By Arab News
By Ajmal Shams*
There was another historic day in Afghanistan’s nascent democracy on Saturday, Oct. 20. Afghans went to the polls in large numbers to vote for about 2,500 candidates for 249 seats in the lower house of Parliament, including 68 seats reserved for women. This was in spite of security threats and the probability of violence by the Taliban and Daesh, who had urged people not to vote.
The message was loud and clear, with a large turnout across the country. People chose to vote to show their commitment to democracy and freedom of expression, despite fears of being intimidated.
The successful election was a clear manifestation by Afghans that they want their destiny determined through ballot, not bullet.
However, Ghazni and Kandahar provinces were two exceptions. No votes were held in Ghazni due to serious security constraints, while the election in Kandahar was delayed by a week due to the assassination of provincial security chief Gen. Abdul Raziq — the powerful commander who had helped maintain relative security in the province and was known for his bravery and courage in the fight against the Taliban.
The electoral campaign saw the lives of 10 candidates taken throughout the country. Afghans will remember them as “martyrs of democracy.” The role of the Afghan forces that maintained security and law and order during the voting process is commendable. Except for a few incidents where polling stations were attacked in an attempt to cause disruption, the elections were relatively peaceful compared to those held in the past.
The parliamentary elections were held after three-and-a-half years of delays due to wrangling within the National Unity Government (NUG) over electoral reforms. The new reforms may not be adequate, but they show the NUG’s commitment to change. Both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah cast their vote on the morning of the election. Ghani urged Afghans to turn out and emphasized that voting was both a right and a responsibility. He also took pride in the fact that the electoral process was fully handled by Afghans. Yet, let us not forget that, without outright financial and political support from our international partners, we would never have held a successful election. In particular, the government and people of Afghanistan owe gratitude to our major partner, the US, for its instrumental role in our journey toward democracy.
The Oct. 20 elections were by no means perfect. There were reports of delays in many polling stations around the country. This was caused by the late introduction of biometric machines to prevent multiple voting. A lack of technical capacity in the use of such machines and limited training affected the process. This was the first time that Afghanistan had experimented with a biometric election system. In an unprecedented move that some believe was against electoral law, the voting was extended to a second day to allow maximum participation and compensate for the delays on the first day due to technical reasons.
People’s trust in democracy and democratic institutions can only be ensured once the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) fully accomplishes its task. Holding an election is one thing, but finalizing the results in a free, fair and transparent manner is vital. Every effort must be made to ensure that the counting of votes happens properly, without interference or intimidation. Complaints and grievances need to be addressed. Speed also matters — the sooner the results are announced the better as it will increase public confidence in the electoral system.
As per the IEC, the preliminary results will be announced in a few weeks. However, initial counts conducted at polling stations and reported by election observers show that a significant number of new faces, mostly young and educated, will come on board. If true, this will be a good omen for the parliamentary politics of Afghanistan.
As I wrote in an earlier article for Arab News, the Afghan parliament has a limited role in governance, but the mere symbolism of the latest successful election is important for the promotion of democracy in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Although the election results will end in victory for a few hundred out of more than 2,000 candidates, the real victory is that of democracy and the entire Afghan nation.
• Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and based in Kabul. He was a deputy minister in the Afghan National Unity Government and served as policy adviser to Ashraf Ghani when he chaired the security transition commission before his presidential bid.