Afghanistan's troubled start to democracy

Dawn/The Christian Science Monitor News Service, May 29, 2002
By Scott Baldauf

GARDEZ: As a United Nations election observer, Haji Habibullah has not seen any hanging chads, but he has seen much more troubling types of election irregularity: vote-buying, intimidation, and even rocket fire.

The worst incident came a few weeks ago, when Habibullah and other UN election officials came to this southeastern city of Gardez to hold the first voting phase of the upcoming Loya Jirga, or traditional Afghan assembly. Instead of allowing Habibullah's delegation into the city, he says, local commander Shireen Agha Abdullah fired rockets at them.

It has been enough for Habibullah to lose faith in the ongoing Loya Jirga, which in two weeks will choose Afghanistan's first freely elected government in more than 23 years.

"We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters," says Habibullah, sitting on cushions in the Afghan guest house of a local warlord. "This is the first time that people have to vote for their leaders. People are poor, and they love money, but they are angry at what the central government is doing.

Eight candidates for Afghanistan's Loya Jirga traditional assembly, which will next month select a new transitional government, have been killed in May, the United Nations said Tuesday.

"There were some eight people killed but we don't have firm indications that the murders were politically motivated," said UN spokesman in Afghanistan.


. Pakhtoons, however, say the assembly has been hijacked by the Tajik-led Northern Alliance militia to impose its will over Afghanistan.

"The Loya Jirga is in the hands of the Northern Alliance," says Badsha Khan, a blustery Pakhtoon militia commander and a leader in the boycott movement.

Turning to some visiting UN officials of the Loya Jirga, including Habihullah, the warlords says, "I have to tell you, you are also working for the Northern Alliance, and you are creating a civil war."

The central issue of dispute, Khan and other Pakhtoon leaders say, is over how many of the 1451 loya Jirga seats each province should receive. .

But Loya Jirga process has been anything but smooth. Last week, one recently elected representative was murdered in central province of Ghor.

Atiqullah Stanekzai, a former pilot in the Afghan Air Force who now flies UN officials to distant villages for Loya Jirga elections, says he has seen darker incidents of vote-buying, mostly by commanders allied with the Northern Alliance.

"I have seen past Loya Jirga, and I have seen this one, and it is not democratic," says Stanekzai, a Pakhtoon who flew planes for the Taliban air force before it was destroyed by US bombers in the early part of the war.

But UN official Habibullah is not so sure.

"We tell people to vote in the elections, and then give us (their) written complaints and we will take them to the head of the commission," says Habibullah with a sigh. "We keep telling the Loya Jirga commission ourselves, but they tell us 'do whatever we order you to do. We will take care of the problems in the next election.' "-

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