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Corey Levine

Free and fair elections in Afghanistan? Don't hold your breath Add to ...

Five years ago, Afghans went to the polls and decisively pronounced Hamid Karzai their president. On Thursday, they're returning to the polls. This time, however, deep cynicism and a sense of hopelessness permeate the electoral mood, brought on by the fact that the government in Kabul has failed to deliver on its promises. In short, few Afghans can point to substantive changes for the better.

The markers that indicate the health and well-being of a state have either slipped in the past five years (maternal mortality rates, for instance) or flatlined (enrolment in primary education). Afghanistan is widely characterized as a "failing" state with an economy defined by its opium production and its dependency on aid from the international community. Widespread impunity, corruption and an embedded patronage system have also contributed to an entrenched political cynicism.

This week's presidential and provincial council elections are the international community's policy priority for the country and, as such, it cannot afford to lose the fiction that they're the most potent symbol of Afghanistan as a success story and that the billions of aid dollars have not gone to waste. (The elections are being funded to the tune of $250-million; Canada is committing more than $35-million.)

It's not that Afghans don't deserve the opportunity to democratically choose their leaders. On the contrary, after 30 years of war and suffering, they are more than entitled to representative government. The problem is, there's little ability to deliver this.

There's nothing to prevent warlords, drug kingpins or human-rights violators from being elected. While Article 85 of the Afghan constitution states that a person who's been convicted of a crime, including crimes against humanity, is not eligible to be a candidate, the justice system is hampered by a number of structural deficits. Like most other state institutions, the administration of justice in Afghanistan is weak, corrupt and open to outside interference.

Then there's the inability to address the electoral law's Article 15.3, which says candidates cannot be linked to "illegal armed groups." Many of the bigger warlords, including current parliamentarians and provincial council members, have been able to get around this clause by registering their militias as private security companies.

The Electoral Complaints Commission, which adjudicates on all challenges to the electoral process, excluded 54 candidates because of links with "illegal armed groups." But human-rights monitors have observed that at least 70 candidates with such links remain on the ballot list. The fact that many candidates with credible links to "illegal armed groups" remain on the list is mostly due to a poorly executed disarmament process in which political connections are often more important in determining whether your name goes into a national database on illegal combatants than how many armed men you have at your disposal.

While the top United Nations representative in Afghanistan points out that these elections signify a real choice for Afghans, it misses the point. People will tend to vote for the local strongman who has daily power over their lives. This is hardly surprising in a country more familiar with the Kalashnikov than the ballot box.

It is generally viewed that the delivery of the mechanics of polling day will be successful, although not without its flaws (the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan has said a fraud rate of less than 10 per cent is acceptable with regard to voter and counting irregularities). But the elections are taking place against a backdrop of deteriorating security and escalating violence - obviously, this will have a significant impact on the ability of Afghans to freely exercise their political rights.

Because of this heightened insecurity, many of the 7,000 originally scheduled polling stations won't open. According to the Ministry of Interior, 12 out of 34 provinces are identified as being "high risk," meaning there's limited or no government presence. This puts in doubt the ability of at least one-third of the country to participate in the elections.

While the Taliban represent the greatest threat to the electoral process, attacks (ranging from threatening phone calls to beatings and killings) by government agents (particularly security forces and armed factions aligned with certain candidates) have also been extensively documented. (Many acts of intimidation have been directed at female candidates, including from their own families.) Afghans cite the security situation as the main reason for not participating in the political process.

All this, of course, brings into question the credibility of this week's elections. Surely, Afghans deserve better than this.

Corey Levine is a human-rights consultant who has just completed a five-month posting with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

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