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Editorial: Wishing Afghans well

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-09

NO one can quarrel with the value of holding elections, especially in Third World countries that do not have a tradition of adult franchise. The very idea of a free and fair poll suggests that citizens are being given a choice to vote their voice. That is why Saturday's presidential election in Afghanistan, its first ever such exercise, is to be welcomed - even though it's being held more than 40 years after a long-forgotten member of the country's Pashtun royal clan had proposed an elected parliament. Some 10 million Afghans are reportedly registered to cast their ballots in a mountainous country that contains barely 25 million overwhelmingly poor Muslims of various ethnicities. Some 41 percent of the registrants are women, another welcome development in a part of the world where females are often treated as chattel. There is even a woman candidate in the race, 41-year-old Massouda Jalal. Fifteen other candidates will also challenge Interim President Hamid Karzai - widely perceived as a puppet of the United States - who may face a run-off in November if he fails to win a clear majority when Canadian-made paper ballots dropped into 30,000 Danish-made ballot boxes placed in 25,000 polling booths are counted by early next week.

But how free and fair is this presidential election going to be? Mr Karzai isn't just running against his declared opponents but also against the violent history of his country - and the determination of the ousted, but far from eliminated, predecessor regime of the Taliban to disrupt the polls. Even though Afghanistan's 502-member Grand Council of tribal elders adopted a charter last January 4 creating an Islamic state under a presidential system, the fundamentalist Taliban - which was overthrown in a US invasion in late 2001 - has refused to recognise its legitimacy. Its guerrillas have engaged in wanton killings - at last count more than 1,000 Afghans and foreigners have been murdered - and nearly succeeded this week in assassinating the vice-presidential candidate, Mr Ahmad Zia Masood in Faizabad, the capital of mountainous Badakhshan province in the remote northeast. Mr Masood had gone there for a campaign rally. Taliban official Mullah Dadullah claimed responsibility for the attack. But potential disruption may also come from Afghanistan's powerful warlords, many of whom run the flourishing opium trade that accounts for more than a third of the gross domestic product of US$21 billion.

Monitoring Saturday's election will be a ragtag national army of more than 17,000, about 25,000 police, 18,000 US-led coalition troops and a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force of more than 8,000. Some 1,000 international civilian observers will also be present, but largely in urban centres such as Kabul and Kandahar. The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan says it has recruited 2,000 Afghan observers but would be able to post them with only about 30 percent of the electorate. There are an additional 3,000 domestic observers. And the United Nations adds that 12,000 political party representatives will be present at 5,000 polling stations. On Friday, that figured almost quintupled as candidates rushed in reinforcements; about 26,000 "observers" represented one candidate alone, Mr Yunus Qanooni. Of course, voters were promised that there wouldn't be any intimidation.

In short, it isn't going to be an easy election, and the best that the world community can do is to wish the Afghans well. What happens over this weekend will shape the fate of elections in 2005 for a bicameral national assembly, and for the establishment of an independent judiciary. The presidential winner will face many challenges, not the least of which will be how to accelerate economic development in a country where the per capita income, charitably put, is US$600. He - or she - will need to build institutions of national governance in a country more accustomed to chaos than civility. International donors who have pledged more than US$4 billion to build Afghanistan's infrastructure will have to be cajoled into opening their purses. All this requires something very fundamental that Afghanistan's rulers have rarely been able to accomplish: survive.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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