Boosting voter interest in the Afghanistan elections
Kabul – Increasing voter turnout and ensuring a relative level of security are the main challenges for the upcoming elections scheduled to take place in Afghanistan on August 20.
Margie Cook manages UNDP’s election initiative – Enhancing legal and electoral capacity for tomorrow (ELECT). Working closely with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), this project oversees a comprehensive voter education programme and provides operational support – including ballot boxes, voting kits and other crucial material– as well as technical assistance to the national electoral agency the Independent Election Commission.
Cook spoke recently to UNAMA’s Tilak Pokharel and Jamil Danish about the challenges in the upcoming polls.
How have you been conducting the voter education campaign ahead of the elections?
The Afghanistan Independent Election Commission has a comprehensive voter education programme consisting of a range of activities: from flipcharts for community-based educators working in small villages to small grants programmes which enable several activities to be conducted, for example a football game which may attract a crowd which can be used as an excuse for education.
Voter education includes production of billboards, a lot of public service announcements [awareness raising campaigns] on radio and television, a lot of advertising, the production of short films and documentaries on how the voting process works.
But voter education is the responsibility of several stakeholders – like civil society groups – as well as the Elections Commission. Everybody has a role. If you look at our website for instance, you can see just how much civic and voter education is going on. What organizations are involved in voter education? Who is funding them? How much it is costing and what sort of activities they are undertaking – whether they are focusing on women or young people or disadvantaged people or disabled people.
The challenges include the fact that you have to do civic education in a number of languages. There is very high level of illiteracy in Afghanistan. So the materials that are produced and the modalities of communication also have to take into account the levels of education and understanding. For example, mobile theatre [a civic outreach initiative that uses live theater to raise public awareness on the importance of elections and voting] is a popular form of civic education.
Are you convinced that people in the rural areas are being reached out to in terms of voter education?
The Electoral Commission has nearly 2,000 civic educators working throughout the country…and they are conducting locally-based activities. And on top of that, there is quite a lot of civic education going on with the Afghan civil society groups and other Afghan institutions through IFES [International Foundation for Electoral Systems], which is one of the partner organizations, and through ourselves and through other support.
There is never enough civic education and it is never done for long enough. In every election environment, the criticisms are [that] it didn’t start early enough and it wasn’t enough. There will be criticisms in this election and that will be valid criticisms. If we had the resources and started a year earlier, there could have been a lot more. So, whilst there is quite a lot going on, there is always more that can be done.
What are the major UNDP-supported election projects that are making real impact?
The Call Centre is an interesting one. In fact the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, Kai Eide, went to visit the Call Centre the other day and he was very happy to see both the number of very well-trained people in the Call Centre and the number of calls that are coming in, and the proportion of calls coming in from the young people who are the first-time voters. That’s a creative way of doing things.
There are some very good radio and television shows that are now starting to pick up and there are some thoughtful discussions with presidential candidates being interviewed on television.
One of the very good news stories from the voter registration process was that in fact it happened in all but 10 districts of the country. Those 10 districts represent less than two per cent of the all of the registered voters. There are efforts being made through mobile [outreach] registration teams to try and boost up additional registrations in those areas and other provinces over the next month.
We also have to hope and work towards a very peaceful election day that is not disrupted by attacks or disincentives if people have come out and participate. The security issues remain a serious concern but so far all signs are that the process is happening on time and without interference.
Can you describe some of the major areas where the UN has a role in the elections?
Under the Security Council Resolution 1806 that was passed in February 2008, the Security Council gave the United Nations, through UNAMA and the role of the Special Representative of the Secretary General, responsibility for the coordination of international assistance to the elections. So, the United Nations as a family of agencies has a very important responsibility to coordinate the support to the electoral process.
What we are doing here at UNDP is implementing the technical assistance to the electoral commission. And, that’s a big project that supports the Independent Elections Commission in areas including planning, security, training, logistics, planning…transportation, communications, and developing a database to enable payment of temporary staff, and so on. We have both personnel at the Elections Commission on a permanent basis working very closely with their counterparts and also in the field at the provincial and regional levels with security, logistics and administration and other electoral advisors.
The UNDP-ELECT programme is the biggest avenue of support from the international community to this process. However, there is a great deal of bilateral direct support going on as well and I know that there are a number of donors giving a lot of support to civil society organizations, to the Human Rights Commission and others who have a contribution to make.
The US Government’s support to civil society organizations is also contributing to support the electoral process and in particular civic education. The Asia Foundation with the support of the Australian Government is doing a lot of work in the South. Canada is doing additional work in Kandahar province where they have a particular interest and I think DFID is doing extra work in Helmand with the British having an interest.
So, we are not exclusively supporting the election but we have the primary role and the responsibility for coordination.
How critical is the observation of this election both by national and international observers?
It’s very important in any election that there be an independent voice that measures the legitimacy and credibility of the processes. That’s why, much effort is put in place to encourage international observers and the European Union has an observer mission, quite a large one, which is being supported by the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and other actors. And FEFA [Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan] will be mobilizing something like 8,000 domestic observers across the provinces to observe the elections. This is a very important process. It’s important also that the data is gathered in a measurable way: that it’s accurate, that it’s not anecdotal, that there is evidence to back it up, and that the analysis is thorough and careful so that it is a reliable and true picture of what went on.