Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Ready or not, Afghans prepare to go to the polls

By James Astill  /  THE GUARDIAN , KABUL

Qummergal grimaced as she bared her face to a camera for the first time. But when she saw her portrait, she giggled with delight. "I can't believe it's me," she said. "Look at me. It's wonderful!"

Qummergal was registering to vote in Afghanistan's first elections since the advent of war 25 years ago. "My son told me to come here," she explained. "When the time comes to choose a new king, he will tell me what to do."

Qummergal, whose husband was killed by the Taliban four years ago, was more clued up than most women registering at Khalilullah Khalili high school in Kabul. Several had no idea why they were there. And all said they would vote for whomever their husbands or sons told them to.

The men queuing outside another schoolroom were a little better informed. "This is a happy day for me, I am looking forward to voting for peace," said Ahmed Shah, adding that he would not permit his wife to vote.

But Mohammed Momen, a stern figure with a black turban and matching beard, was perhaps more representative. "I've come to get a registration card and maybe some food," he said.

Midway through Afghanistan's voter registration process, these were typical scenes for Max Campos, a UN worker overseeing proceedings. "People are disappointed when we tell them we're not giving anything away. Some people come here expecting some food," he said. "There's very little understanding of what the process is.

"Things we take for granted, like women's rights and political parties, many Afghans have never heard of."

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Afghanistan's presidential and parliamentary elections are a crucial milestone, and not only for Afghans. They are intended to show the feasibility of democracy in a broken society, vindicating the US policy of toppling unsavory regimes without colonizing the mess they leave behind.

The stakes are high, but the UN's progress is slow. It began registering voters on Dec. 1, anticipating elections in September. From the outset, this was a formidable task. Most Afghans were not even born at the time of the country's last census, making the UN's target of 10.5 million voters a very rough estimate.

Throughout, the UN has struggled for cash, and still needs US$27 million to complete registration. "Money is a major problem," said Reg Austen, the UN's chief electoral officer. "We started at least two months late because we couldn't raise the funds we needed, and we still can't."

Worse, a Taliban resurgence has put most of southern Afghanistan out of bounds to UN staff; a French UN worker was murdered by the group's assassins in November. A subsequent plan to use mosques as registration and polling stations was shelved after the Taliban threatened to kill mullahs cooperating with the plan.

"Even in Kabul, we're effectively under a 24-hour curfew. From an election point of view, it's a complete disaster," said Austen.

"People will say, you're stupid to try holding an election in a country still half at war. But I'm afraid that's the situation we're in."

Registration is far behind schedule, with about 1 million voters officially registered in the seven biggest towns. The real figure could be much lower because many people are thought to have registered more than once.

And, to the UN's despair, the election date has been brought forward. In January President Hamid Karzai announced polls would be held in June. There was just one reason for the change, according to diplomats in Kabul: pressure from the US. With an election of his own due in November and Iraq in flames, US President George W. Bush needs a positive foreign policy to sell to US voters.

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