More than a year after a flawed presidential election, Afghans go to the polls on Saturday for a parliamentary contest considered a test of whether President Hamid Karzai’s government can now run a fair vote and prevent insurgents from disrupting the balloting.
The results of the races for the relatively weak legislature are unlikely to affect Karzai, who has passed much legislation by decree when parliament was in recess.
But the perception of how the vote is conducted will reverberate strongly with the international coalition supporting Afghanistan with 140,000 troops and billions of dollars.
The election will also be an indicator of the strength of the insurgency as NATO and Afghan forces work to secure polling stations in volatile areas amid Taliban threats against voters and election workers.
Hardly anyone is predicting a free and fair vote by Western standards.
“This is probably one of the worst places and the worst times to have an election anywhere in the world. We have to put it into perspective,” said Staffan de Mistura, the top UN envoy to Afghanistan.
“We don’t expect a fair and transparent election. What we expect is an acceptable election,” said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.
The hope is that Afghans and the international community will be able to proclaim it an improvement over the August 2009 presidential vote, when a UN-backed anti-fraud watchdog found rampant fraud in Karzai’s re-election.
“It does need to be perceived, and seen and felt, by the Afghans and by the international community as less fraudulent,” de Mistura said.
“The preparations are miles better than they were last year,” said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative.
But a new US watchdog report warns it will take years to solve certain problems in the electoral system. It cites a lack of a reliable list of registered voters, insufficient candidate vetting and biased electoral organizations.
In some of the more volatile areas, locals claim the election is just a show so that Karzai can put a democratic label on a government that rarely answers to the people.
“The international community wants to say to the people: ‘See in Afghanistan there is an election. There are posters and campaigning.’ But the people are not so happy. They are too demoralized to go to the polling stations,” said Mohammad Qasim Zazai, a carpet seller from eastern Paktia province.
“This regime of Karzai, it is symbolic, and so the election is symbolic. Most of the campaign workers are recruiting people from their villages. Fraud is continuing. People are buying these fake voter registration cards,” Zazai said.
Nearly 400 voting centers have been cut from the original list because Afghan forces could not guarantee security – a move that could lead to some of the same confusion about who should be voting where.
In one Taliban-heavy area of eastern Ghazni province, elders say they have been told that four of the five officially approved voting centers will not open.
Despite the buildup of US forces ordered by President Barack Obama, Afghanistan as a whole is less secure than at the time of last year’s presidential election.
Although security has not worsened in the capital, Kabul, some northern provinces are less safe now and there’s been no sign of significant improvements in the south and east.
There will be about 280,000 Afghan police and soldiers protecting the more than 5,500 voting centers scheduled to open on election day, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.