August 25, 2005

Afghan election security said OK, but fragile

By Robert Birsel

KABUL (Reuters) - The chief organizer of Afghanistan's
September 18 elections said on Thursday the state of security
for the vote was acceptable but the situation was fragile and
could deteriorate very quickly.

Afghans will elect a lower house of parliament and councils
in all 34 provinces but a tide of violence this year, in which
more than 1,000 people have been killed, has raised fears about
the vote.

"The security situation is stable but fragile. Things can
change very fast," said Peter Erben, Chief Electoral Officer
for a joint U.N-Afghan election commission.

Four election workers, as well as three candidates, have
been killed but Erben said most of the attacks did not appear
to be aimed at the election process.

"We have a lot of people active in the field, over 10,000
active right now," Erben said in his interview in his office in
a pre-fabricated structure in the election commission's dusty
compound on the outskirts of Kabul.

"When you have that level of exposure, all over
Afghanistan, it is unavoidable that some of our staff members
will get in harms way, one way or the other."

Erben, a Dane who has worked on elections in Bosnia,
Kosovo, East Timor and Iraq, said the security situation was
similar to that in the run-up to a presidential election in
October last year, won by the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban, fighting an insurgency since being forced from
power in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion after the September 11
attacks, threatened to disrupt the presidential election but it
was by and large peaceful and millions of enthusiastic Afghans
cast ballots.

A Taliban spokesman said this week the guerrillas would not
attack polling stations on voting day because of the risk to
civilians, but he vowed their insurgency against the government
and U.S.-led foreign forces would go on.

About 30,000 U.S.-led and NATO troops are in Afghanistan
trying to defeat the Taliban and ensure a peaceful vote. Afghan
and U.S. officials say the vote will not be disrupted.

"I'm confident that the vote can be held. In a
post-conflict election it is quite normal that there are
security issues which need to be dealt with," Erben said.


Nearly 6,000 candidates are standing for the 249-seat lower
house of parliament, known as the Wolesi Jirga (House of the
People), and for the provincial councils.

Campaigning has been low-key so far.

Election posters have been plastered up across the country
and poster-bedecked candidates' vehicles can occasionally be
seen inching through Kabul's clogged streets.

The voting system being used is the single non-transferable
vote which means candidates stand as individuals, not on a
party ticket, and voters get one vote in multi-representative

Critics say the system can produce an unrepresentative
result. The International Crisis Group think-tank calls it a

Erben said the system was can produce slightly
disproportional and surprising results but it had been chosen
by the government and was acceptable to the United Nations.

Another consequence of the system is that all candidates in
a constituency, in this case Afghanistan's provinces, are
listed on the ballot, which in Kabul will mean a seven-page
booklet with some 400 names.

The risk of confusion and delays is high.

"I am very worried about it, It is one of our main
concerns," Erben said.

"I believe we will have a significant issue of congestion,
long queues and problems as a result of that on election day."

Despite the security and other worries, Erben said Afghans
were keen.

"Afghans, broadly, really want this election to take place,
... the popular demand for the election is absolutely clear."