Plenty of interest, but an uphill battle teaching Afghans about democracy | NevadaAppeal.com

Plenty of interest, but an uphill battle teaching Afghans about democracy

PAUL HAVEN

Associated Press Writer

MARGAREEN, Afghanistan (AP) – Abdul Razaq stands among the menfolk of this dusty village of Afghan nomads and rejoices that democracy has at last come to his country after more than two decades of warfare.

“It means I can finally cast my ballot for Hamid Karzai,” the Kuchi tribesman said Saturday, echoing the words of some 300 other men gathered on a treeless hillside near a clutch of tents and mud-brick homes. They had convened to learn from U.N. education officers how to take part in the Oct. 9 vote. “Karzai is our leader. Karzai is our king,” Razaq and the others repeated.

Each man in this poor village just outside the capital, Kabul, says he vote for Karzai, the interim president and a fellow Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic . They say their elders have told them Karzai is the best choice, and they see no reason to question that.

“In Kuchi society, we listen to our elders. They have said the choice is ours, but that Karzai is the man for the job,” said Mohammed Saeed, a 41-year-old father of seven. “We all know what to do. We will all be voting for Karzai.”

Karzai is the overwhelming favorite to win the vote against 17 challengers, though opponents have complained that Karzai enjoys unfair advantages. The president has the power of incumbency, moves in a U.S. security bubble and is widely perceived to be the favorite of the international community, especially Washington.

“Karzai is well educated and has the support of the United Nations,” says Razaq. “If someone else is elected president the people will return to war, and that we cannot accept.”

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There is certainly no lack of enthusiasm among many Afghans as their nation prepares for its first ever direct vote for president. The Kuchis, most of them nomadic sheep and goat herders, say they have delayed their annual 100-mile trek by foot to the eastern city of Jalalabad so they will be nearer to home and their voting places.

But there is still little understanding in this tribal society of either the mechanics of voting, or the concept that each vote is an individual decision.

That is one reason why the electoral campaign so far has borne such little resemblance to a Western-style vote. There have been only a handful of rallies and debates and few campaign promises. Instead, candidates have spent most of their time meeting behind the high-walled compounds of Kabul’s political elite with tribal elders who can deliver a guarantee of hundreds of votes.

“It’s a bit unrealistic of us to think that it would be like a Western campaign given that they’ve had no experience like this before,” said Grant Kippen, the country director for the National Democratic Institute. “The campaign is actually happening at a tribal level where tribal elders are coming in and interacting with the candidates.”

Election workers and aid groups also have tried to use television and especially radio to reach Afghans in distant places. A traveling theater group was dispatched perform an election morality tale to clarify the rules.

But the finer points may lost on a citizenry accustomed to little but war and warlords.

On candidates’ home turf, the campaign is being waged largely through the traditional shura, or tribal council.

On Saturday morning, hundreds of elders gathered in a dusty compound just outside the southern city of Kandahar for a rally organized by one of Karzai’s brothers and other leaders of the Popolzai branch of the Pashtun tribes.

One man among the crowd under a huge awning said he lost a brother and 14 relatives in an infamous American air raid in July 2002, when 48 civilians at a wedding party were allegedly killed and 117 wounded. He still plans, however, to vote for U.S.-backed Karzai.

“Karzai is an elder of our tribe. There is no other choice,” Haji Mohammed Anwar said.

John Sifton, a researcher on Afghanistan for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that a certain amount of group voting is to be expected, but that in some areas of the country it appears to be the result of intimidation.

“Block voting, which is a common enough phenomenon in any functioning democracy, is one thing,” he said. “But when you cross over into threats and intimidation leveled at people or their leaders to vote for a certain candidate or else, then you cross over into human rights abuse and political repression.”

Back in Margareen, Wakeel Mohammed Ashraf, a green-turbaned Afghan U.N. volunteer, explained the voting procedure to the tribesmen, who had gathered on large plastic tarps for a traditional lunch of rice, beef and potatoes. The women and girls of the village remained in their tents, several hundred yards away, and would receive the same message later.

“There are 18 candidates, and all are good Muslims and fellow Afghans,” Ashraf began. “You should vote for whomever you feel will do the most service to the people and Islam.”

A second volunteer called out the names of the candidates, printed along with their photographs and electoral symbols on a long ballot. Most Afghans are illiterate and will rely on the photographs to make their choice.

“We are very concerned about voting correctly, and we want to learn how to do it,” said Razaq.

The U.N. team explained that each person needs to bring his or her registration card to vote, and that the ballot will be cast in secret – marking a decision that carried deep responsibility for each person.

“Stop wasting our time and just tell us how to vote for Karzai,” a man in the crowd called out as the demonstration got underway.