Diane in Afghanistan

This is a historic time for the people of Afghanistan. I am reminded of the timeless truths that have guided our nation through the past two centuries, and how those same profound words now hold such hope and promise for the new democractic nation of Afghanistan. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights... of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

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Location: Bellevue, Washington

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

For the First Time in 5000 Years...

On Sunday September 18th, Afghans went to the poles for the first time in more than 5000 years to vote for members of their new Parliament. Voters cast votes for the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of the National Assembly) and Shoraiy Wolayety (Provincial Councils). The free elections were part of the Bonn agreement signed four years ago following the defeat of the Taliban regime in 2001. Nearly 6,000 candidates completed for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga and for the 34 provisional councils. About 25% of the seats were reserved for women. Candidates included medical doctors, teachers, businesspersons as well as former Communists, members of the Taliban and warlords.

As a member of the delegation from the International Republican Institute (IRI), I left the hotel at 5:30 am with a tight security detail. The protection was part of the tough security measures instituted all over Iraq in anticipation that Taliban supporters would incite violence in order to disrupt the election. About 40,000 Afghan police and army troops were on duty, backed up by more than 30,000 police from coalition forces and International Security Assistant Forces (ISAF). Fortunately, the tight security worked. The largest incident occurred when a rocket attack was reported soon after polls opened yesterday on a United Nations compound, injuring one local UN worker.

The streets of Karbul were virtually empty until after the polls closed due to the tight security restrictions. As a result there was not the usual traffic jams that clog the streets. Afghans had a day off from work in order to allow them to vote. When we returned to our hotel around 6 pm, the streets were once again filled with residents shopping and kids playing. The attempt to intimidate voters seemed to have no effect. President Hamid Karzai, who voted early in the morning, stated after casting his vote that, "It is a historic day for Afghanis to elect their own representatives.” An interesting part of the elections involved bottles of purple ink that every voter was required to dip his/her finger into before voting. The ink was used as a method to ensure that voters did not vote twice. In last year's parliamentary elections, the ink was easily washed off. Not this time. Voting officials were willing to allow me to dip my finger in the ink. Some critics of the elections tried to persuade the press that the ink washed off. I can assure all of you that it doesn't wear off. I have scrubbed and washed to no avail - it will take time and should still be there when I return to the US.

The ballots took some of the voters a long time to complete. This was due in part, to the fact that the ballots were multi-pages and that (as I noted several days ago) a large portion of the population cannot read or write. Hence the need for a ballot that included the candidate's name, picture and symbol. The ballot for the Wolesi Jirga was blue and the one for the Shoraiy Walayety was yellow. Each ballot had its own specific box, and the election officials were very serious about ensuring that the right colored ballot was placed in its correct voting box.

Every voter needed an identification card before they were allowed to dip their figure into the purple ink. About 11.2 Afghanis of the 18 million who were eligible to vote had election cards. In instances where the voters did not have the identification card, the poll workers refused to let that person vote.

The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) from the UN managed the election and trained the workers. I can tell you that the workers were enthusiastic about doing the right job and ensuing that the elections were conducted according to law. The nearly 26,000 polls staffed by over 150,000 election officials opened at 6 am and closed at 4 pm. We ended our day at a high school where we watched the election official seal the ballot boxes. The election officials also took care to ensure that unvoted ballots were sealed. Final results of the elections are due October 22nd.

I'm exhausted, but each finger dipped, and every ballot sealed, was yet another step forward for this flegling democracy.

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane

Monday, September 19, 2005

...So Far, So Good For Afghan Vote

It's been a very long day, and despite scattered violence, the initial reports are positive regarding the integrity of the Afghan elections, and the participation of the country's people.

IRI monitored more than 1,200 polling locations in 16 provinces and has issued the following preliminary findings:

1. Yesterday's elections were well organized with Afghan election workers well trained and professional.

2. The number of domestic monitors and candidate agents and their contribution to the transparency of the elections are a positive sign for Afghanistan's election process.

3. IRI observed reported higher turnout in regions of the country other than Kabul.

4. Voters, who clearly understood their important role in democracy, appeared well informed as to the voting process.

5. Given the understandable decision to not count the ballots at the polling stations, it is extremely important that the security of the ballots be guaranteed and that the vote count be open and transparent.

IRI began working in Afghanistan in 2002. In October 2004, IRI was the only US organization that observed the presidential election. In advance of the September 18 elections. More than 15,000 men and women have been trained by IRI representatives as potential or actual candidates for public office.

Friday, September 16, 2005

...And There are No Provisional Ballots

For a comprehensive list of news stories related to the Historic Elections being held in Afghanistan Click Here

It's back to visions of fingers in black ink.

We have just finished our first briefing from numerous organizations regarding the elections on Sunday. The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), operating under the auspices of the United Nations, is running Sunday's parliamentary elections. The JEMB has 13 members - nine are Afghans and four are members of the international community. These include individuals from Australia, Sweden, Britain and India -- one from each country.

As Americans, we have seen hanging chads and heard about the numerous issues surrounding voter roles and provisional ballots. But here, the JEMB has had to deal with numerous issues that officials would never face during an election in the United States.

For example, nearly 80% of the women and more than 50% of the men are illiterate. As a result, the majority of the population cannot even read a ballot. The JEMB has developed a system that allows for voters to pick their candidates using pictures and symbols. The ballot system uses a picture of each candidate and assigns a "symbol" to that individual candidate. For instance, one candidate's symbol is a donkey; another's symbol is a camel. The JEMB identified about 250 symbols that were easily recognizable by all Afghans. Because there are more than 400 candidates for the Nangarhar province alone, there were not enough symbols to go around. As a result, candidate 1 may have (1) camel as a symbol and candidate 2 has (2) camels as a symbol. It makes for a unique ballot. A copy of the ballot was given to us today and it is over seven pages long. And we thought we had a lot of items on our ballots in Washington State!!!!

To ensure that no one votes twice, each voter will be asked to dip his or her finger into black ink before the ballot is given to that voter. Afghanistan used this system in 2004 for the presidential elections, but unfortunately, the ink did not stay. We have been given guarantees that this year, they are using a better ink. The voters will be instructed to let the ink dry before they mark their ballots.

Voters in Washington State will not be surprised to hear that there will be NO provisional ballots. If a voter turns up at the wrong polling place, the election official will not allow that voter to cast a ballot.

There are more briefings to come, and the excitement is building for Sunday's elections.

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane