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Women Considered Stabilizing Force in Afghan Elections

(Washington, DC -- October 27, 2005) Journalists covering the Afghan parliamentary elections agreed, during an October 12 briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office, that the unexpected success of women candidates is a positive sign for Afghanistan's development -- but the overall results foreshadow new challenges.

New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, speaking to the briefing audience from Islamabad, was cautiously optimistic in her assessment of the elections so far. With seventy percent of the votes counted, preliminary results indicated a "very strong" showing by "jihadi elements." These numbers were offset, in part, by the unexpected success of a number of women candidates who were winning by substantial margins, regardless of the preset quota guaranteeing women candidates 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. One woman, Fauzia Gailani, was leading in Herat province with 74 percent of the votes tabulated, Gall said, noting that "many voters" she interviewed "considered a vote for women to be a protest vote against the men." Women are seen as "free from the war crimes and corruption of the last twenty years," according to Gall. Even in Southern Afghanistan, long considered a stronghold of the Taliban"Pashtuns did vote for women," Gall said, adding that there was "little backlash," although women candidates in that region did take the "brunt of attacks" while campaigning.

The election did, however, underscore some more general, worrying trends. Both Gall and RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari, who covered the elections in Kabul and Bamiyan, noted that voter turnout was lower than expected in Kabul -- where ethnic Tajiks represent a majority, but where the issue of corruption is a major topic of public discourse. There was scattered violence and "some blatant cases of fraud," Gall said. Most disturbing, according to Gall and RFE/RL Afghan Analyst Amin Tarzi, was the electoral success of former warlords and militants, many of whom are suspected war criminals. Leading the polls in Zabul province is a former Taliban, Haji Mullah Abdul Salam Raketi, whose name reflects his skill with rocket launchers during the early 1990s, explained Tarzi. As no procedure had been established for filtering out suspected war criminals from the candidate rolls, said Tarzi, "it is now up to theAfghan people to hold their leaders accountable for past crimes." Gall noted, however, that "the warlords have been diminished," both because they have been forced to give up some weapons and because they also "know they have to tow the line," to maintain their power.

Another challenge to Afghanistan's developing democracy is the ability of the newly elected parliament to function. In a parliament that will likely consist of tribal elders, former Taliban members, and women with strong popular backing, infighting is expected to be fierce, said Tarzi. Fragmentation in the parliament, or "Wolesi Jirga," will be counterbalanced by the principle of the "single non-transferable vote" of each parliament member, Tarzi said. This principle, Tarzi explained, while diminishing the role of parties and caucuses in the parliament, will require President Hamid Karzai and the new speaker of the parliament to attract and organize coalitions of legislators on each issue that comes before the assembly. An additional difficulty for the new parliament, Esfadiari said, will be the inexperience of the newly elected members, some of whom will be illiterate.

A parliament deadlocked by infighting may force President Karzai to continue to pass laws by executive decree, according to Tarzi, which "could further erode the already waning authority of the Karzai government." The parliament will have power it can use, said Esfandiari -- for instance, "one-third of the members can force an investigation of the executive branch." The legislature can also overrule a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority, but "people don't think the parliament will achieve much," said Esfandiari.

All three speakers -- Gall, Esfandiari and Tarzi -- agreed that there are difficult days still ahead for Afghanistan. The election experience, according to Gall "shows what a long haul it's going to be."