Khadija Ghaznawi says she knows exactly how to end the long-simmering conflict in Afghanistan: build more factories. A logistics company owner by profession and peace activist on the side, Ghaznawi says that if the government had been diligent about creating more jobs for Afghans, militants would have laid down their arms already.
“The Afghan Taliban are also sick of fighting,” she says. “They haven’t gotten any of the opportunities from aid money that came into this country. If we provide work and education for their kids, they’ll stop.”
That was one of the causes Ghaznawi was planning to champion as the only woman running for president in Afghanistan’s upcoming national elections — that is, until she was disqualified a few days ago. In 162 days, Afghan voters will choose their next president, in an election that stands to shape the future of this troubled nation in the year the U.S. completes its withdrawal after more than a decade-long occupation. But Ghaznawi will most likely not be on the ballot. On Oct. 22, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that over half the candidates who had put their names forward for the job did not qualify to run. Ghaznawi says she has no idea why she was booted off the list. “The elections commission didn’t tell me why,” she said. “I haven’t received one phone call… I’m very angry with the decision.”
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This fall, a motley cast of characters threw their hats in the ring to take over from President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally banned from running again in the polls scheduled for April. Twenty six candidates, with two vice presidential running mates apiece, formally submitted their names to the IEC, saying they had come up with, among other requirements, the compulsory amount of cash and 100,000 voter signatures required from across the country to run.
Evidently not. A little over two weeks after registration closed, IEC chief Yusif Nuristani told reporters in Kabul that after reviewing the candidates, the elections body deemed only 10 to be eligible for its preliminary list. The frontrunners remain, including Abdullah Abdullah who ran against Karzai in 2009, Karzai’s brother Qayyum Karzai, former minister of finance Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former minister of foreign affairs Zalmai Rassoul.
The ousted aspirants, all of whom were more minor players, have 20 days to appeal. The IEC says that the reasons for their disqualification included holding two passports, which is banned, insufficient education, and failure to furnish the required voter signatures. But the lack of specifics and communication with candidates as to why they were left off the list seems a less than ideal way to kick off the transparent elections everyone is hoping for. “I was certain I gave them everything they wanted,” Ghaznawi says. “I will keep trying to find out what the problem what was.”
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Others, too, have said they will fight their case. The fact that the president appoints IEC’s leadership has cast a shadow over the announcement, sparking outcries that Karzai is trying to install his choice of government in April’s vote. Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), says the cozy ties between the IEC and the palace translate into lack of professionalism that is harmful to Afghanistan’s fragile democracy. “The government is very much keen to interfere,” Spinghar says. But unlike other countries whose elections commissions retain more independence to resist such meddling, he says, Afghanistan’s IEC “does not have the capacity to stop it.”
It’s a problem that starts in the capital and spreads to the most remote reaches of the country, he says. During the 2009 vote, FEFA found that IEC employees, under orders from superiors in Kabul, were stuffing ballot boxes or changing the results of votes after hours. The 2014 polls are still more than five months away, but reports of vote buying are already rife in the candidate registration process, and an illegal trade in vote card buying is reportedly taking root. “Most of the candidates have sent their people to buy votes,” says Spinghar. “It’s happened already, across the country.”
To what degree, it’s impossible to say, but such reports can’t help but lend a whiff of arbitrariness to who’s in and who’s out. At the very least, they underscore the fact that the remaining candidates, including former warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, should not be spared further scrutiny.
The other problem observers note is that he and many of the other 9 candidates are close to Karzai, raising questions as to what real change this election is destined to bring. Will any of the qualified candidates, for instance, pick up Ghaznawi’s important — if, admittedly, narrow — point of job creation as a means of keeping Afghanistan’s impoverished youth out of militants’ hands? “The 2014 election has started with a lack of transparency, accusations of serious fraud and a further limitation of choice,” writes Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “It is not a promising beginning to the campaign to chose Afghanistan’s next president.”