Afghanistan’s voter registration nightmare

With only two weeks of registration left, people in Kabul stand hours in queues to get voter card.

Kabul – Today, Ali M Latifi, the journalist, registered to vote. It took maybe 40 minutes.

But talking to the 120 people waiting outside the west Kabul registration centre, it became abundantly clear that Mohammad Ali Latifi, the Afghan, would not have had it so easy without flashing an Al Jazeera press card.

People who had started queuing outside the school – one of three registration centres in the entire province – as early as 5am were still waiting for their names to be called at 1pm when we arrived.

In discussing the nation’s third presidential polls, pundits and “experts” have reverted to their go-to topics: ethnicity, fraud, Western legacy and of course, corruption. But with just over one month left until the April 5 election, the crowd outside the registration centre wanted Ali the journalist to deliver a much simpler message: “We can’t keep waiting.”

“What good does it do to spend three days waiting just for a card? This election may not even do anything for us,” Mohammad Jamshid said of an election that marks the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in the Central Asian nation.

The 23-year-old, who said he had come to a “non-binding” decision that he would vote for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, represents a dangerous prospect for the leading candidates.

In a nation where people under 35 comprise the clear majority of the population, Jamshid is exactly the kind of politically engaged youth many of the campaigns are actively courting.

High unemployment

Without a legitimate Independent Election Commission issued voter card, though, he and the dozens of others waiting outside the school are of little use to any of the front-runners who want to create as much distance between themselves and the rampant fraud of the 2009 ballots as possible.

Abdul Ali, in his mid-thirties, is the only one in his family of 12 not to have a voter card but with registration ending two weeks before election day, the guest house guard fears he may have to choose between his job and his vote.

“Saturday is my only day off. I can’t come any other day.”

With unemployment hovering at around 35 per cent and nearly half the population living below the poverty line, Abdul Ali’s predicament finds him stuck in the most personal way possible, between Scylla and Charybdis.

It was his economic plan in particular, that Jawad, a young Herati we met at a shisha bar later, said would lead him to vote for Ashraf Ghani.

“In this country what we need more than anything is to get our economy back, to reopen our factories and get the people back to work.”

Ali, however, may soon see a voter card forcing him to make the uncomfortable choice between employment and empowerment.

Long queues

Though registration workers said the lines outside might be the result of “people waiting until the last minute”, the dozens on the sidewalk saw it differently.

For many of those waiting, Saturday was not the first time they found themselves hoping their names would be called between 8am and 4pm.

“I came 10 days ago, it was in the same condition”, Mohammad Jamshid said of the line.

Most frustrating for those waiting is that in the entire province of Kabul only three high schools are approved as official registration sites, all in the city. District-level registration was only open from July 27 to September 28.

Kabul city alone is estimated to be home to six million people, when other districts are added in, Jamshid said, the strain on the three registration centres was clearly evident.

Registration workers say they serve between three and four hundred people per day, but as the lines and confusion demonstrate, it’s still not enough.

“Look at the population of Kabul [province] and they only have three centres.”