Thursday, April 03, 2014

Afghanistan: Election Interest Surges in Taleban-Free District

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,
Afghanistan: Election Interest Surges in Taleban-Free District

High turnout expected in a part of Ghazni province where only three people voted in 2010 polls.
By Sayed Rahmatullah Alizada - Afghanistan
In one district of Afghanistan where a popular public uprising succeeded in ejecting the Taleban, people have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into preparations for the upcoming elections.

The last time elections were held in Andar district in the southern province of Ghazni, just three ballots were cast.

But the long lines of people waiting to receive their voting cards ahead of the April 5 polls serve as an indication of how attitudes have changed since a home-grown militia helped drive the insurgents out.

Numerous residents told IWPR that the uprising had prepared the ground for them to vote in the presidential and provincial council elections.

In April 2012, residents of Qadimkhel, a village in Andar, organised a militia to hold off Taleban forces which had imposed a particularly harsh rule there.

Similar units were then set up in other districts like Moqor, Qarabagh and Dehyak, and they became known collectively as the National Uprising Movement.

Locals say that with hundreds of fighters at its peak strength, the irregular force improved security and allowed reconstruction to take place.

Kabul was reluctant to lend the group much support, mindful of the problematic history of militia groups in Afghanistan’s recent past. Instead, it sought to integrate them into the Afghan Local Police where possible. (See Afghan Local Militias Demand Support.)

There are currently some 120 National Uprising Movement fighters still active in Andar, led by commander Wali Mohammad. The government is trying to absorb them, too, into the security forces.

Rahimullah, 34, a resident of Khani, a village in Andar, said thousands of men and women had obtained voting cards and intended to use them in Saturday’s election.

“Besides the establishment of security in the district, public awareness work by the Independent Election Commission [IEC] is leading to massive participation in elections,” he said. “The people are now very well aware that on orders from Pakistan, the Taleban prevented them from taking part in elections,” he said. “In order for us to strike back at Pakistan, we will participate in these elections at any cost.”

His views were echoed by Mohebullah, 25, a resident of the village of Kalakhel, who was standing in a long line of people waiting to receive voting cards.

“The Taleban wouldn’t let us participate in the last parliamentary election [in 2010], but I will go to the ballot box without fear this time,” he said. “Pakistan wants to help the Taleban rule over us again, but we will never let the wishes of our old enemy be fulfilled.”

According to Shah Jahan Sardari, chairman of the IEC in Ghazni, 322 polling stations will operate in the province on election day, with 60 remaining closed because of security threats.

Andar district will have 32 polling stations, although six more have been de-listed because the Taleban are still present in those areas.

Sardari said that improved security, public awareness campaigns, civil society efforts and support from Muslim leaders had combined to boost public interest in the election process, and 127,200 new voting cards had been distributed across the province. Out of the 9,000 issued for Andar residents, 4,000 went to women.

Andar district government chief Qasem Deswal agreed that turnout was expected to be high.

“What’s interesting is that women have become more interested in participating in elections in Andar,” he added.

Deswal noted that 184 villages had come under government control following the emergence of the National Uprising Movement, and 350 local policemen were now stationed at 38 checkpoints across the district.

Sharif Kochai, 24, a member of the IEC’s public awareness team in Ghazni, said his organisation’s outreach work had made a crucial difference to local attitudes.

“When we invited people to take part in elections in earlier days, the response was strongly negative,” he said. “They regarded Mr Karzai's government as infidels. However, once we had raised awareness about the elections, many of them were ready to get cards and participate.”

Others attribute the change in attitude to a realisation that failing to return a member of parliament at the last election had placed the local community at a disadvantage.

“Aside from the other factors, the lack of a representative in parliament has forced people in Andar to participate in the presidential and provincial council elections… because they know that not doing so is damaging,” Amanullah Kamrani, a member of Ghazni’s provincial council from Andar, said.

Hussein Rahimi, a political scientist in Ghazni, agreed with this assessment.

“The lack of parliamentary representation and the public uprising against the Taleban caused people to make a serious decision to participate in elections,” he said.

Abdul Qader Andar, 26, a villager from Gandair, was one of the three people who voted in the last election.

“In the last parliamentary election, three people in the whole of Andar district took part – myself, a parliamentary candidate and a National Security Service employee,” he said, adding that the uprising had come about after local people losing patience with the Taleban.
“Although the Taleban are threatening people and telling them not to vote through the mosques and by sending ‘night letters” [warning notes distributed overnight], people are resolved to participate in the polling this time,” he said.

Sayed Rahmatullah Alizade is an IWPR-trained reporter in Ghazni province.