Ballots or bullets: Afghanistan makes a choice

History lies in the making as the hoi polloi vote in Afghan Presidential polls on August 20, making a tryst with future and destiny.

Last Updated: Aug 21, 2009, 10:16 AM IST

Abhishek Singh Samant

History lies in the making as the people of Afghanistan vote in the Presidential Elections on Thursday (August 20), making a tryst with future and destiny. For a country marred by daily bombings and terrorist attacks, the elections provide an opportunity to the people to assert their will and decide the course of the nation. The elections and the adult franchisee, which to us in India are a common affair and a regular exercise, are nothing short of a magic wand for the war-ravaged people providing them with a tool to chart their future. The elections assume importance because of the turbulent situation in the country and have created a global interest in the event, ranging from the candidates and issues to threat by militants and of course the potential winner, besides the Afghan political system.

Present political system of Afghanistan

The present political system of Afghanistan works according to the 2004 Constitution, which was officially adopted at Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004. It provides for three wings of governance - namely the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The executive is represented by the President, who also acts as the supreme commander of the armed forces. The country has a bi-carmel National Assembly which is vested with legislative powers. Wolesi Jirga is the lower house of the Assembly and consists of 249 members directly elected by a single non-transferable vote.

Mesherano Jirga or the House of Elders is the upper house of the National Assembly and consists of 102 members. One-third of it (34) is elected by district councils (one per province) for three-year terms, one-third (34) by provincial councils (one per province) for four-year terms, and one-third (34) nominated by the president for five-year terms.

The Stera Mahkama is the country’s highest judicial court and its judges are appointed for a period of 10 years. Apart from the apex court, there are high courts, lower courts and appellate jurisdiction of court.
Number of voters

Nearly 15.6 million voters, roughly half of the country`s population, have registered to vote in the elections. Out of these, 35 to 38 percent are women. These numbers are, however, disputed and there are allegations of fraudulence in the registration process

How does the election system work

As per the Afghan Constitution, the President is elected for a term of five years, and like in the US, can occupy the post for a maximum of two terms. A candidate is declared winner if he receives more than 50 percent of the votes cast. If none of the candidates is able to secure the said percentage of votes, a runoff election is held within two weeks of the announcement of the results. The minimum age for being a president is 40 years. Apart from this, a presidential candidate must be an Afghan citizen and be born to Afghan parents besides being a Muslim.

Counting of votes

The ballots will be counted by hand at each polling centre as soon as voting ends.

It is estimated that counting could take two to three weeks and should be completed by September 2.

Preliminary results of the Presidential Elections may be announced, pending adjudication of complaints, between September 3-16.

The final results will be declared on September 17. If a Presidential Election runoff is required, the announcement will also be made then.

Key contenders

A total of 41 candidates registered for the elections, which include well-known and high-profile individuals, as well as pro-Taliban individuals. Some of the major contenders are:

Hamid Karzai: Hamid Karzai is the incumbent President of Afghanistan who was selected to lead the Afghan government following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In 2004, Karzai won his first election winning 55 percent of the votes.

He is an ethnic Pashtun and was born in the village of Karz on the edge of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. His family was a strong supporter of former King Zahir Shah. He played an important role during the Soviet invasion and provided military and financial support to the Mujahiddeen. He was a contact person for the US intelligence agency, CIA.

Karzai was earlier a supporter of the Taliban during the early and mid-1990s, but later broke away from the group and swore revenge after his father was killed by suspected Taliban agents in 1999.

In his campaign, Karzai drew attention towards recent infrastructural developments and protection of human rights – especially women’s. This follows legalizing of highly controversial laws concerning women where marital rape has been legalized. Additionally, women can even be denied food if they deny their husbands sex. This has dented his liberal image abroad. And also while he is supporter of the presence of international troops in the country, he has expressed his displeasure over coalition air strikes that have caused high number of civilian casualties.

He has also offered to hold talks with the Taliban if they lay down arms.

Abdullah Abdullah: The suave Abdullah Abdullah was an important figure in the Northern Alliance – a grouping of military commanders that fought the Taliban – and served as Karzai’s foreign minister from 2001 to 2006. He is the only major candidate who is not contesting as an independent. He is representing the main opposition United National Front alliance. His closeness to the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud – a Tajik - may act as a dampener in his presidential run as many Pashtuns consider the Tajik as one of their opponents. He has however emerged as a strong contender after the concluding stages of the poll campaign.

