Less than a fortnight after the municipal elections in France, the Afghans were in turn called to the ballot boxes on 5 April for two elections: like in France, these included local elections. But they also included the first round of the presidential elections.
For we French citizens who won the right to vote so long ago and who make our choices in safe, well organized ballots, elections seem to us a natural form of expression.
Afghanistan’s first democratic change since its independence
Democracy still has to be fought for every minute in Afghanistan. The last change of Head of State not resulting from an assassination or coup dates back to 1901. And even then, the people had no say in the matter. Yes, the King died in his bed from natural causes, but his successor was the crown prince. So, if all goes well, 2014 will see Afghanistan’s first democratic change since its independence in the mid 18th century.
This is therefore a key event for the embassies in Kabul, and all the more so as the Taliban have published several threatening statements and as a series of terrorist attacks in the weeks leading up to the poll against election bodies and foreigners have shown that they intend to put their threats into execution. Moreover, the previous presidential elections in 2009 were marred by numerous cases of fraud.
In the end, the first round took place as planned on 5 April and the threats did not stop voters – including women – from turning out in great numbers and showing their determination to be the masters of their own destiny. A kaleidoscope of images has been drawn from the event.
Images from a long preparation
The most persistent of these images is not the most impressive, but does correspond to a large part of our work in recent months: the preparation of the elections to ensure they go smoothly. We are meeting in the United Nations building, named (perhaps ironically) “Palace 7”, around an interminable table scattered with cups of green tea without which nothing is possible in Afghanistan, under a painting of the Minaret of Jam. Perhaps the painting is supposed to be a reminder of Afghanistan’s former splendour under the Ghurid Dynasty that built it? Or, on the contrary, perhaps it symbolizes the ephemeral nature of empires, as no trace remains of the former capital.
We hear those responsible for the smooth running of the elections explain to us the steps they have taken, as all the countries have agreed to participate in their funding through the United Nations. We discuss computer programmes to identify fraud, as well as the hundreds of donkeys that will transport the ballot boxes to the most isolated villages, as well as the recruitment of thousands of women to search female voters. In this country, granting women the right to vote means that they will go out wearing tchadri, extensive netted veils that complicate ID checks. And it is out of the question to allow a man to lift these veils!
- Femmes en tchadri | Photo: Ambassade de France
Other images evoke contacts with candidates and their staffs. We obviously didn’t wait until the day before the elections for such exchanges
My most powerful memory dates back to the autumn, when, sitting in the home of the Massoud family in the heart of the green valley of Panjshir, we talked with the brothers of the illustrious Commander about these future elections. Outside, the trees with their yellowing autumn leaves formed a perfect contrast with the deep blue of the sky and the white mountain-tops with their powdering of early snow. Another, more recent memory, at the residence of the EU’s Ambassador, is meeting one of the candidates, a very tall man of even greater standing thanks to his immense green turban and long white beard. This meeting led to animated preparatory talks to see how determined we were to ask him embarrassing questions about his controversial past!
- Vallée du Pandjchir | Photo: Ambassade de France
Making one’s own contribution to the democratic edifice
And last but not least, the strongest memory: 5 April itself. Throughout the week leading up to the poll, we met every evening when the muezzin called the worshipers to prayer. The main priority was to assess security conditions, with two concerns that were difficult to reconcile: we wanted to go out, visit polling stations and show our support for voters, as well as to fully understand the system that had been set up and underline our vigilance with regard to any fraud. But there was no question of putting whosoever in danger. In the end, we did go out, splitting ourselves between polling stations, the electoral commission and the EU offices, where a common unit had been set up to collect and share as much information as possible.
Each of us has a few unforgettable images from this day. For me, it was this little mosque in the rain, with wells filled with indelible ink where each voter plunged his finger, with the voting papers richly illustrated with symbols enabling the many illiterate voters to recognize candidates, and with the cardboard booths that were so symbolic of this yet fragile democracy. And above all, I remember the women responsible for the polling station, so pleased to explain their work, at the same time modest and proud of the day.
This was only the first round and it is still too early to call it a success. But while abstention rates reach record levels in our countries where the right to vote is established, men and women in Afghanistan are prepared to brave threats of terrorist attack and queue for hours in the rain to make their own contribution to the democratic edifice.