- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan democracy will get its trial by fire on Saturday, with millions of enthusiastic first-time voters overseen by equally inexperienced election monitors, as Taliban terrorists and power-hungry warlords seek to influence the outcome.

Three Afghan soldiers and two militants died in violence during the weekend, bringing to at least 957 the number of persons killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press tally.

But despite the threat of attacks from the Taliban and other radical groups opposed to the elections, most Afghans appear eager to cast their votes, seeing it as an opportunity to end what they call “gun rule.”

The overwhelming response to a voter-registration campaign, with about 10.6 million identity cards issued, has shown the importance that ordinary citizens are placing on these elections. More than 40 percent of the registered voters are women.

“What do people want? Peace, bread and work,” said hotel cook Abdul Kahar. “They feel the elections are a first step.”

But unlike during elections in other countries emerging from conflicts — such as Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or East Timor — there will be no legion of international election monitors crawling over the country to ensure the balloting’s fairness. That task largely has been left to ill-equipped and hastily trained Afghans, who also will be voting in their first presidential election.

The newly created Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) was given $350,000 by the U.S. Agency for International Development to coach about 4,000 Afghans on how to detect electoral fraud.

But the monitors face the almost impossible challenge of watching nearly 20,000 polling centers across the country. They will be assisted by fewer than 230 international observers, organized into small support teams from Europe and Asia.

“The people of Afghanistan want clean elections, so they were naturally expecting proper international monitoring,” said presidential candidate Masooda Jalal, who was mobbed by an eager crowd at an election meeting inside a Kabul mosque on Wednesday.

Dr. Jalal, the only woman among 18 candidates, said she had only enough money to deploy about 1,000 of her own staffers to keep vigil at polling stations.

“For the rest, we will pray,” she said. “We have no means to assure ourselves that there will be no malpractice.”

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent group, warned that the lack of comprehensive observation would leave “considerable scope for the manipulation of ballots and the intimidation of voters.”

Warlords still hold sway over much of the country, with some contesting the elections.

The highly successful voter-registration exercise also had its problems.

Multiple voter cards were issued in some areas, especially to women, who were permitted to have voter IDs without photographs. On election day though, not only will the ID cards be punched, but the left thumb cuticles of voters will be marked with a special indelible ink to prevent repeat voting.

“I investigated a complaint that many female voters were given multiple cards at a place in central Afghanistan and found it was true,” said K.J. Rao, an international official with the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), which is responsible for conducting the polls.

“But the number of complaints during the voter-registration drive or during campaigning have been very few.”

The JEMB will recruit about 120,000 officials to staff polling stations. But because of the widespread poverty and high illiteracy in Afghanistan, it expects that fewer than a quarter of these will be educated.

An opinion poll released last week by a human rights consortium of 13 international and national agencies, including Save the Children USA and CARE International, showed that voter enthusiasm was high, but that voter education has lagged. Only 14 percent of those polled said they had received any instruction on how to vote.

Nevertheless, a majority of the people said the security situation in their province had improved in the past year, and three-fourths said they think they will be free to vote for the candidate of their choice.

“It cannot be a perfect election,” said Telibert Laoc, a Philippine expert assisting FEFA’s election-monitor program. “But we hope and pray it will be a credible first step toward creating a tradition of democracy in Afghanistan.”

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