog’s first part) and that the provincial IEC head himself was a supporter of that party and bent on getting its candidates through by every means. While it is difficult to ascertain what the truth behind these allegations may be(***), the choice of Afghan Millat as a means to assert a degree of government control in this region seems quite plausible from the perspective of Karzai’s team. If the claim made by locals that the party lacks roots in Herat’s society is true, this will only make it – along with its MPs, once they are elected – more dependent on the government support and guarantee its loyalty.

On a smaller scale, fraud is believed most likely to happen in the districts where both insecurity and corruption will present lots of opportunities for it to happen. Candidates accuse the IEC districts commissioners to have been easily buyable, even to have been the firsts to approach candidates and to offer them ‘help’ – for example by selling over thousands of empty voter cards to them. Furthermore, after the experience of past year’s elections, when one quarter of the total votes in the province were invalid or empty, the appropriation of voter cards by corrupt officials presents another major risk. Taleban and armed or criminal groups can also play the role of the actual electorate in the districts where their presence is stronger than the state’s: targeting the campaign and the voters of all but the candidate of their choice in exchange for money or future political favours. According to some candidates, this is a new phenomenon already happening, while the practice of local elders, maliks and arbabs gathering their community’s voter cards and selling them to candidates for election day had been already noticed.

Lastly, on an individual level, the most common type of irregularity is of course taking place. Depressing reports of people’s votes bought in exchange for a sack of flour or for some rice and oil however crash with the unexpected, and ambiguously indignant, cry of alarm from one contender: “There are candidates trying to buy their votes from the people, but then the people are not honest anymore: they go to each candidate, take their money and then do not really vote for those who paid them!”

(*) The most famous among these groups was probably that of Ghulam Yahya, a former Jamiat commander and briefly mayor of Herat after the demise of Taleban rule, who fell out of government favour in 2006, and subsequently started a guerrilla war against Afghan and international forces, to be killed last October in a US operation in his home district of Guzara. His lieutenant Samiullah Ma’aruf, alias Salashur, is still active and has recently declared that he will not let any electoral activity happen in the territories under his control (moreover, anti-election night-letters have been recently distributed in Ghulam Yahya’s home village area of Siahwashan, Gozara).

(**) Chesht-e Sharif present different features: being much removed from the provincial centre and experiencing an internal struggle among three major commanders for the control of resources (especially the profitable Salma dam security contracts) it is virtually off-limits for all but the local candidates. These, however, seems to be only two, and given the relative absence of communal fault lines in the area (it is inhabited by one major qawm, the Sayyid of the local shrine, wielding the bulk of religious and political weight), they pass for strong contestants at province level, notwithstanding the small district population.

(***) It is confirmed, though, that the appointment of the commissioner in question has superseded that of another official, sent to Farah province instead, and that the current IEC head in Herat had been previously suspended from office for six months after irregularities in last year’s elections.


Democratization Elections Government


Fabrizio Foschini

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