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Frustrated Afghans Defy Taliban Violence but Wait Days on End to Register to Vote

The Taliban are increasing attacks ahead of Afghanistan's elections, but hundreds of anxious men are still waiting in line for a voter card.

by Ali M Latifi
Apr 1 2014, 3:30pm

Photo by Ali M Latifi

Every day for a month, Shah Mahmoud has lined up on the dirt sidewalks outside a West Kabul high school to try and obtain a voter card. As he stands there hour after hour, he has seen dozens of others enter the school but, like clockwork, at 4 PM he is told to come back tomorrow.

Now with just hours left until nationwide voter registration ends, the 42-year-old faces the very real prospect of being left out of Saturday’s presidential and provincial council polls. “Every time we move up, they send us back,” Mahmoud told VICE News, standing with 200 other anxious, potential voters.

With the Taliban having vowed to “use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections [and] target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices,” each passing hour puts those gathered outside at greater risk of attack.

'When we are by the door we are scared. If a suicide bomber comes, he will go directly to the door.'

On Saturday, five Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan's election commission HQ in Kabul, leading to a five-hour gunfight in which all the militants were killed. The previous day, suicide bombers attacked a guesthouse used by foreigners, leading to the death of the gunmen and one girl.

The Taliban are ramping up violence ahead of the elections and stormed a guesthouse on Friday. Read more here.

Last Tuesday, Taliban insurgents attacked another election commission office, killing two police officers, two election commission workers and a provincial council candidate. Despite the very real threat of violence, hundreds of Afghans continue to line up outside electoral offices every day. “If we were afraid why would we come,” Mahmoud said defiantly.

“When we are by the door we are scared. If a suicide bomber comes, he will go directly to the door,” said another young man waiting to register. Though observers and activists point to the long lines as an affront to Taliban threats, a sense of weariness is palpable among those massed outside.

Faced with the same daily frustration, it is not the armed opposition that has earned the ire of the men of all ages waiting for a voter card. With only three active registration centers in the entire province, their exasperation is with the current government, which has inundated the nation’s most popular radio and TV broadcasts with ads and messages calling for people to register.

“Why not make more centers? We aren’t the candidates’ slaves to line up and cast ballots for them,” said Mahmoud. At each registration center, people like Mahmoud are the norm, not the exception.

Though there were only 70 people in line when Ajmal arrived from Kabul’s Deh Sabz district at 4 AM he was given a card with the number 101 written in red on it.

Ajmal arrived at the voting station at 4 AM. There were only 70 people ahead of him, but he got a third with 101 written on it. Photo Ali M Latifi.

Crouched on a pile of bricks outside a construction site across from the school, Ajmal said he came for a third consecutive day in the hopes of being part of a “better future” for his country. But those wishes for a new Afghanistan have not curbed people’s disappointment at what they see as a flawed process.

“In the morning there were 500 waiting. Some left out of frustration, others were turned away,” Mahmoud said.

With the eight remaining presidential hopefuls all being well-known politicians and/or jihadists, many people have found themselves in a situation where they wait for the right to cast ballots in an election full of candidates they have little faith in. One old man standing in line said: “When you get to the voting booth [on April 5] close your eyes and pick a name.”

Unsurprisingly, there's nowhere good to party in Kabul anymore. Read more here.

In fact, Mahmoud’s favored candidate, Ramazan Bashardost, the outspoken former planning minister who surprised election watchers with his third-place finish in the 2009 polls, is not even in the running this year.

Mahmoud’s declaration that he would vote for Bashardost if he was in the running was met with enthusiastic approval by several of those standing beside him.

In a telling commentary on the Afghanistan’s political status quo, Mahmoud said: “Someone who truly walks with the people would be here in line with us, not shutting down roads with their motorcades.”

Massood, 24, said he may “just throw in a blank ballot” on Saturday. Clad in a black leather jacket, Masood said many people may have been led to the registration center under false pretenses.

“My uncle told me you need a voter card to help in official matters. But he’s wrong, how can a voter card help you get a passport?” Still, the young man who said he has seen only 40 people receive voter cards in a two-hour span, said voting is farz — obligatory for all Afghans.

Election workers have said they are doing the best they can to get each voter through a lengthy process.

That process — taking and printing a photograph of each person on a small handheld camera and printer, filling out registration forms by hand, then getting thumbprints and laminating each card — is itself filled with technical limitations not visible to the frustrated masses outside.

Afghanistan’s Taliban are getting a little help from their Pakistani friends. Find out why here.

But the men in line — each with proper documentation in hand — suspect the process is slowed down just as much by people they see being escorted in and out of the center throughout the day as it is by the technology, or the lack thereof.

As they stand outside in the chilly spring air, Mahmoud and others fear that their efforts may be rendered moot by Election Day corruption. The 2009 polls, which saw current President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah face a two-man runoff, was marred by claims of rampant corruption.

The allegations included claims that ballot papers pre-marked with Karzai’s name were seized and burnt by election monitors. In other areas, many more votes were cast than there were eligible voters. “If there is corruption this time, never again should any Afghan vote in the future,” Mahmoud said. Corruption would render these cards worthless.

asia & pacific
war and conflict
Hamid Karzai
electoral corruption
kartei seh
voter cards