Afghanistan’s Experiment in Democracy

This iftar (Ramadan break fast) dinner for 1,800 people at Kabul’s Ouranos Hotel is barely over when the campaigning begins. The brightly lit, high-ceiling hall is full of parliamentary candidates trying to hand their cards to possible supporters.

From amateurishly printed black and white business cards to sophisticated small booklets with pages of color photos, the campaign literature is a key tool in a contest with huge numbers of candidates. Here, in Kabul Province, 553 men and 109 women are competing for 33 seats, 9 of which are reserved for women. (Currently there are 68 women MPs in the 249-member lower house, more than the 64 mandated by quota.) Candidates’ cards bear not only their photograph and mobile phone numbers but also an neshan entihabati, or election symbol and number, so that voters have a chance of locating them in the huge, multipage ballot. The symbols – say, two telephones, or three airplanes – are to aid the many illiterate and innumerate voters.

Tonight’s iftar dinner of kabuli pilau, meat curry, potato curry, rice, and roast chicken, funded by the Massoud Foundation, is a de facto campaign event for the democratic opposition to President Hamid Karzai.

Such dinners are a key part of campaigning in Afghanistan, a visible sign of power and cohesion. A group or individual that can afford to feed you is one that will safeguard your interests.

Two of the women around my table fend off a man in traditional shalwar kameez bearing the ubiquitous cards. “We are also candidates,” one of the women explains to the man, smiling. Five of the seven women around the table are running, and another is the daughter of a candidate.

The problem here tonight is the same that’s in Afghanistan as a whole: There are too many contestants for the September 18 elections. The entire 249-person Wolesi Jirga or lower house of Parliament is up for grabs, and most of the incumbents are running for re-election. The requirements for challengers are so minimal – showing 1,000 supporters’ voter registration cards and paying $600 – that more than 2,500 people are running.

The election is widely expected to be marred by fraud on the part of President Karzai’s supporters and by Taliban intimidation. Candidates affiliated with Karzai operate with impunity. Though there’s supposed to be a vetting process to exclude criminals, one Karzai-linked MP, Mullah Tarakhel, shot five people, killing three, in a traffic dispute a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been removed from the roster of candidates, much less jailed. Nevertheless, these women candidates are trying hard, plastering the city with billboards that cost the locally significant amount of $100 a month and holding countless meetings with supporters.

All of these women insist, against the odds, that they have good chances. I ask them how many election monitors they have as a rough benchmark of their appeal; candidates are entitled to a monitor at each polling place. (How this can play out with 664 candidates in Kabul is unclear.) Numbers ranged from 100 down to 30.

Some candidates have extensive political experience or a high profile. Kabul-born Shakeela Naweed has been the president of the women’s and human rights commission for Afghan exiles in Peshawar, and she has 18 years of government experience. She claims 100 election monitors, and hands me a well-organized single page Dari leaflet detailing her biography, “cultural activity,” and 14 reasons to vote for her. Her confident, perky daughter Mina, an MBA student in Pakistan now, is working on her campaign and helped me conduct interviews in a mix of English and Dari.

Shahallan Mayhan Doost, a lawyer who has been the minister of women’s affairs for Kabul Province for the last four years, has 80 monitors and thinks she has a good chance because she is well-known. But, she said in English, fraud in the election “is very problem.” The election will not be “shafaf,” or transparent, she fears.

Brigadier General Nazeefa Zaki, another candidate, has had a 29- year career in the Afghan National Army in their equivalent of the Judge Advocate Genera’s office. “It is based on destiny if the candidates are winners or losers,” the heavyset woman says rather grimly.

The most outgoing woman at the table is the ebullient Parween Sufi, a teacher who quickly tells me that her singer son appeared on the popular TV show “Afghan Star.” Though she claimed but 20 monitors, she said she was “100 percent sure” she would be elected. “Love you!” she called out in English as she left.

Sometimes a candidate’s strength isn’t on the surface. When Naheed Nouri introduces herself as a kindergarten teacher, I’m initially underwhelmed. But an Afghan-American mentor to women candidates, Nasreen Gross, explains to me, “This women has given sewing machines to 3,000 women to sew for her. She can bring 3,000 women with her.”

Nasreen – whose unusual surname comes from her having married an American academic she met at the American University of Beirut – is a well-known figure here. An “Islamic feminist” who refuses to wear a headscarf, Gross gets away with it in this form-obsessed country because of her street cred as a member of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets and her family background. She’s a sayeeda, a female descendent of Mohammad, and her mother, Roquia Farhang, was one of the first women members of Parliament in the1960s.

Nasreen complains tonight that the women candidates have all been placed in one marginal area of the hall. I’m more amazed that some men stop by to say hello to us and that a man is sitting at Nasreen’s table – this is, after all, a country where weddings are divided into separate gender gatherings.

In July and August, Nasreen coached more than 120 women Parliamentary candidates on campaign basics at a series of workshops in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. As I saw when I visited one of the most successful Afghan women politicians, Qadria Yazdan Parost, campaigning Afghan-style is pretty different.

Qadria, a strikingly attractive brunette who seems to be in her early 40s, was a television presenter here a few years ago. She has name recognition. Her husband lives in the Netherlands (he imports cars into Afghanistan) and Qadria’s campaign meeting took place in their very large new villa.

Qadria’s polish and confidence are immediately apparent, and she shows me a gift from Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. But the supporters who enter in clusters of ten or twelve are nearly all in traditional shalwar kameez and have non-urban faces. One heads the shopkeepers’ union in an outlying district of Kabul, pledging the support of 500 shop owners who will put her posters in their windows; another is a gold jewelry seller, a lucrative occupation here. There are at least two representatives of groups of youth supporting her – one claims 6,000 voters behind it.

Qadria told me that she also has many women supporters, but that many don’t have voter registration cards, as their families won’t allow it.

She’s unusual in being able to explain to me clearly, in a mix of Dari and English, what she has done for her constituents over the last five years to justify re-election: She has helped bring electricity to the gold-sellers, a major source of support, she reduced their tax from 18 percent to 1 percent, and she prevented destruction of historic buildings in Kabul’s historic quarter. She admits to having only received 3,000 votes in the 2004 election, but hopes for 15,000 this time. “I’ve been campaigning for five years,” she tells me.

Qadria said in English, “I am an optimist person.” And then she continues, in words that express the melancholy underlying this election for many Afghans, “I don’t know what happened here [in Afghanistan]. Because of fear of a civil war people will take a lot from this government. This government does very bad things, they are always wrong.”

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