Richard O’Hara’s observations from Kabul
Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan 18 September 2010
On 18 September, I was on hand to witness Afghanistan holding its second parliamentary election since 2001. I have been working on Afghan elections in various capacities, both in Afghanistan and in Washington (where I’m now based), for more than three years now. But after being out of the country for last years’ presidential and provincial council elections, from a personal point of view it’s been extremely rewarding to be present for this year’s parliamentary election.
The British Embassy in Kabul, and our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Lashkar Gah, sent election observers all over the country: from Herat in the west, to Balkh in north, Helmand in the south, and even the remote Badakhshan in the shadow of the Hindu Kush in north eastern Afghanistan. I, however, remained in the capital and spent the day touring polling centres with colleagues from the Danish Embassy.
An early start saw us arrive at a mosque in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul to witness the final electoral preparations, and anticipated opening of polling at 7am. I saw Afghan election officials dutifully setting up polling booths and ballot boxes, all under the watchful eyes of numerous agents representing some of the 600 candidates standing for office in Kabul. At this stage, the only problem I witnessed was the difficulty the polling centre workers were having getting the seals off the bottles of indelible ink used to mark voter’s fingers. But this was soon solved by a timely intervention by a member of my Danish close protection team, and his rather large knife.
So all was going well, until at the last minute the local mullah decided that he did not want voting to take place inside the actual mosque. Cut to a mad scramble to get all the polling material set up again on the sizeable porch outside the mosque, while a growing queue of, slightly agitated, voters waited outside.
After that slight false start, I moved onto other polling centres throughout Kabul, predominately in mosques and schools especially converted for the day. In one classroom, I saw posters explaining the election process half obscuring existing biology class posters showing the human digestive cycle (in somewhat graphic detail). A common feature in many of these venues, though, was that I seemed to spend more time being observed than actually observing. Every time I entered a polling station, a large crowd of Afghans would quickly gather to stare in mild bewilderment at the strange foreigner trying to squeeze himself into a child’s school desk in a small classroom. Although, on reflection, much of this might actually have been down to the presence of my female colleague from the Danish Embassy.
Another common feature throughout the day was the presence of the aforementioned candidate agents. Every polling station had a specially tapped off area where dozens of young Afghans would sit all day, scrutinizing every aspect of the election process, and proudly telling me why their candidate was better than all the others. In fact, in many polling stations the agents seemed to outnumber the actual voters.
After a long day in the field, I returned to the British Embassy with my fellow observers, both from the UK and a number of other Embassies in Kabul, to compare notes on how the day had gone. Much will be said and written about these elections in the coming days, and I don’t want to pre-judge the outcome. But I will say that I personally witnessed Afghan election workers going about their business in a professional and organised manner, and many Afghans - young and old, male and female - proudly exercising their right to vote.
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan and the Electoral Complaints Commission now have a lot of work to do. During this time, it will be important for everyone involved to act responsibly and respect the electoral process through to its final conclusion. But from a personal and professional point of view, I hope that these elections will represent another step in the process of establishing and stable and secure Afghanistan.