As Afghans search for democracy, new challenges and a healthy debate

31 May 2018

As Afghans search for democracy, new challenges and a healthy debate

KABUL - As Afghanistan moves forward with efforts to hold key parliamentary and district elections on 20 October 2018, the Afghan public has taken an intense interest in the high stakes of the democratic process, which also will include a presidential vote in 2019.

At a local level and across Afghanistan, the ongoing registration process has sparked considerable debate even within individual families. As one father in Jalalabad describes it, he tried for several hours to persuade his university-aged son to register to vote.

“He couldn’t see the reasons,” explained the father, who works in media. “He said, ‘Why should I vote for anyone devoted to personal interests, and not working for the people?’”

The father had an answer for his son: “I told him I understood his concerns but that these were challenging times amid conflict and that there would be some good candidates for whom we can vote even if they don’t win.” He described how it took another few hours, but finally his son agreed that it would be a good idea to at least register. “But still he did not agree to actually vote,” he said. “And I told him that if he voted, he would have the satisfaction of knowing that he voted his conscience in a democratic process.”

Both slated elections come at a crucial moment for Afghanistan: A grinding decades-old conflict continues to undermine the broader Afghan public’s stated aspirations for peace, reconciliation, democracy and an inclusive future. Nearly two decades of international economic assistance has not brought stability, and the past decade has seen a deterioration of the security situation in some regions of the country. Although President Ashraf Ghani has presented an open offer for peace talks with the country’s main insurgent grouping, the Taliban, no official peace process has taken shape.

Afghan candidates will contest 249 seats in the National Assembly, whose representatives serve five years. Crucially, district-wide voting will also take place, offering local representation for even the most remote regions of the country. Despite the ambitious plan, many registration centres remain closed due to security concerns.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), along with the broader international community, is supporting the Afghan-led elections process in different ways, including through the provision of technical assistance and procurement support.

Although the Independent Election Commission (IEC) says that more than three million Afghans have registered to vote, immense security challenges remain, particularly outside of large urban centres. In remoter areas, the process of registering to vote remains hindered by constant threats from insurgent groups, who have boasted about their interference locally and nationally.

Afghan officials had said in April that they hoped to register as many as 14 million voters, which will be a tall order. “Right now, registration is going well in Herat City, but there are continuing threats from insurgent groups keen up upend the democratic process,” said a United Nations official monitoring the efforts in the west of the country. 

Across the country, security remains a challenge. In 2014, insurgent groups warned voters not to vote in the presidential election and the subsequent run-off, later admitting to cutting off the index fingers in eleven instances, just in one province, where citizens did not heed their demand.

The democratic process has been marred again this year by violence, prompting UNAMA’s chief, Tadamichi Yamamoto, to caution in early May that fresh attacks on registration stations were “nothing less than an assault on democracy.” In eastern Afghanistan, the registration process improved based upon the banning of motorcycles, which are sometimes used for hit-and-run attacks.

There are other logistical issues in play as well, along with efforts, led by the IEC, to create voting measures that prevent fraud and help protect every citizen’s right to vote. That process has progressed with stops, starts and rethinks, eliciting intense public criticism.

Despite those concerns, United Nations officials familiar with the efforts to register and get out the vote in Afghanistan, say that enthusiasm and interest has grown in one key demographic segment of society – that of Afghanistan’s younger generation.

“We are seeing lively chat on social media about these elections, particularly from young Afghans,” said a United Nations official working out of UNAMA’s Herat regional office. “We also see educated youth, including many women, putting their names forward as candidates. The young are quite hopeful, and we do our best to support public debate and dialogue from candidates and voters by supporting events through the media.”

Some candidates are entering the fray for the first time: “We are seeing a much wiser electorate - one that values democracy and opposes corruption,” said a 35-year-old Paktya resident who registered to run for office. “This time around, there is a clear interest that vote-buying should be stymied and that every vote should count.” By law, parliamentary candidates must obtain support from 1,000 registered voters in order to qualify to run.

Many of the Afghan voices speaking on elections in the media, at UN-backed events and elsewhere are urging people to register to vote. The queues at registration centres across the country are examples that those voices are being heard, and that many Afghans are now considering the upcoming elections as one solution – while not a panacea – to better governance.

“I am impressed that, in this burning sun, people are waiting in long queues to register because they understand that their vote will decide their future," said UNAMA’s Yamamoto during a recent visit to a Kandahar voter registration centre.

At the newly-established “50/50” fast food restaurant on the tree-lined streets of Herat city, business owner Farhad Majidi said he has been convinced, albeit only recently for the need to participate and register.

“I’ve decided I will register,” said Mr. Majidi, 26. As Majidi spoke, pizza and submarine sandwich deliveries were being whisked off on the backs of motorbikes. “It is a developing situation, but we are crossing from old generation to the next; in some cases from warlords to well-informed youth. This generation, of which I am a part, believes wholeheartedly in democracy. And we are the Afghan generation that increasingly has the power to build the future.”