Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 11:47 UK

Cynicism and apathy mark Afghan polls

After seven years of democracy, many Afghans now view their presidential elections with cynicism or apathy, as the BBC's Kate Clark discovered.

Supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah
There are 41 candidates standing in the presidential election

So, who is going to be the next president? The question was put to me a year ago, by a friend who is more political than most Afghans.

He is a former mujahid - he fought the Soviet armies as a young man and is too honest for his own good.

Like many Afghans, he is completely disheartened by the corruption that has engulfed his country. But he was looking to the future, hence the question.

"I have no idea," I replied. "The elections are ages away."

"Ah," he said, "so the Americans haven't decided yet."

It is a generally held belief here that foreigners in general and Americans in particular will decide next week's election.

But despite this belief, electioneering has been very real although the focus has not been so much on getting the support of individual voters, as the backing of men who can supposedly deliver blocks of votes.

'Big beasts'

Over the last few months, there has been a scramble by candidates to secure the backing of the big beasts of the Afghan political jungle.

People walk past wall covered with election posters in Kabul
Even now, just days away from the election, many voters appear apathetic

They are mainly the leaders and major commanders of those jihadi factions who, after years of warfare, ended up on the winning side in 2001 - in other words, with the US-led forces.

Added to their ranks are civilians who have come back from exile and some tribal leaders.

All are men who have done well since 2001, establishing themselves as important patrons who look after their networks. Many face continuing allegations of corruption, opium-trafficking and human rights abuses.

They promise to deliver voters - blocks of voters - for their chosen candidate. Then after the election, it will be payback time.

The next government, according to one joke I heard, will have 200 ministers to fulfil all the back-room deals made.

If you wanted to defend this type of politicking, you could say that Afghans tend to act communally - at the clan or village level, as tribes or ethnic groups, or as factional networks.

One friend told me, quite matter-of-factly, that 300 people were waiting for him to decide who to vote for (family members and former students who looked to him for guidance).

I wondered if in Britain I could actually contact 300 relatives or colleagues to even discuss an election.

Deal-makers

There is also a strong desire among Afghans to pick the winning side. There is no point getting promises from a candidate who is going to lose.

So it is important to create the impression of being the man who is going to win, with high-level endorsements and mass rallies which offer free lunches.

For all their talk of wanting democracy in Afghanistan, what I saw in 2002 was an American administration more comfortable dealing with strong men and warlords than with delegates

Posters are plastered everywhere and a tangle of new billboards have gone up.

Candidates stare misty-eyed from above the dusty streets, pose with pleasing-looking children and dress in turbans or ties, depending on which segment of the electorate they hope to attract.

So how successful will the deal-makers be, the men who have been wooed for their promises of block votes?

Everything - from loyalty and arguments to money, to the use of state machinery, to violence and intimidation, to registering phantom voters - is already at work, and on-the-day vote rigging is expected.

This may be one reason why, even now just days away from the election, many voters appear apathetic.

Secret ballot

How different it all was in 2002 when Afghans met for a national gathering or loya jirga to choose an interim leader and a cabinet.

Delegates were selected across the country, partly by secret ballot.

The same leaders and commanders who are now so secure in their power had to face an electorate and they were nervous.

President Hamid Karzai
President Hamid Karzai was elected to power in 2004 after an interim term

Many feared they would not gain votes if balloted in secret.

Afghanistan was then a country in flux where fear of the US military's strength kept commanders in check.

There was intimidation and violence but there was also room for a nascent democracy, and hope gave ordinary civilians the courage to face down threats.

The winning delegates were a mix: commanders, teachers, tribal elders, poets, even women.

When they arrived in Kabul, there was real excitement that, after a quarter of a century of war, change was in the air.

Of course, once in the capital and after they had voted in Hamid Karzai as the interim president, the delegates were completely ignored.

The US and Mr Karzai concentrated on working the old - usually unelected - militia leaders and making back-room deals.

For all their talk of wanting democracy in Afghanistan, what I saw in 2002 was an American administration more comfortable dealing with strong men and warlords than with delegates who had much more reason to call themselves representatives of the nation.

Seven years on and every election has seemed a little less democratic.

This time - with an electorate assuming the elections will be decided by the Americans or the political elite's deal-making, or that it will all be rigged anyway, there is little room for enthusiasm.

Although of course, the voters could still surprise everyone come polling day.

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