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Monday
Oct282013

The Power of the Vote

Afghanistan’s First Parliamentary Election in 33 Years 

by Kathy Santini

“It’s a good day to die,” my co-worker Jim Chiavelli said half-jokingly, as he puffed on his stogy. I wasn’t so sure, but it was a distinct possibility, given that we were both working as journalists covering the first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 33 years. Security was tight and tensions were high, as the Taliban and other groups had threatened violence. Reports had it that several candidates had been killed in the days before polling.

Dressed in a flack vest, army helmet and a shawl which covered my head and helmet, I set out early on Sept. 18, 2005, to watch Afghans vote, many for the first time. After 33 years of communist and Taliban rule, civil war, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the toppling of the Taliban regime and Afghan presidential elections which were held in 2004, today’s vote would elect a parliament.

Withstanding the presidential election the year before, can you imagine living in a country whose last election was 33 years ago? Given that the legal voting age is 18 and the country has an average life expectancy of 50 years, a whole generation of Afghans had never voted before the September 2005 election, having died before being given the opportunity.

With voting such a foreign concept and heightened security concerns, it’s impressive that voter turnout was 50%. In a country with dauntingly rugged terrain, a rural population of 80%, limited transportation options, and a literacy rate of 28%, the turnout shows an impressive desire by Afghans to exercise their voting franchise. (Compare this to the recent provincial election in B.C., where turnout was 52 %.)

It was an incredible honour and professional highlight to watch women vote, the same women who were for many years kept prisoners in their homes by the Taliban regime. And to see that despite years of Taliban rule, there were a number of women brave enough to run for office. I wondered if the women voters were voting based on their own convictions, or had they been influenced by others, say their husbands? In my admittedly limited poll of the eight women I asked, some indignantly replied, that they were their own women.

The ballots were different than the ones we’re familiar with here at home. Because of low literacy rates, all candidates had an icon next to their names on the ballot. Pictures of footballs, cars and different kinds of flowers are just a few of the symbols used.  A shortage of icons resulted in some candidates having multiple images as their symbol, for example, four footballs, instead of one. Symbols were chosen by the electoral committee, to limit the chance of a candidate gaining an advantage because their symbol was viewed favourably by the Afghan culture, while another was not.

If you leave with anything after reading this short piece, let it be this: that being able to vote is an incredible privilege, and not one to rationalize away for whatever seemingly valid reason. Libyan and Egyptian nationals are just a few examples of citizens who have demonstrated and died in the streets for a chance to have some of the basic freedoms that we, who have elections more frequently than every 33 years, take for granted. So protect our democracy, get your voice heard, and as the Nike ad says, Just Do It.

 

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