Ballot Uncertainty Fuels Cynicism in Helmand

As post-election agony continues, Helmandis are increasingly disillusioned with their government - and with democracy itself.

Ballot Uncertainty Fuels Cynicism in Helmand

As post-election agony continues, Helmandis are increasingly disillusioned with their government - and with democracy itself.

Tuesday, 29 September, 2009
A president elected with fake votes cannot serve the nation,” grumbled Jawad, a resident of Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. “We expected that a transparent election would bring a new plan for solving our problems. Now we are disappointed. This unfair election has increased the distance between the people and the government.”

Jawad’s complaints are echoed by many in Helmand, the volatile southern province that has the dubious distinction of being both the opium capital of the world as well as a major centre of the Taleban insurgency.

Despite the presence of some 15,000 United States and British troops, the elections in Helmand did not go well. Turnout was depressed by multiple rocket attacks, Taleban patrols, and general disaffection. Reports of rampant fraud meant that it may never be clear how many of the province’s 125,000 declared votes were actually cast by residents or simply stuffed into ballot boxes by supporters of incumbent president Hamed Karzai, who received almost 84 per cent of the reported turnout.

But the real damage to Helmand’s morale has been the long, drawn-out, post-election period. It took nearly one month for the Independent Election Commission, IEC, to release even preliminary results, which give Karzai nearly 55 per cent of the vote, against 28 per cent given to his closest rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.

With over 2,500 complaints registered with the Electoral Complaints Commission, ECC, 700 of which could materially affect the outcome of the election, there is as yet no clear winner. What is worse, there is very little idea of when official results might be announced and even less consensus on whether a second round of voting, constitutionally mandated if one candidate fails to clear more than 50 per cent, is either possible or desirable.

“We were not worried about fraud in the elections,” said tribal elder Bismillah Barakzai. “We were more concerned about security – we thought that the elections might not take place at all in Helmand. But we know that many cases of fraud did happen, and now the same government is going to rule the country using these fraudulent votes. This is not acceptable.”

While the ECC tries to find some way to speed up the process, Helmand’s residents are losing faith in the whole notion of democracy. In many people’s opinion, the elections were a trick played on them by the international community.

“The elections were just a game,” said political analyst Mohammad Nader. “We thought Afghanistan was going to become a democratic country, but the problems created by 30 years of war will not be solved so easily. [United Nations Special Representative] Kai Eide told the world that Afghanistan’s elections were successful. But this was just to show that the presence of the international community in our country has been justified.”

But Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, head of the tribal council in Nad Ali, defended the elections, and rejected the idea of a second round.

“I agree that there was fraud, but not all of the votes were fake,” he said. “I want the votes of the people to be respected. We cannot ensure security for a second round of elections.”

In Helmand, he explained, families were divided – one son might be with the Taleban, while another worked in the government. “For the first elections, it was very difficult to convince these sons to let their family members go to vote,” he said. “It will not happen a second time, and clashes will increase.”

The alleged widespread fraud could also further boost the authority of the Taleban, making them less amenable to peace negotiations, say some Helmandis. More and more people are turning away from the government, disgusted by the failure of the election process. The Taleban are capitalising on this sentiment, spreading stories that the Afghan government is a mere American puppet.

“Our people are illiterate. They do not know whether the US supports Karzai or not. They only hear things, but cannot analyse,” said Hajji Zahir, a tribal elder from Musa Qala.

The Taleban dismiss talk that they are meddling in the post-election situation. According to Mullah Ashraf Akhund, a local Taleban commander, the group has more important worries.

“Why do you ask me about the election?” he said irritably. “I do not care about them at all. We are trying to defeat [US president Barack] Obama and his sons in the world.”

But he could not refrain from a bit of anti-election rhetoric.

“The people have already understood everything about this government,” he said. “Now it is obvious for them that the government does not belong to them, it belongs to the United States. Go tell the people to leave the government and join the Taleban Emirate.”

Regardless of the anger and disillusionment created by the election, many Helmandis just want the process to be over. A second round will mean more violence, they say, and will do nothing to change the result.

“Yes, the election was full of fraud, but we cannot stand any more violence,” said Shirin Del, a former national security officer. “Instead of continuing to fight, we should get to work and see what the government will do for us.”

A shopkeeper in Lashkar Gah, who did not want to give his name, agreed.

“The new government is not legitimate,” he said. “I did not vote for Karzai. The people of Helmand did not vote for him. He wins through fraud. But a second round would be too expensive, and the security situation will not allow it.”

But not all Helmandis are so cynical about the elections. Bismillah Jan, who lives in the capital, told IWPR that there had been no fraud during the election process.

“People are just discriminating against Karzai,” he insisted. “Karzai has served his country. He is a prominent person. These are the votes of our people and the international community must respect them.”

But he does agree that a second round would be undesirable.

“We must consider the current situation,” he said. “Security is deteriorating. We should not talk about all this discrimination and just increase problems. There can be no second round in Helmand, because there is no force capable of ensuring the security of the electoral process.”

Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.
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