Registering Voters A Difficult Task In Afghanistan

A policeman stands guard on the rooftop of a voter registration center in Afghanistan. i i

A policeman stands guard on the rooftop of a voter registration center in Shigal district of volatile Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR
A policeman stands guard on the rooftop of a voter registration center in Afghanistan.

A policeman stands guard on the rooftop of a voter registration center in Shigal district of volatile Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Afghan and U.N. workers have begun registering voters for next year's presidential elections. It's a lot tougher this time because of growing insecurity and Taliban vows to disrupt the process by killing election workers and voters.

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It's Morning Edition from NPR News, good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Looking ahead to its own presidential election next fall Afghanistan began registering new voters this month, at least those it could get to in the midst of the escalating violence there. Organizers say it's hard to reach many eligible voters let alone persuade them to actually put their names down on a registration list. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent this report from visiting one unstable region - the Eastern province of Kunar.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In a fortified government center here in Kunar Shigal district, Afghan workers tally registration forms on the first day of the voter drive. District coordinator Zahir Gouhl(ph) says the results are disappointing. He says some 350 people signed up, less than half the number he had hoped for. Of those, only a dozen were women.

Mr. ZAHIR GOUHL (District Coordinator): (Through Translator) The security situation in Kunar complicates the process, but we are trying our best to reach out to as many people as we can, and have asked the village elders to tell people to sign up.

SARHADDI NELSON: He says that's not easy when people are afraid of what might happen if they do heed the call. Many believed signing up to vote could prove fatal in places like Kunar where the government holds sway during daylight hours, but insurgents rule the night. A few days before the voter drive began, Taliban fighters attacked a night-time convoy of election workers who's driving through Kunar to a neighboring province. None of the workers was hurt, but the insurgents torched the registration supplies. Here in Shigal, the local police chief placed one of his officers with a machine gun on the roof of the registration center to instill confidence in voters and warn the Taliban to keep away.

Afghan officials in Kabul say so far there have been no attacks on this or any other registration site. Given the security challenges, officials are adamant that the registration drive is succeeding. Zekria Barakzai is the spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission appointed by President Hamid Karzai. Barakzai says election workers were able to open most of the registration centers planned for this initial phase of the voter drive. As of late last week more than 200,000 people had signed up. That's just the fraction of those the government is hoping to register by the time the drive ends at the end of February. Barakzai says he's hopeful they'll meet their goal.

Mr. ZEKRIA BARAKZAI (Spokesman, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan): We will do everything possible that nobody in Afghanistan is deprived from their rights to vote in the future elections for the country.

NELSON: Making sure that happens is vital, says Nader Naderi, who chairs the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent group monitoring the election efforts.

Mr. NADER NADERI (Chairman, Free and Fair Election Foundation, Afghanistan): In the past people did not believe on those people who are ruling on their legitimacy. But people do believe on Karzai's power as a legitimate power because he had won the election. And if that core issue is removed, then of course there will be a lot troubles including the warlords who are an element of insecurity.

NELSON: Not that he says those former warlords are seeking to gain more power. And elections that lack legitimacy would give them an opening not that he also says Afghan and western officials should order military operations ahead of the elections to make sure Taliban fighters cannot disrupt the voting. But as these first two weeks of the voter drive show security isn't the only obstacle to a legitimate election in Afghanistan next year. Another headache for organizers is how few women are signing up. So far less than a third of the registrants are women. In Kunar, that figure is even lower.

Ms. SHAQUILA (Election Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Shaquila(ph), 18, who like most Afghans only uses one name, is an election worker tasked with registering women here in the Shigal district, a conservative Pashto area where the sexes are strictly segregated. Shaquila says the main deterrent to potential women voters here is that they have to come to the same center as the men, even if they do so in the opaque head-to-toe burqa in which no one can recognize them. She and other officials say they want to move the women's site to a clinic up the road in hopes of boosting turnout. But the police chief has refused to let them go because he says it isn't safe enough. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kunar province in Eastern Afghanistan.

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