Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Apathetic Ahead of Upcoming Elections

People reluctant to even register to vote amid security threats and ongoing corruption.
By Mina Habib

Analysts are warning that low voter registration for the upcoming Afghan elections – especially among women – does not bode well for the October polls.

In 2014, seven million citizens took part in presidential and provincial council elections. This year, although the Independent Election Commission (IEC) has said it hoped to register up to 14 million adults at over 7,000 centres, only around two million people have put their names down to vote.

Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), said, “The voter registration process is so far unsatisfactory, and unfortunately not only participation by women but also by men is very low up until now.”

Rasheed said that one reason for the low level of participation could be the failure to deliver awareness programmes to encourage both men and women to come to the centres to register their names.

“Then there is security, which has frightened both men and women because they care more about their lives [than voting], and they don’t feel safe visiting voter registration centres,” he said. “The other reason for low participation by women is that some don’t have national ID cards, especially in more remote regions. And there is a lack of voter registration centres in some areas due to security issues.”

Insurgent groups have delivered on their promises to do everything they can to derail the polls. A series of deadly attacks on voter centres, including an April suicide bombing in Kabul that killed some 60 people, have proved a powerful deterrent to registration.

IEC operational chief Zemari Qalamyar said that more than a quarter of voter registration centres had remained closed due to security risks. A further 354 were open but faced a high level of threat.

Voter apathy is also part of the equation. Although the country’s security forces were praised for their relative success in safeguarding the 2014 elections, the results led to a lengthy political stalemate before a national unity government was formed.

Rashid said that people were still disgruntled from their experience of 2014, with no serious measures to reform election laws taken in the past four years to improve public trust in more transparent or credible elections.

It was a tragedy, Rasheed continued, that the elections were a vital process that had been secured with great struggle, including the cost of thousands of lives, but lack of public interest meant their value was now being lost.

IEC spokeswoman Marzia agreed that the process had so far been unsatisfactory. She said that more than 2.6 million people had so far registered to vote, including only 700,000 women.

The closing date for voter registration has been extended until June 14, 2018, and in an attempt to increase registration, the authorities have airdropped information leaflets in a number of provinces.

Fawzia Naseryar, a member of parliament for Kabul who is running for a further term, emphasised the obstacles women faced to political participation.

Many women lack national ID cards, a pre-requisite for registering to vote in the first place.

“One reason is cultural,” Naseryar explained. “Women in remote areas don’t experience any situations where they would need an ID card. For example, girls who do not go to school are not asked for national ID cards. They normally don’t travel abroad, so they don’t need to get a passport for which an ID card is a necessity.

"So most women in Afghanistan don’t hold these cards, which has now proven to be a big challenge for participation in the election process.  I hope that the Independent Election Commission consider this issue in the future, and help distribute national ID cards to women.”

The public in general did not understand the value and importance of elections, she continued.

Naseryar said, “It’s likely that these upcoming elections will involve more corruption compared with the previous ones. As a representative of the people, I believe that mafia and smuggling networks have more influence [than politicians].”

She said that violations were already apparent, with some figures having launched their elections campaigns before the official start.

“Although campaigning has not started yet, some people have already begun; they are taking groups of people from province to province and to voter registration centres, they circulate their posters and even put ads on social media. I hope that our security and intelligence institutions don’t ignore this, and bring to justice all those who act against the law campaign before the given time.”

Women’s rights activist Leeya Jawad said most women in more remote places lacked national ID cards and so could not register in the first place. But the problems went deeper than that, she added.

“Due to the high level of dishonesty in the previous elections, people were disappointed and do not trust the process, believing that whoever the government wants will be selected; the votes do not make any difference.”

Jawad said that her own doubts over the credibility and transparency of the process meant that she would not be registering herself.

Kabul resident Fatema, 33, said that she had also not registered because she had no intention of casting her vote.

“I don’t want to visit the voter registration centres because of the security threats. We have seen attacks on these centres that killed and wounded women and children,” Fatema said.

Other female activists, however, stressed the importance of participation in the democratic process.

Najiba Moram, publication’s director of the Bakhtar state-owned media outlet, said that elections were a national responsibility and vital for political stability.

She said that it was her duty to not only participate, but also encourage others to take part and register.

Seema, 33, a teacher who also lives in Kabul, said that she did intend to register despite the possible security risks.

“As a teacher, I consider elections a very important means through which the people of Afghanistan can build their future with their own hands,” she said. “I agree that we are faced with many challenges, but it doesn’t mean that we should not participate in important national affairs.”

Inaction would not solve anything, she continued, adding that she understood that many felt disillusioned by the claims of corruption that dogged the last polls.

“It is true that there was some manipulation in the previous, which also caused issues of credibility among the public, but we should understand that a lack of participation will not only fail to solve our current problems, but will let them grow bigger.”