Frontline World

AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

My Voter Card
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Outside the polling place

In Dashti Barchee, on the western outskirts of Kabul, men mill around the entrance of a mosque that functions during the daytime as a temporary registration center. A campaign poster of the Shiite Muslim Hazara candidate Hajj Mohammad Mohaqiq hangs outside the mosque.
Dozens of men sat quietly in rows on the mosque floor like they would during a prayer sermon, but it wasn't a Friday congregation. It was a Saturday morning, during the last leg of a voter registration drive in Kabul. The men were waiting to be called forward to get an election card.

I came to this largely Hazara district on the outskirts of the city to take some photos of a mosque converted into a temporary voter registration center. The Hazara are a small ethnic group that was abused and enslaved by an Afghan monarch in the late 1800s. Ever since, they've been discriminated against and relegated to menial jobs in Afghan society. Most Hazara are from Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, where the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues and massacred hundreds of Hazara because they are Shiite Muslims.

Women voting

Waiting to obtain a voter card during the last days of the registration process, women gather around a registration table in a mosque at Dashti Barchee, a largely Hazara minority region on the western outskirts of Kabul.
On the other end of the prayer hall, separated by a black curtain, women crowded around a table. Some of them wore long, black chadors. Many Hazaras were refugees in Iran, where they've picked up Iranian accents and style of Islamic dress.

Zainab, a 21-year-old newlywed, told me she came to get a card with her husband. "I want to vote because it's good for our country," she told me.

I asked if her if she was familiar with candidates aside from Karzai, and she named Hajj Mohammad Mohaqiq, a former Mujahidin commander and one-time minister of planning, whose campaign posters were plastered throughout this district, including right outside the mosque's main entrance.

Mohaqiq, a Hazara himself, smiles broadly in his photo, showing off a handsome row of straight, white teeth. "A vote for Mohaqiq is a vote for social justice," his campaign slogan read.

Ten and a half million Afghans were registered for the elections. Refugees and exiles living in Iran and Pakistan were able to vote too because registration efforts extended into those two countries, where up to 4 million Afghans live.

election worker taking photo

An election worker takes an instant photo of a resident for a voter registration card, at a mosque in Dashti Barchee on the western outskirts of Kabul.
Getting a card was easy -- too easy, some critics of the process said. Reports of people with multiple registration cards emerged during the process, with some Afghans claiming to have more than a dozen.

On the 2004 campaign trail, President Bush repeatedly has pointed to the high voter registration figures as a victory for democracy. But United Nations officials admitted that the numbers are exaggerated and indicated fraud. In several provinces, voter-registration rates exceeded eligible voters by 40 percent.

"You've had people registering multiple times because they can sell their cards and candidates collect them," said Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst for Kabul-based International Crisis Group. "There have been cases of candidates donating extra cards to candidates they want to stay on good terms with. It's really a horse-trading kind of thing. It's a real perversion of the democratic process, and it's apparent to everyone."

registration card

The voter registration card for FRONTLINE/World correspondent Roya Aziz, which she obtained at a mosque in Dashti Barchee.
Even though I wouldn't be in Afghanistan during the elections, I wanted a registration card as a memento, so I lined up to have my mug shot taken. After the passport-sized photo dried in a matter of minutes, it was given to an election worker who pasted the photo on the lower right-hand corner of a blank card. When Soraya, a 32-year old teacher and part-time election worker, asked me where I lived, I said "Karte Parwan." She filled out my name, age and residency information on the card, a little bigger than the size of an American driver's license, and made me sign my name on the back. Illiterate voters were fingerprinted, and women who did not wish to be photographed could get a card without their pictures, partly explaining how some people could have obtained multiple registration cards. Afterward, Soraya sealed the card with a clear, laminated adhesive cover that, if removed, would tear the card.

My card became one of the approximately 11 million.

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