Afghanistan to show ‘ballots better than bullets’: UN envoy

Afghanistan’s parliamentary election this Saturday will prove to war-weary Afghans that ballots are better than bullets for resolving conflict, the UN envoy to the country has told AFP.

Staffan de Mistura said in an interview that cancelling the vote — already twice postponed — would hand a victory to the Taliban, as the war intensifies and insurgents act on threats to attack candidates and their supporters.

Millions of Afghans are to go to the polls to elect the 249 members of the lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, in the country’s second parliamentary election since the 2001 US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban.

More than 2,500 candidates are standing and 68 seats are allocated to women.

“What hangs on these elections is the perception by the national community that democracy is a difficult embryonic process but it’s something that moves forward,” de Mistura told AFP.

“In other words, ballots are a better way to solve issues than bullets.”

The elections were also important “for the international community to feel that they are using their treasure and, unfortunately, also blood for a cause that is linked to democratic values,” he said.

The United States and NATO have around 150,000 troops in the country, fighting a nine-year Taliban insurgency.

More than 500 foreign troops have been killed this year, with Western public support for the war waning over the heavy losses and allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

The Taliban have warned that anyone associated with the poll is a target and have been blamed for killing at least three candidates.

“Ideally in a normal world there could have been a better time for these elections, no doubt, because we are in Afghanistan at a very critical period,” de Mistura said.

“However if the elections did not take place, the constitution would have been weakened and the current parliament would have lost its tenure.

“The message would have been given, which the anti-government forces are stating, that in fact democracy has no future in Afghanistan,” he said.

“The context is this is a country which has a major conflict at a crucial time. So the very fact that they are taking place is quite a miracle. It couldn’t be a worse possible time in order to prove the best possible result.”

The Afghan government is organising the poll, which is being bankrolled to the tune of 150 million dollars by the West, a foreign official said.

Originally scheduled for April, then May, the poll was shifted to September to allow time for reforms aimed at avoiding a repeat of the fraud that marred last year’s presidential election.

The reforms would be pivotal in reducing fraud, de Mistura said.

“The election will not be perfect but based on preparations by the Afghan government I feel assured this election will be better than last year’s election,” de Mistura told reporters on Tuesday.

More than a million votes, most of them for President Hamid Karzai, were thrown out after the 2009 presidential election, undermining the legitimacy of the government and presidency, both for Afghans and for the Western nations fighting to keep him in power.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) published a list of polling centres on August 18, contrasting with last year when the list was released two days before the ballot.

This time, “candidates will be able to know much more in advance (and) security structures will be there, too,” said de Mistura.

The IEC has said 938 polling centres, or 14 percent of the total, will not open because security cannot be guaranteed. This will leave 5,897 active stations.

“In a country at war, if those open and people are in a more or less secure environment capable of going to vote, it will be quite an achievement.”

De Mistura expects a higher participation than last year, when turnout was as low as 10 percent in the most insecure regions in the south, where the insurgency is concentrated.

Ballot papers had been prepared based on an estimate of 10.5 million eligible voters, he said. Lacking a census, the population is generally estimated at 28 million.