Abdul Jabar Sabit: Abdul Jabar Sabit is a former attorney general of Afghanistan and a government legal adviser. As a legal adviser to the government, he led raids into several restaurants and Chinese brothels in Kabul. He also tried to ban the sale of liquor and justified his actions by saying that he is waging a holy war against corruption. He was accused of racketeering following which his relations with President Karzai turned bitter.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai: An ethnic Pashtun, Ashaf Ghani Ahmadzai served as the country’s finance minister in the aftermath of the Taliban collapse and charted the path for Afghanistan’s attempted economic recovery, setting up the country’s monetary system. In 2004, he was seen as a top contender for the post of president but his struggle with stomach cancer apparently forced him out of reckoning. Ahmadzai is believed to have great equation with the US power elite, including Richard Holbrooke – Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ramazan Bashar Dost: An ethnic Hazara and a former minister of planning, Ramazan Bashar Dost is loved by his countrymen for criticizing foreigners for efficiency and corruption and has the reputation of being a fiery parliamentarian. His ethnicity may prove an obstacle for him to gather all round support in a Pashtun majority country, where political entities are a reflection of the country’s ethnic divisions.

Frozan Fana: Frozan Fana is one of the two women contenders in the 2009 Presidential Elections. She has expressed her desire to provide more job opportunities to women if elected.

Shahla Atta: Portraying herself as a champion of women’s rights, Shahla Atta’s campaign slogan is, "women make up half of society". Shahla Atta says she wants to start work immediately on making life better for this "neglected 50% of the country".
The Taliban factor

A majority of Afghanistan’s population lives in villages and they are the ones who will play a crucial role in the elections. However, it is in the very same villages that the writ of the government barely runs – if it is not non-existent that is. It is the Taliban who loom large over these villages. Further, the run-up to the elections has seen a rise in the number of Taliban attacks across Afghanistan in general and Kabul in particular. A large turnout will seriously undermine the Taliban and as a result, the outfit has made clear its plans to disrupt the polls and has even threatened the people against casting their votes. The recent attack on the Presidential Palace was a chilling reminder by the Taliban to the people. It remains to be seen whether people will defy the Taliban or not. If the voters defy the fundamentalist outfit and vote in large numbers, it will indeed be an ideal foundation for a peaceful Afghanistan.

Issues bothering the people

Security is the biggest issue for the people of Afghanistan. It has been a tale of continuous suffering for the people of the Central Asian country. Often there has been external aggression and at other times fundamentalist outfits in the country have unleashed havoc on the Afghans. The craze and excitement that one witnessed during the country’s first democratic elections seven years ago has waned. The reasons are not far to seek. The common man has been caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and Western forces and the endless violence has resulted in a high number of civilian casualties creating a feeling of antipathy among the Afghans. The failure of the government to drastically improve the security situation has made many people indifferent to the polls.

Apart from security, development is another major concern. Battered by decades of strife, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is in tatters. There is a need for more schools, medical centres, roads and various other institutions. In fact, the situation is such that even potable water is scarce. The schemes to eradicate these issues remain only on paper.

Corruption is rampant across Afghanistan and is a serious issue with the people as it affects them directly. There have been several reports about government officials indulging in corrupt practices in connivance with local warlords and stealing materials meant for the people.
Afghan elections and India

Afghanistan and India have traditionally shared a friendly and cordial relationship. The country is important from India’s geo-strategic as well as economic point of view. A hostile person at the top Constitutional post in Afghanistan will be detrimental to India’s interests in the region. A friendly and secular person as president becomes all the more significant in view of the fact that India is one of the biggest donors to Afghanistan and a major player in the reconstruction of the war-ravaged nation. A pro-Pakistan president will adversely hit India’s interests. This can also have a spillover effect in a way that
Afghanistan can be used as a launch pad for terror activities in India. An able and effective president will try to curb terrorism, which will benefit not only India but the entire world. Afghanistan can act as India’s gateway to Central Asia and a president devoid of fundamentalist mindset can help India gain a hold in the region.

A small step towards a broader aim

At a time when Afghanistan stands at the crossroads of history, it would be naive to expect the Presidential Elections to be the be-all and end-all of the country’s ills. But at the same time, the symbolism of the event cannot be undermined. For a country whose history is replete with bloody wars, power struggles, relentless internal strife and whose people have long been subjugated to suppression, the elections are a symbol of the people’s expression; a means which makes them a participant in the country’s government process. It is not the magnitude of event, or the event in itself which is important, but the impact and effect its going to have on the psyche of the common Afghan. If properly executed, the elections can serve as a foreword to a prosperous, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: In numbers and statistics

Area: 6,52,230 sq km

Population: 33.61 million

Registered voters: 15.6 million

GDP per capita: USD 800

Poverty rate: 53%

Unemployment: 40%

Literacy (average): 28.1%

Afghaninstan an ethnic conglomerate

Afghanistan boasts of a number of ethnicities, each having its own spheres of influence and agenda. Various ethnic groups in the country are:

Pashtun: 42%

Tajik: 27%

Hazara: 9%

Uzbek: 9%

Aimak: 4%

Turkmen: 3%

Baloch: 2%

Others: 4%