An Election Not To Be Ignored

A worker looks at a ballot paper at a counting center in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Sept. 20, 2005. The long process of collecting and counting votes continues two days after the election.
This column was written by James S. Robbins.
Democracy took another important step forward earlier this week, though you might not have heard about it through the hurricane coverage and the Supreme Court hearings. Afghanistan held its first legitimate parliamentary election since 1969. About six and a half million people, 53 percent of the electorate, turned out to vote for candidates for the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga (People's Council, the lower house of the national assembly, the equivalent of our House of Representatives) and for 34 provincial councils. The election came off with comparatively little violence — 19 attacks leaving nine dead, including the first French soldier to die in the country.

Given the size of the country and the low-tech voting system, the results will not be known for several weeks. It is difficult to make predictions because political parties were banned and all 5,800 candidates ran as individuals. There were some reports of irregularities, but a six-member European Union observer team said that the election was free, fair, and transparent. The best news was the women's vote: 44 percent of registered voters were women, and turnout was high even in former centers of Taliban influence such as Khandahar. 582 female candidates competed for the 68 Wolesi Jirga seats that have been reserved for women.

Naturally, the hard-core oppositionists opposed the election. The Taliban, who vowed not to mount attacks on election day in order to spare innocent lives, nevertheless said the election was not lawful, and any laws passed by the assembly would be illegitimate. They threatened all the elected representatives with violence, and said even losing candidates "would not be safe from [their] bullets." Al Qaeda's number two man Ayman al Zawahiri released a tape calling the election a "fraud," and making similar threats.

However, not all the radicals agreed. This election was noteworthy for the participation of many former Taliban, under the conditions of a general amnesty President Hamid Karzai announced last spring, part of a general national reconciliation program. The amnesty extended even to Mullah Omar, who as one might expect rejected it. Since then Karzai has denied he even made the offer, and the United States still has a $10 million bounty on Omar's head.