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Afghan Elections: Little has changed for the poor

Mud-brick houses.

Mud-brick houses have spread across the hillsides above the overcrowded capital of Kabul.

High above downtown Kabul, mud-brick houses are stacked at haphazard angles on steep mountainsides. The cappuccino-colored homes blend into the hills as if residents here wanted to camouflage their presence. From a distance they have a certain charm, but up close, they are crowded slums. Raw sewage mixed with mud trickles down dirt paths, and trash litters the ground.

In the run-up to parliamentary and provincial council elections, Kabul's traffic circles, shops and walls were covered with thousands of campaign posters -- but the elections didn't seem to reach these hillside residents. In the neighborhoods on TV Mountain (named for the media transmitters located there), no campaign posters were visible and no candidates made speeches or handed out election material.

On a Tuesday afternoon after the vote, I took a taxi to the hills where the poorest Kabul residents live. Twenty years ago, few people lived on the mountains. But with skyrocketing rents in the city and a booming population, Afghans have built up.

At one home I visited, a small two-bedroom flat, 18-year-old Fereshta (which means "angel") rolled out fresh dough by hand and flattened it against a tandoor oven carved into the ground. Thick black smoke billowed in the single room. A purple scarf tied against her head kept her long, dark hair pulled back. When I asked Fereshta about the elections, she gave me a suspicious glance.

"We are illiterate Panjshiris," she tolde me, referring to a province northeast of Kabul. "If I went to school, do you think I would be living here like this?"

"Why do you want to interview me? What do I know?" she said.

At 18, Fereshta met the minimum voting age, but she doesn't have a voter card, nor did she give a thought to voting. Like Fereshta, her mother, Naseema (who thinks she's about 35 years old), answers my questions with curt questions of her own.

"We are illiterate Panjshiris," she said, referring to a province northeast of Kabul. "If I went to school, do you think I would be living here like this?"

"Like this," added Forozan, another hillside resident, "means like animals."

Female voter.

Hafiza, 48, voting at the Chindawul polling station in central Kabul.

Electricity reaches only some parts of the hillside. Residents who can afford it buy diesel-powered generators. Others use gas and alkene lamps. There's no running water, and children walk to the base of the hill to fill up yellow containers from community water pumps.

Forozan made lentils for lunch for her seven children -- three girls and four boys. Her husband, Abdullah, makes 2,000 afghanis, roughly $40, each month. Forozan, who hasn't left the house in two months, heard about the elections on the radio, but when I asked her, she said she didn't know why elections were being held or what they were for.

"We haven't seen any good outcome from the presidential elections," she said. "Our lives haven't changed. Nobody keeps the poor in mind."

And that's pretty much the sentiment among a lot of Afghans, who feel let down by the slow pace of reconstruction and political changes since the election of Hamid Karzai.

Seventy percent of registered Afghans voted in the presidential election in October 2004. In these latest elections, about 53 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

When I visited a polling center in Chindawul, in central Kabul, around 2 p.m., fewer than 150 people had voted, even though the polls had been open since 6 a.m.

"It's shameful," said poll worker Abdul Samie. "People are not voting."

Sabrina Saqib.

Sabrina Saqib is among more than 500 women who are competing for 68 seats in the 249-seat lower house of parliament.

The youngest candidate in Kabul, 26-year-old Sabrina Saqib, caused a stir with her attractive campaign posters and outspoken views and encouraged people to get out and vote during her campaign speeches.

"I know a lot of you regret voting in the last elections, but this is important -- you should vote," she told Afghans at several rallies. "Even if you don't elect me, it's important you take part in the process."

Saqib and others told me that some Afghans regretted voting in the October presidential election because of widespread problems with the ink that was used to mark voters' fingers to prevent voter fraud. Several candidates threatened to boycott the results, and many voters became suspicious of the whole process.

"Why should we vote? It's all been fixed ahead of time," Abdul Ghafour, a market vendor, told me. "Just like the international community fixed the presidential elections."

According to Afghan Independent Human Rights commissioner Nader Nadery, the more likely reason for low voter turnout is President Karzai's failed promises to remove warlords and war criminals from power.

"After the presidential elections, people were expecting to see some of the big fishes who committed serious human rights violations to be out of offices or, if not tried, at least held accountable."

"After the presidential elections, people were expecting to see some of the big fishes who committed serious human rights violations to be out of offices or, if not tried, at least held accountable," Nadery said.

Another reason for the low turnout was the overwhelming number of candidates this time around. In Kabul alone, the parliamentary ballot was four pages long. Voters had to choose from more than 350 candidates vying for only 33 seats. The United Nations said this election was the most complex it has ever helped organize.

Across the country, about 2,753 candidates ran in elections for the 249-seat lower House of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga -- a Pashto term for House of the People. Another 3,013 men and women ran for the 420 provincial council seats split across 34 provinces.

"It's not only about the complexity of the ballots or the long list of candidates, but what are these [government] institutions that they are voting people to?" said Mirwais Social, the editor of a national radio program in Kabul.

Many Afghans, like hillside settlers Naseema and Forozan, don't understand the role of the national assembly. They want the government to create jobs and better schools and to give them food subsidies -- everyday issues that the parliament won't deal with directly.

When the single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system was put in place for the parliamentary elections in 2004, voters cast ballots for individuals rather than registered political parties. Each voter cast one ballot for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes won. Nadery and other critics say the SNTV system only helps local warlords and their representatives to come out ahead of independent candidates. And voting along political party lines would have reduced the complexity of the ballot.

Traffic circle with campaign posters.

Kabul's main traffic circle is strewn with competing campaign posters.

Kabul University law professor Mohammad Jafari says this type of voting system will leave the latest parliamentarians, serving five-year terms, hopelessly divided and unable to work together to pass any meaningful legislation.

"I don't think any of us expect that this next parliament will be able to do much," Jafari said. "There will be too many different backgrounds and ideologies."

Jafari said that rural lawmakers, many of them illiterate and unfamiliar with the political processes outside their local councils, would find it difficult to work in the Wolesi Jirga.

To this end, the European Union is training a 100-member secretariat staff to assist future politicians. With international support, Afghans are being sent to the French parliament for three weeks to observe legislators in that country.

In the meantime, the Indian government is financing reconstruction of the old National Assembly building. And last year, the Afghan government announced plans to rebuild the Dar-ul Aman ("abode of peace") royal palace.

The palace, originally built in the 1920s, is an imposing neoclassical building on a hilltop overlooking a flat, dusty valley in the western part of the Afghan capital. As a symbol of Afghanistan's independence and security, Dar-ul Aman didn't live up to its name. Two days after the Soviet invasion in 1979, a special unit of Red Army soldiers stormed the building, from which former president Hafizullah Amin and dozens of Afghan troops had resisted in an intense room-to-room firefight. Amin was assassinated inside, and Moscow installed a new Communist leader in his place. In a civil war that followed the 10-year Soviet occupation, rocket-fire pounded the palace. Today, it's a crumbling shell of its former self.

The palace's reconstruction is expected to take 10 years -- perhaps a symbol of how long Afghanistan's newest democracy will take to reverberate among the Afghan people.


FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz wrote about the Afghanistan elections in 2004. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, she now lives and works in Afghanistan.


REACTIONS

Stanton, ca
Great article!