This piece first aired in June, 2009, as part of the show, “Letting Them Down.”
- HOST: Afghanistan’s campaign season officially kicked off this week, and the candidates for president – more than forty of them – began their two-month race to the Presidential Palace. Hundreds of campaign posters already blanket walls in Kabul. But in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, the signs aren’t so conspicuous. Emily Hager has more on the beginning of election season in Kandahar province.
EMILY HAGER: In Kandahar, the government is losing ground to the Taliban. Recently insurgents took control of one of the districts closest to the city – and residents have seen little push back from government forces. Rangina Hamidi, the president of Kandahar Treasure, a private business for women in Kandahar, says that in this election, residents of the province face a simple choice.
RANGINA HAMIDI: The situation that we live in on a daily basis, with security being so horrible and so bad, people are simply concerned about their life. The insurgents continually scare people to tell them to stay away from any kind of government activity such as elections. People are weighing, what’s the benefit of trying to participate in elections which could end up costing our lives?
EMILY HAGER: The elections are still months away, and the United States and other nations have promised to secure as much of the country as possible before ballots are cast. But Hamidi says that even without the security problems, most Afghans in Kandahar are disillusioned. They’ve been through elections already, four years ago, and they think they know what’s coming.
RANGINA HAMIDI: Once we came down to the parliamentary and then the provincial elections, there was a lot of corruption, a lot of miscounting, and a lot of dealings behind doors that everybody knows about. And so, based on that past experience, a lot of people are also saying, “How do we know that this time the elections are not going to be as unfair and as unjust as the last time?”
EMILY HAGER: The International Republican Institute released an opinion poll this week showing that fewer than half of the people in Afghanistan’s southwest provinces, including Kandahar, plan on voting this year. According to one Afghan we spoke with, they’re just too disappointed. It’s been five years since people turned out in massive numbers to vote in the country’s first presidential election since 2001- and little has changed. Security is worse; government services, like electricity and water, are still limited, and corruption is everywhere. One Afghan who works in Kandahar said security was so bad he needed to stay anonymous. He told us how his neighbors feel about the elections.
KANDAHAR RESIDENT 1: So people are disappointed now. They have lost their trust in the election. I will tell you that 50% will not vote because of no trust in the election.
EMILY HAGER: Many believe that the election will be decided by the preferences of the tribal leaders and local strongmen. Rangina Hamidi says the candidates recognize that as well. They’re going after the support of those powerful men, paying little attention to the desires of the rest of the Afghan people.
RANGINA HAMIDI: Kandahar is a tribal society, so if you get the approval stamp of a major tribe for example, or a major tribal leader, then you pretty much can assure yourself that you wil get elected. So unfortunately that’s the strategy that many of the candidates so far are depending on and working towards.
EMILY HAGER: This kind of environment leads easily to corruption: sometimes it’s easier to buy the support of a tribal leader than to win him over with policy promises. The campaign has only officially been open for a few days, and already it seems that future ministry positions, land, and money are all up for grabs in Kandahar.
KANDAHAR RESIDENT 1: He will be a minister, if those guys gets into power, or he will be given a province to govern, one ministry. This is how the election campaign is being here in Afghanistan.
EMILY HAGER: Another Afghan in Kandahar has heard the same thing – particularly about President Hamid Karzai:
KANDAHAR RESIDENT 2: The first example was the land that he is distributing to school teachers so he will gain support. The 2nd example is Kandahar electricity. Until 1 month ago, Kandahar – the people of Kandahar had electricity only 3-4 hours every 24 hours. Right now, have 12 hours every 24 hours. People think this is just for the election and it will be the same when the election is over, just to get support. There are some other things: for example, his brother in Kandahar confiscated land from other people, and is redistributing it, selling it for a minimum price to other people, and telling them that “I am selling you this land only if you vote for President Karzai, for my brother.” So these are the kind of things, the kind of effort that he has put in place in order to win the election.
EMILY HAGER: And this kind of deal can be absurdly public. Last week, Afghan news stations aired an interview with a leader of a Hazara party, who had just endorsed President Karzai. He announced on air that President Karzai has promised his party five ministerial positions if he is reelected – and that two mainly Hazara districts will be upgraded to provinces. The party head encouraged all of his supporters to campaign for Karzai. And it’s a wider problem too, according to the Afghan working in Kandahar.
KANDAHAR RESIDENT 1: This is not only president Karzai. The rest of the people are doing the same thing, the rest of the candidates.
EMILY HAGER: Last week, UN special representative Kai Eide met with three leading contenders for the the presidency. He gave them a document called “Essential Guidelines for Conduct during the Election Process.” The guidelines are meant to keep the campaigns honest and focused on the issues – kind of a “useful tips” sheet for keeping the election clean. Spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan Adrian Edwards recognizes that despite these measures, some problems remain.
ADRIAN EDWARDS: These kind of issues, if they do exist, then certainly they have to be dealt with. We have issued guidelines of this electoral process. I think realistically nobody in Afghanistan expects this to be a perfect election. Despite that, I think the whole community here wants to see a process that moves the country forward, that starts to deliver better on the political process that people want of it. Corruption is an issue in this environment. It’s a serious issue in Afghanistan. I think you can expect it to rear its ugly head during the electoral process as well.
EMILY HAGER: Rangina Hamidi says it’s too late: corruption and violence have already cast their shadow over the Afghan political process – especially in the South.
RANGINA HAMIDI: I think the west is fooling itself by calling Afghanistan a democracy because this is not how democracy works in any kind of definition.
EMILY HAGER: Afghanistan’s campaign season will wrap up August 17, and the vote will take place on August 20. Before then, the candidates will have two months to hash out their campaigns, and international forces will be working hard to improve security. But for many in Kandahar, the decision has already been made: on August 20, they’ll be staying home.
For War News Radio, I’m Emily Hager.