A day at the polls, Afghanistan-style

As a nation exercises its democratic rights, Justin Huggler witnesses an election like no other.
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The Independent Online

Sarar was caked with dust, it coated his face, his long yellow patu shawl and his pakoul cap. Illiterate like all the nomads, he chose a candidate from his photograph on the ballot sheet. Afghanistan's poorest and most neglected people, the Kuchi nomads, were getting their chance to vote. The only problem was that Sarar was only 15, under the legal age to vote, but somehow he had managed to get hold of a polling card.

All around, people were emerging from the towering mountains to cast their votes. They came out of crevasses where you could not believe a path ran, coming from villages nestled high above, hidden behind the peaks. If the elections had come two months later, they might not have been able to vote because the passes would have been snowed up.

They came on donkeys. They came crammed 10 to a car, grown men sitting on each other's laps. And most of all they walked, along mountain paths where no car can drive.

These were scenes that were repeated across Afghanistan yesterday, from the deserts of Kandahar to the icy Pamir mountains of the Wakhan, as people tramped across deserts and through mountains to cast their votes in the first parliamentary elections for more than three decades, enduring hardships that would put the citizens of more established democracies to shame.

Some reports said turnout was lower than at last year's presidential elections, but in Panjshir people's passion to vote was obvious. Mir Racha walked for four hours through the mountains to cast his vote.

He set off just after dawn and when he arrived at Bazarak, a small village of mud houses in the middle of the Panjshir Valley, he cast his vote, stood talking with old acquaintances for a few minutes, then set off again on the four-hour walk home. He could not afford to delay if he wanted to be home before the sun went down.

"It's a difficult journey," he said. "But we must vote for our representatives. Every Afghan must vote for the future of his country because this election can help us develop our country."

Mr Racha's journey gives a sense of the sheer logistical difficulties of holding a parliamentary election in a country as undeveloped as Afghanistan - the more so when you consider that the Panjshir Valley, where he voted, is well-developed compared to much of the country.

The ballot-papers were bewilderingly long - eight pages in Kabul province, where 340 candidates were standing for 33 seats. To make matters more confusing, each province elects more than one member to parliament - how many depends on the population - but voters only get to choose one.

One man who was not voting was Assadullah. He had forgotten his voter card - and since his home lies 48 hours walk from the end of the nearest road, he could not do much about it. He comes from Nuristan, the most remote of Afghanistan's extraordinarily remote places, made famous in the West by Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. And he was a little confused about the elections. He thought President Hamid Karzai was the new king.

Assadullah is a migrant worker. He registered to vote in Nuristan, but he couldn't afford to take the time off work to trek back there to vote. Nuristan is one of only two provinces that were considered too dangerous for election monitors because of the lawlessness of its people The other is Konar, a Taliban stronghold. Nuristan, on the other hand, was one place even the Taliban didn't dare go.

All day, a minibus trawled up and down the dirt road that leads through Panjshir, searching for the Kuchi nomads. It had been laid on by the election authorities as a sort of shuttle bus service to take nomads to the polling stations to vote. The only problem was that no one knew where the Kuchi were staying, so the driver had to search out their tents and camels. Some time after lunch, the bus broke down, a victim of Afghanistan's axle-shattering roads, and the Kuchi were left to make their own way to the polling stations.

Faced with a huge nomad population, the Afghan authorities have taken the rare step of considering the Kuchi as a completely separate constituency. They had their own candidates yesterday, and legally they could vote at any polling station in Afghanistan. All the polling stations around their autumn routes had to have a second set of ballot papers in readiness with the nomad candidates' names on them.

The Kuchi spend the summers in high pasture like the Panjshir, driving their livestock to the lowlands such as those around Jalalabad for the winter. It is a penurious existence, but the effort to get them to vote seemed to be an overwhelming success.

Among the victims of Afghanistan's often brutal geography are women voters. While turnout among women from towns and villages close to the main roads was high, many of the men who walked for hours from remote mountain villages said the women from their families had not come, because the route was too arduous, or because the women would have been at risk of assault on the unprotected mountain paths.

Some of the men tried to bring their wives and daughters' voting cards and cast their votes by proxy, but Fatma, the chief official at the Bazarak polling station, was a tough woman who could hold her own against any Afghan man and was having none of it. Sixty-five of the 149 seats in parliament are reserved for women.

Apart from a few cases of under-age voting, there were not many signs of irregularities - and birth records do not exist in rural Afghanistan. At the entrance to the Panjshir Valley, rusting Russian tanks that were trophies of the jihad against the Soviets were plastered with election posters. The significance was lost on no one. It was from the Panjshir in 2001 that Northern Alliance fighters streamed down to capture Kabul, and Afghan and US officials have said this election is about ending the rule of the gun in Afghanistan.

But it is clear that any claims that this is close to being achieved are premature. A spate of violence in the run-up to the elections, including a thwarted attempt to blow up a major dam, were a message from the Taliban that they have not gone away. A full-scale insurgency led by the Taliban is raging across half of Afghanistan, in the Pashtun-dominated south and east.

Seven candidates were killed in the weeks leading up to the elections, and one high-profile candidate, Bashar Dost, called a press conference on the eve of voting to prove that he was not among the victims.

But there are grave fears of more killing after the votes are counted because of a seemingly ill-judged electoral law that has become jokingly known in Afghanistan as the "assassination clause". Under this, if any winning candidate is physically unable to take up his seat in parliament, the seat will go to the runner-up.

Given Afghanistan's long history of violence, this is seen here as an open invitation to disgruntled losers to "adjust" the results by assassinating the candidates who beat them to post. President Karzai even went to the trouble of announcing this rule on national television, so it is common knowledge.

With the huge logistical task of bringing in ballot papers from Afghanistan's remotest provinces - 48 hours on foot from parts of Nuristan - the final result is not expected until 22 October. Bloody days are feared between then and 2 November, when parliament is supposed to be confirmed.

Another indication that the rule of gun is far from over comes from a quick glance down the candidate list. Many warlords from Afghanistan's past are not just standing - they are considered favourites to win. Most notoriously, Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, accused by Human Rights Watch of war crimes during the siege of Kabul in the 1990s, was one of the main contenders in Kabul province.

Other powerful warlords, such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan, were not standing personally but were understood to have unofficial lists of candidates running under their colours in their respective areas. Some observers have suggested the Taliban may be quietly doing the same, putting their candidates up for election in their heartlands to attack the new system from inside and out at the same time.

The Panjshir Valley is the main power base for Yunus Qanooni, already being spoken of as the leader of the opposition. Mr Qanooni, a former leader in the Northern Alliance, was runner-up to Mr Kazrzai in last year's presidential election. He is also accused by Human Rights Watch of complicity in atrocities carried out by by Ahmad Shah Masood's faction during the siege of Kabul.

While most candidates have stood as independents, Mr Qanooni has organised his allies into a party, which it is thought could give him the votes in parliament he needs to mount an opposition to Mr Karzai's government.

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