Afghan Election Tests Legitimate Voting

Afghans go to the polls Saturday to vote for members of parliament. About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats. A year ago, Afghanistan's presidential election emerged as an exercise in fraud and intimidation.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

When Afghans go to the polls tomorrow, it will be an exercise in hope over experience. A year ago, Afghanistan's presidential election led to fraud and intimidation. Now, Afghans are voting in a new parliament. There are 249 seats and 2,500 candidates.

MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne is in Kabul, following the election campaign.

Hi, Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So, given the violent situation in Afghanistan, have candidates been out campaigning?

MONTAGNE: Oh, yes, plenty of them, actually. Plenty have not, but those who can have been out there. Part or all of the provinces, as you suggested, are now too dangerous for candidates to really get out in the street. But Steve, the other day we were driving about an hour north of Kabul, and who should we spot chugging along in what looked like, for all the world, like an ice cream truck with a bullhorn, but a candidate that we met in last year's presidential election: Ramazan Bashardost. He's now running for reelection to parliament on his well-known populist message of honest government and power to the poor. So seeing him, I - we pulled over, and I plunged into this roadside crowd.

(Soundbite of street traffic)

MONTAGNE: What is the main thing people are wanting, in your experience, who are happy to see you, what are they wanting to know that you will give them or help them get?

Dr. RAMAZAN BASHARDOST (Member of Parliament, Afghanistan): I think the ordinary people want a big change. They say there is a lot of corruption. There is a lot of economic problem. I think that the people is very, very - the life of people is very, very sad. It is sad.

MONTAGNE: Among the supporters pressing in on Bashardost is a very conservative-looking man - tall, grey-bearded, decked out in an elegant silk turban.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2 (Translator): He says that Bashardost is the only person that we can trust. And if he is elected, then we'll be assured that he will build Afghanistan. There are only two people in the country, in the whole country that we trust: Bashardost and a woman from Jalalabad.

MONTAGNE: Okay, that gentleman's choice: The populist Bashardost and a woman candidate. Still, all those who joined this crowd aren't there as supporters. Abdul Walil, who works as a driver, was thinking more along the lines of - as we might put it in America - throw the bums out. His beef with the politicians is services, or lack of, like getting the potholes filled in the roads.

Mr. ABDUL WALIL (Driver): (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: We have been telling everybody to expand this road for us for almost five years, but nobody listens to us. People like Bashardost are just deceiving the people. They come here and, you know, they promise a lot of things to people. But once they get elected, they sit in the parliament and they don't listen to the ordinary Afghans and they don't deliver their promises.

MONTAGNE: So, are you going to vote? Is there one person you are going to vote for, or you just give up?

Mr. WALIL: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: Of course I'm going to cast my vote, but for two people, because they are from here. They know what are our problems and what we have gone through.

MONTAGNE: Incumbents like Ramazan Bashardost do have a lot of competition from newcomers. One candidate who's getting a lot of attention is Robina Jalali. Like most of the population, she's young 25 years old. She's also beautiful and famous here, for being the rare woman to represent Afghanistan in the Olympics, in track and field. At her Kabul office, she's squeezed us in between a campaign meeting and a magazine photo shoot.

Ms. ROBINA JALALI (Parliamentary Candidate, Afghanistan): (Through translator) Those who are going to vote for me are mainly young men and women and sports men and women who don't have money to bribe government officials and don't know the higher-ups.

MONTAGNE: Some in Kabul have questioned Robina Jalali's own connections. She's worked as a secretary at the Kabul Bank, which is closely linked to President Karzai. But she's having none of the rumors that higher ups at the bank are financing her campaign. Just as she learned to sprint on her own, she says, she's tough and running now for what she believes in.

Ms. JALALI: (Through translator) I was the first woman who stepped into the sports world after the Taliban were ousted. The Taliban sent me a letter and said that if I go to the Olympics, they would chop off my head. But all I wanted was to open the doors of opportunity for women and young people, and I was not afraid of losing my life.

MONTAGNE: One person working to make this election as good as it can be is Nader Nadery. He's chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. That's an election watchdog group that's also pushing for better electoral laws. He says there are positives in this election, with many Afghans genuinely embracing the experience.

Mr. NADER NADERY (Chairman, Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan): For the first time, door-to-door campaigning, text messaging, village-to-village campaign rallies, along with these big billboards and posters and TV ads for the first time or radio ads for the - are much more in larger scale. That shows that there is an electoral environment. People do want to get engaged. But there's also challenges, and those challenges - especially in an ongoing conflict - is so colossal.

MONTAGNE: At the top of that list of challenges: security. Nadery's group has documented the killing of four candidates and 13 campaign workers, as well as scores of attacks and episodes of serious intimidation.

Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group is also keeping track of the challenges. She says the uptick in violence directed towards campaigns doesn't just come from the Taliban, but also political rivals willing to do anything to get rid of the competition.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (International Crisis Group): Many of these candidates -you're talking about 2,500 candidates - have histories, and they date back to, you know, 30 years ago. Some of them have been deeply involved in a lot of violence, and they carry that with them to the ballot.

MONTAGNE: And, says Rondeaux, there's no good system in place for getting people off the ballot who are known to be involved in all sorts of nefarious activities.

Ms. RONDEAUX: We know for a fact that there are, you know, numerous candidates on the ticket right now who have been responsible for killings, who have been involved in drug trafficking and mafia activities dating back 20, 30 years ago.

MONTAGNE: This threatening environment, along with outright combat in some areas, has meant that over a thousand polling centers won't open that's about 15 percent, at least a million voters, maybe a lot more, won't be able to vote. And then, Steve, there's the problem of false voter ID cards.

INSKEEP: False voter ID cards, meaning that they're real voters who aren't going to be able to vote in some places, and you may also have totally fake voters who are, quote, "casting votes," unquote.

MONTAGNE: Yes, exactly. That was a big issue in last year's presidential election. It turned out several million more voter identification cards were out there than actual registered voters. And so, of course, here the rumor mill is working overtime.

Just as an example: news came early this week that a couple of guys were arrested with 3,000 fake voting cards printed in Pakistan, paid for by a candidate. Later that night, I met another candidate who was telling the story of three million fake cards and how they'd come into the country.

So somewhere between those two numbers is the truth. We won't know until after the election. Although with a new system they've set up with serial numbers on legitimate voting cards, they may be able to they expect to be able to figure out how many are bogus.

And, of course Steve, there's the other time-honored opportunity for fraud. Afghanistan's version of vote early, vote often: power brokers buying votes for their candidates, or bundles of ballots, and just simply stuffing the ballot boxes.

INSKEEP: So you've got this election with door-to-door campaigning, text messages, TV ads, fraud and killings, Renee Montagne in Afghanistan. What's at stake here?

MONTAGNE: You know, Steve, the fact is there's a fair amount at stake here. Afghanistan's Parliament, flawed as it may be, is really the only institution here that has power, and some of the time has the will to use that power to push back on the president and his administration. Those behind President Karzai have backed and funded candidates friendly to him, the aim being getting a parliament that will be friendlier to his agenda. And as we've been talking about all this week, that agenda includes bringing the Taliban back into the political fold. Depending on who's elected, a new parliament could stand up for women's rights, or not - all kinds of things.

And you know, finally, Steve, the bar may be low, but it is important for Afghans to believe that they exercise some control over their destiny, and this election is one indication for them of whether they do.

INSKEEP: NPR's Renee Montagne is preparing to watch an election in Kabul, Afghanistan this weekend. Renee, thanks very much.

MONTAGNE: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue to hear Renee's reports over the coming weeks on MORNING EDITION, From NPR News.

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