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Afghan Voters Prepare for Parliamentary Elections

September 17, 2010 at 8:49 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Even in the midst of a war, Afghanistan is preparing for another election. And, as Ray Suarez reports, violence and the potential for fraud loom over the process.

RAY SUAREZ: In Panjshir Province this week, a whole new meaning to campaign trail. A different breed of election worker hauled ballots to remote villages for tomorrow’s parliamentary election, when 2,500 candidates will vie for 249 seats.

In Afghanistan, with its rugged mountains and few paved roads, the four-legged ferries are a necessity.

MOHAMMAD YAHYA, election official (through translator): We have walked for five hours to carry this election material back to our area by donkey. It’s so our people can participate in the elections and cast their votes. This will enable them to be hopeful for a peaceful, prosperous, happy, and safe future after this election.

RAY SUAREZ: That fervent hope has been tested by a surge in violence. An independent Afghan group financed by Western nations reported at least 1,350 attacks in August alone. That’s more than double the same period in 2009.

The election was postponed from May due to security and logistical concerns. And now the violence and intimidation threaten to limit turnout, with the Taliban warning voters to stay away. The militants claimed today they had kidnapped 30 people tied to the vote, poll workers, election officials, and even a candidate for parliament.

In response, the country is locking down to gear up for the vote. Checkpoints dotted the capital, Kabul, today, reassuring some likely voters.

SHAYAN NABIL, Afghanistan: It is a positive sign that we see our police forces there on the streets, and — and checking the vehicles and cars everywhere to provide a secure environment for the people of Afghanistan to go to polls tomorrow.

ABDUL HUMAYOUN, Afghanistan (through translator): Whatever the security situation will be, tomorrow, we will cast our votes and we will choose our favorite candidate.

RAY SUAREZ: That enthusiasm is reflective of a longstanding democratic verve, says Clare Lockhart, who helped stand up Afghan institutions after the fall of the Taliban. She now travels to Afghanistan as a co-founder of the Institute for State Effectiveness.

CLARE LOCKHART, co-founder, Institute for State Effectiveness: Afghan culture is no stranger to democracy. The system of consultative, deliberative democracy that’s indigenous to society through the shura system actually predisposes the population to understand, participate in elections.

We have got to remember, at the village level, there have been over 28,000 elections for village councils over the last few years. So, elections for parliament are going to be part of that process. And I think it underscores again the importance of the political process.

RAY SUAREZ: But the last national election, the August 2009 presidential vote, was marred by widespread fraud, which mostly favored President Hamid Karzai. Karzai was ultimately declared the winner after his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, bowed out of a runoff. He claimed a fair vote was impossible under the Karzai-controlled election system.

Now Abdullah is urging voters to turn out. And, today, Karzai also urged his fellow Afghans to go to the polls.

HAMID KARZAI, President of Afghanistan: As elections are all over the world, are going to face difficulties. Therefore, it’s very important that the Afghan people come out and vote and have trust in their vote.

RAY SUAREZ: Clare Lockhart says there is a potential upside for Karzai in this election, even if he’s not on the ballot.

CLARE LOCKHART: He stands to gain measurably from presiding over a process that is seen to be fair and legitimate. I think, in the long run, he and his government stand to gain from having a parliament that can carry out the functions that parliament is meant to as a check and a balance on executive power.

RAY SUAREZ: With 10 candidates standing for each seat in parliament, the vote-counting process is expected to take at least six weeks. Initial results are due at the end of October.