Will Election Improve Plight of the Poor?

Those who are in greatest need for assistance from the next president may not be adequately prepared to make an informed decision.

Will Election Improve Plight of the Poor?

Those who are in greatest need for assistance from the next president may not be adequately prepared to make an informed decision.

Friday, 1 September, 2006

In less than a month, millions of Afghans will be going to the polls in the country’s presidential election. The few public opinion surveys conducted over the past year suggest that many voters have high expectations of what the election will mean for their country.

But it’s unclear whether the urban and rural poor-- those who are homeless, landless, living in insecure housing and without a stable income - share the same level of enthusiasm for the vote.

The registration of 10.5 million voters, with 58.7 per cent of those registered being men and 41.3 per cent women, to some extent may show that the urban and rural poor are as hopeful as everyone else.

The first phase of voter registration, which concentrated on eight regional capitals, saw 1.9 million people register by April 30, while the end of the second phase, which targeted rural areas, saw the registration figure rapidly climb by late August to 10.5 million.

However, the rapid rise in registration numbers over the last few months, often in unstable and unsafe rural areas, came with accusations of multiple registrations by individual voters as well as “ghost registrations”, making the final registration figure less credible.

With rumours abounding of voter registration cards being bought up before the presidential elections, it is also easy to see that for urban and rural poor Afghans, the benefits of registration may not be so readily linked with voting. The selling of voter-registration cards along with limited public education on the basics of electoral procedures – such as voting being secret – suggests that urban and rural poor have not been provided with the necessary information to make informed elections decisions before and on polling day.

This lack of information and possible confusion about the purpose of registration means that rural and urban poor Afghans may not associate voting with a change in their lives.

What is known is that since the fall of the Taleban, the lives of the rural and urban poor have not necessarily improved.

In rural areas of the country, for example, the number of landless and homeless people is not declining and if anything may be rising. At the same time, local commanders who frequently combine political, military and economic might are busy capturing shared community land, particularly pastureland. This is depriving rural landless families of the last of their shared property rights and negatively impacting upon their freedom to graze stock and collect brush for fuel, both essential livelihoods strategies. The frustration with the lack of government action to stop land grabbing is very real.

“We cannot rely on the government. There is no government to rely upon,” a landless person in Bamian told the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, AREU, as part of its research into land tenure in Afghanistan. “Even if Karzai himself came here he could do nothing to the commanders.”

In cities across Afghanistan, the urban poor face a multitude of barriers to building sustainable livelihoods. Frequently they are forced to sell off assets, reduce the number of rooms they rent, beg on the street or become involved in black market activities.

The urban poor often cite their lack of “waista”, which can be translated as access to power, connections or social networks, as contributing to their plight. As one young respondent from AREU’s urban-vulnerability research programme noted, “Who will listen to us? We’re all from different places in this neighbourhood – from Kunduz, Laghman, all over. If we did have a lot of relatives here maybe then we could get together and go to see the wakil [neighbourhood representative] with our problems – like about the lack of water and electricity, but not the way we are now…”

Voter registration and elections alone will not change these feelings.

As presidential campaigning got under way on September 7, the platforms of different candidates and their policies for addressing the concerns of the urban and rural poor remained unclear. Some candidates seem more interested in cutting deals for a share of power rather than differentiating themselves on policies that affect the lives of the urban and rural poor.

While the different candidates may not have fully developed policies and programmes, the rural and urban poor, like the rest of the population, have a simple message - they want the elected president to ensure that real disarmament takes place and that the political, military and economic power of warlords is broken.

Removing guns is the first step, but reform must go further to protect the rights and livelihoods of the urban and rural poor. This is because the military and political control exerted by regional and local commanders is based on financial resources that come from a variety of licit and illicit sources, including the narcotics trade, customs revenues, income from mines, and unofficial taxation.

How the urban and rural poor judge elections will be based not only on how free and transparent the process is, but also on whether the elected president responds to their aspirations.

The new president needs not just to win the support of the majority of urban and rural poor voters, but to work with them to tackle the causes of their poverty.

Thomas Muller is communications and advocacy manager for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in Kabul.

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