Just back from Kabul, Scott Worden shares his analysis about the mood on-the-ground with the long overdue parliamentary elections set to take place this weekend. Taliban interference, fraud and voter turnout will greatly impact the election’s legitimacy, which will foreshadow what to expect for the 2019 presidential election.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Transcript

Tim Farley (Host):    In Afghanistan, they're preparing for their parliamentary elections. Originally, they were scheduled to take place in October 2016, then moved to July of 2018, but they're scheduled to happen now on the 20th. Just back from Afghanistan is Scott Worden. He's director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting at USIP, and joining us this morning. Scott, thanks for being here.

Scott Worden:    Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley:    These elections have been postponed now ... Are we pretty sure or are you pretty sure they're going to happen?

Scott Worden:    I am pretty sure they are going to happen. I was in Kabul. There are campaign posters all over the city. People are cautiously optimistic that this will be an opportunity for change, and they think they're ready to go, so I think they will happen. 

Tim Farley:    Explain the process, because this is not the presidential election. This is a parliamentary election, but, in some ways, the two are interrelated, although they are about six months apart.

Scott Worden:    That's correct. Afghanistan run by, like our system, a President as head of one branch of government, parliament co-equal branch of government. Parliamentary election matters significantly for governing, taxing, laws, and so forth. There are 34 provinces in Afghanistan. Each one has a separate parliamentary delegation, and there are 2,500 candidates running for 250 seats, so it's an intensely competitive process, and what we'll see from the parliamentary election is a few things. One, how good is the security around the country? The presidential election, as you mentioned, is six months later, so security's not going to change that much between the two, and one big benchmark is how many people can get out to vote, how many polling stations are closed because of violence. The other thing that you'll see is a bit of an indicator of demographic and political shifts in the country.

More of the candidates for this election are young. They tend to be better educated, so it'll be an interesting benchmark to see whether the old warlords, the older, less educated candidates still hold onto seats or whether a more youthful parliament gets elected, and maybe that would be a sign for voters' demand for change.

Tim Farley:    Interesting that you note that security's important, participation, how many people are actually going to get there, and I guess fraud is a part of it. So if participation, security, and actual or perceived fraud are big factors, why is it different there from, say, in the U.S. where also how many people show up, whether or not their votes are secure, and whether or not there's fraud? It's obviously, I guess, a member of or a difference of gradation, but I wonder how serious are all of these issues in Afghanistan?

Scott Worden:    All those issues are just amplified from what we experience in our own elections. Participation there is not so much a function of voter enthusiasm. That's certainly part of it, and in candidate popularity, but it's really a reflection of how much control of the country do the Taliban have. There are probably at least two dozen districts where there will be not really effective voting because of Taliban control. The Taliban have opposed the election process. They have said that they will disrupt it, although they don't want to kill a lot of civilians. Thank you very much. They are really an obstacle to this process. That's an amplified circumstance from a normal election.

The fraud issue has plagued Afghan elections for the last three election cycles, up to I’d say, about a quarter of the votes in 2009 were thrown out because of fraud. About 11% of the votes in the last  presidential election were thrown out because of fraud. And with so many candidates running for a few seats, the margin of victory will be very small, so a little fraud can go a long way to changing the results, and that, if it's not managed carefully, will result in protests, it'll result in boycotts of the election result process, and that can de-legitimize the election commission, if you don't handle it right in front of the presidential election, when their credibility really matters. 

Tim Farley:    As you say, big props, tongue-in-cheek, for the Taliban for saying they don't want to kill a lot of people during these elections. I wonder ... Again, Scott Worden with us, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs of the United States Institute of Peace. The U.S. still has a military presence there. Do they try to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible when elections are taking place? Are they asked to participate in security? What is their role in this, if any?

Scott Worden:    The U.S. military is very much behind the scenes in this. They will not be visible or present at any of the polling stations. Partly, that's because we have a significantly reduced presence from 2014, so there aren't the numbers of troops, even if we wanted to, to really get out and secure polling stations. But, really, this needs to be an Afghan process, and so the U.S. military is, one, supporting the election commission on logistics and helping them to distribute the ballots and the other materials that need to get all over the country, and then, secondly, they're focusing on countering the Taliban's pledge to disrupt these elections by going after checkpoints that they might have on key roads that would prevent people from going to polling stations, trying to prevent attacks before they happen, so they have an aggressive tempo right now to try to go after clusters of Taliban troops, supply areas, and so forth, so that the Taliban cannot execute their plan to disrupt the election.

Tim Farley:    I'm just curious about this, Scott. We've talked about the elections and the voting and so on. What's a campaign like in Afghanistan right now? We think of American campaigns with posters and TV ads and so on. What's it like? How do people get their votes ... How do they go out and solicit voters?

Scott Worden:    Well, really depends on where you are, and that depends on the security situation. In Kabul, where I was, seems like, I don't know, a high school election where you've got posters everywhere, you've got candidates going around in cars with loud speakers, saying, "Vote for me for these reasons." Behind the scenes, you've got a mobilization of people with different networks, whether it's in a particular neighborhood. Ethnicity is a big factor in the elections in terms of who supports who, so you'll get endorsements from elders in a particular region or tribe or ethnic group.

In the rural areas, it's much more constrained because of these Taliban threats, and so, there, the campaigns are happening quietly indoors at key houses. Women have a particular constraint in campaigning, not just because of Taliban threats, but cultural norms say, "Well, you shouldn't be out there with your face in public," and so one innovation that women have used is to hand out business cards with their name and their platform and a few bullet points, so it can be circulated quietly among women without arousing the ire of either conservatives Afghans or the Taliban.

Tim Farley:    Wow. It's a world we don't see here, but I appreciate you're taking us to it. Scott Worden, thanks for joining us on P.O.T.U.S. this morning.

Scott Worden:    Thanks for having me.

Tim Farley:    Scott Worden, just back from Kabul. He is director of Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs of the United States Institute of Peace, talking about the elections coming up this weekend, tweeting at USIP. 

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