Martine van Bijlert, 02-10-2010:
Afghanistan’s parliamentary election, as is by now well-known, is seriously pulled out of balance by fraud, insecurity and an unusual variation of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), an electoral system that is prone to erratic outcomes. This has been played out rather illustratively in Uruzgan, where a small and secure corner of the province may well have dominated the whole vote, even though it was provided with much less votes than allocated. Rivaling constituencies are now trying to reclaim the seats by crying fraud.
Uruzgan’s parliamentary vote was contested by nineteen candidates – fifteen men and four women – vying for three seats (one reserved for a woman). The province is made up of an amalgam of infighting Pashtun tribes, with a sprinkling of Hazara enclaves: one in Gizab district in the north (which was added to Daikondi for electoral purposes) and a few in Khas Uruzgan in the east.
Local estimates, based on the initial polling station counts, indicate that one single polling centre in a far-away corner of Khas Uruzgan may well have outnumbered all other votes in the province, securing the victory of at least one and possibly two Hazara candidates: Asadullah Mustafa and Mohammad Aref Arefi. Additionally, the female seat may be going to a Hazara woman from Daikondi, Raihana Azad, who mainly secured votes in the provincial centre, potentially giving Uruzgan an all-Hazara representation.
The Pashtun candidates had apparently seen this coming and several of them had, in the run-up to the elections, been lobbying for the closure of polling centres in the Hazara area, arguing that they would not be able to send observers. The three centres in question are located in the far east of the district in an area bordering Malestan – one in the main bazaar of Gandab; one in Husseini, a village on the border with Pashtun territory; and one in Palan, further to the west. Although the area itself was safe, the roads connecting it to the district centre were not, and the Hazara candidates equally complained that they had not been able to observe the Pashtun vote in the rest of the district and province.
On polling day, only four of Khas Uruzgan’s six polling centres were open for voters. The three locations in or near the district centre all opened, although there was some moving around of electoral material for ‘security reasons’. Lycee Matak Khan (3003027) and Lycee Shah Zaman (3003024) were combined and both located in Shah Zaman High School (although there are also reports that some of the Matak Khan boxes ended up in a madrassa – unmonitored), while the Central Clinic polling centre (3003029) in the old bazaar was reportedly moved to the Dar-ul-moallemin (teacher training college).
In the Hazara part of the district only Gandab Lycee polling centre (3003025) opened. Husseini High School (300206) and Panwah Lycee in Palan (3003028) remained closed, because the IEC had failed to fly in the electoral material and did not make good on its repeated assurances that the material was still on its way. Out of the 42 planned polling centres in the province, these were the only two that that were reported as not having opened, even though many other polling stations were situated in areas with questionable security and monitoring – a detail that was not lost on the Hazara population.
The Gandab polling centre ran out of ballots around lunch time and no additional ballots were sent, despite repeated requests and promises. As a result the Hazaras of Uruzgan had 7 polling stations instead of 21 – or 4,200 potential votes instead of 12,600. But given that all votes were used and that almost all of them were divided among two candidates only, this still seems to have been enough to potentially dominate the election.
Over the years the Hazaras, across the country, have evolved into the most organised electoral constituency. Their minority status inspires high levels of participation even when the system is no longer trusted, while the strength of the tanzeem networks – solidified through years of power struggles between the various groups – allows for the effective mobilization of relatively large constituencies. And although this is often undermined and fragmented by internal competition and the fielding of multiple candidates, sometimes it works out well.
In the 2005 parliamentary election, like this time, there were two Hazara candidates in Khas Uruzgan. Asadullah Mustafa, the current highest vote-getter, and Mohammad Zaher Salari, a local Hezb-e Wahdat commander and sitting district governor at the time. Salari managed to monopolise the vote and to push out Mustafa, but he was disqualified for running for parliament and holding on to his position at the same time, which left the Hazaras with no parliamentary representation. During last year’s provincial council elections the Hazaras decided on a single candidate, who proceeded to receive the highest number of votes in the province. This year the process was repeated and a gathering of leaders chose Mustafa as their candidate. He was later challenged by the added candidacy of Mohammad Aref, a recent returnee from Iran, but there may have been enough votes for the two of them.
The Pashtun candidates cried fraud and spread the word that ‘the Hazaras had cheated a lot’. The District Field Coordinator (DFC), a Pashtun from Kotwal, appeared on television, claiming that he had been tied up by armed men who then proceeded to stuff the ballot boxes. And although it is of course possible that all the staff and all the observers and all the gathered voters and all the bystanders, as well as the ANA and ANP that had accompanied the ballot boxes, all cooperated in the alleged manipulation – after all, the single open polling centre in a secure area, with high rates of participation, is going to be rather a crowded affair – it is unlikely that it was actually necessary to manipulate the vote. This was one of the few areas in Uruzgan where the population came out to vote in high numbers, there was a limited number of ballots and there were in essence only two candidates.
There is now a struggle going on around the disqualification of polling stations. The main runner-up Pashtun candidates include Haji Obeidullah, a close confidante of local strongman Jan Mohammad Khan and a twice district governor (both districts – Khas Uruzgan and Chora – were overrun by the Taleban under suspicious circumstances during his tenure); and former Senator Mohammad Hanif Hanifi. Both are from Khas Uruzgan. They are trying to get the Gandab polling centre invalidated, hoping that will allow them to take both seats. The two candidates below them – incumbents Hashem Watanwal and Moallem Abdul Khaleq Mujahed, respectively from Tirin Kot and Chora districts – would like to see the whole of Khas Uruzgan disqualified, so that they can come in first. It is now up to the IEC and the ECC to make sense of the claims and counterclaims of fraud and disenfranchisement.
In particular the IEC will need to move carefully. It is already seen as having disenfranchised Hazara constituencies all over the country by allocating less polling stations and by failing to deliver additional ballots once they ran out. It will be difficult to ignore the fact that the Hazaras did vote and that they voted a lot – and it would be unreasonable to penalise them for that. But there will at the same time be a lot of pressure, including from the palace, to ensure that Uruzgan has adequate Pashtun representation.
It will be worth watching closely what happens, as this is one of the cases – but there will be many more – where the pressures of election and selection are likely to meet.
Correction: an earlier version of this blog incorrectly mentioned Paik – the home village of Asadullah Mustafa – as the third polling location, this should have been Palan, a village further to the west. The school on the photo was thus not allocated as polling centre (but will probably look quite similar to the one that was).