Published September 23, 2010
I arrived at the Pajhwok news office around 8:30 on Saturday, the morning of Afghanistan's parliamentary election. The sun shone and the streets, normally choked with traffic at this hour, were empty. Upstairs, Pajhwok's founding director, Danish Karokhel, was leading an editors' meeting. Danish had described the news agency's elaborate coverage plans to me the day before. Dozens of reporters around the country had been filing stories for weeks about campaign hijinks, kidnappings of candidates and campaign workers, attacks on elected officials and the opinions of ordinary people, most of whom said they didn't intend to vote because it was too dangerous. On Election Day, 35 Pajhwok reporters and four video journalists would send dispatches from the provinces to the main news agency in Kabul, where the stories would be edited and published online in Dari, Pashto and English. Fourteen reporters, five photographers and a video journalist would visit polling stations and interview candidates around Kabul. The agency had also assigned 37 monitors to visit polling places around the country in search of the fraud and abuse that marred last year's presidential election. I had never seen Afghans so disheartened as when I visited last fall, shortly after Karzai's supporters stuffed ballot boxes to get him re-elected, and the reporters and editors at Pajhwok were determined to do what they could to keep it from happening again. "Mostly, our focus will be about the fraud," Danish told me. Reporters armed with laptops, audio recorders and digital cameras and smart phones would be collecting whatever evidence they found and sending it in for immediate publication.
Danish lent me his silver land cruiser to meet a young reporter at a polling center in Microrayon, a middle-class district named for the Soviet-built apartment blocks that dominate it. In the streets, it felt more like a holiday than an election. Shops were closed, children flew kites and thousands of campaign posters adorned walls, telephone poles and billboards like festival decorations or prettified Soviet propaganda. Images of the candidates' faces dominated traffic circles, the women's skin airbrushed to milky smoothness, their glittering green eyes and curling lashes suggesting Bollywood actresses or the steely beauty of Benazir Bhutto. The men were pictured in western suits or robes and turbans knotted like fans. Some looked earnest, some severe, others as corpulent and self-satisfied as kings. On the way, the driver told me he wasn't voting. He had voted in the last round of parliamentary elections, back in 2005, but the candidate he'd chosen hadn't kept his promises. "Just he serves for his pocket, not for the people," the driver told me. "Everyone said on TV, on the radio, 'I am honest, I want to work for our country.' But they didn't work."
The pocket was an important motivator in this election, and the contenders were united by having somehow achieved a degree of wealth that ordinary Afghans only dream of. The lavish posters alone would have cost more than most people earned, and then there were all those votes rumored to be for sale. The day before the election, the New York Times ran a story noting that votes could be bought for $1 apiece in Kandahar and as much as $18 elsewhere. More than 2,500 candidates were competing for 249 seats in Afghanistan's National Assembly, the Wolesi Jirga, or People's House. Each elected representative would be paid more than $2,000 a month and afforded the power to extort much more.
I found the reporter, Sediqi, on a sun-dappled sidewalk outside a high school that had been turned for the day into a polling center. He was a slender, dark-haired 25-year-old with a pleasantly scratchy voice and the earnest manner of an academic research assistant. Between interviewing candidates and voters and scribbling in his notebook, he took calls from the office on his iPhone. His dislike for the phone grew more pronounced as the day wore on, until late in the afternoon, with editors and sources calling every few minutes, the battery low and the signal fading, he said he wished he could get rid of it. He stopped outside the school in Microrayon to interview a candidate in a purple and green robe like the one worn on ceremonial occasions by President Karzai. The candidate told Sediqi that the election was going relatively well, but that some of his competitors were still campaigning, in violation of election rules. Inside the school, Sediqi found evidence. He held out his hand to show me the fragments of a campaign advertisement that someone had given him. The paper bore the pictures of several candidates and had evidently been torn up in a hurry. "Today, this is not allowed," he told me triumphantly. "This is a sign of fraud." He called the office to report it.
While Sediqi talked to his editor, I wandered through a sunlit entryway and down the hall. A full-color map of Afghanistan was painted on the wall near a child's colorful drawing in a glass display case. Young men stood around looking like Bob Dylan circa 1963, in T-shirts and scarves, tight jeans and the occasional ponytail. Voters were separated by sex – men in one building, women in another. They chose candidates behind what looked like unfolded refrigerator boxes, with cardboard walls concealing them on three sides and a flimsy cardboard shelf in the middle where they could mark their ballots. The ballots were a nightmare of a kind that no American jurisdiction would have inflicted on its voters, and that in any case no American voter would have deigned to fill out. Political parties have been a key source of factional fighting in Afghanistan, so voters select individual candidates for parliament under a cumbersome system called Single Non-Transferable Vote, or SNTV. On Saturday, voters in Kabul were asked to choose one candidate from a 12-page poster-size ballot bearing 642 names. Each candidate also had a voting number, a thumbnail photo and a small pictorial diagram next to his or her name. The diagrams were simple line drawings – two buckets, for example, or four horses, or three neckties. I was told later that candidates were made to pick three pictures out of a hat and then allowed to choose the symbol that best represented them. In Kabul, the 33 top vote getters would win seats in the National Assembly.
Sediqi stopped to talk to an elderly woman with a white scarf covering her hair. He had to bend forward to bring his recorder close to her face. She told him she was voting for people who would look after the future of her country. Outside, on our way to the next polling center, I was almost run down by a flock of goats being driven through the street by a man with a stick.
In the car, Sediqi told me that voters were complaining that too many so-called campaign monitors were crowding the polling stations, making it hard for voters to move. The monitors were men and women working for the candidates as observers to make sure their bosses weren't deprived of votes.
People were also disappointed with the lack of transparency. "They say it's not clear, they say everything can be happen about fraud. But" – and here Sediqi spoke with a touch of pride – " they are willing to share everything with the media."
We headed to a press conference at the Afghan Election Commission. The chairman, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, stood before a row of Afghan flags and told the reporters that all was well. "We're very happy that people are practicing their right to vote with great enthusiasm," Manawi said. The reporters, most of them Afghan, dutifully recorded this in their notebooks. Sediqi asked the first question. "We have seen some campaign materials that are not allowed during the vote," he said. "What are you doing to stop this?" Manawi listened calmly. "Regarding the campaigning of candidates, if any are campaigning during the silent or voting periods, that's a violation and would be investigated," he said. "And if it's aired by the media, definitely this would be investigated." Other reporters claimed that people were washing ink from their fingers after voting at a local school, that the wrong ballots had been sent to two provinces and that in west Kabul, too few ballots had been sent for the number of people who wanted to vote.
Most of the places we visited had the opposite problem. At a polling station in a mosque, only 149 people had voted by 3 p.m. Campaign workers sat in circles on the floor chatting, or stretched out and snoozed in patches of sunlight. A local official swanned through, greeting people condescendingly. Sediqi asked him why so few people had come to vote. The official waved the question away. "It's not true," he scolded. "A lot of people are participating."
Outside, Sediqi shook his head. "People don't tell the truth," he told me. This was the problem for a reporter in Afghanistan. Where was the truth? How could it be isolated from everything else that was said? Did it even exist? In Sediqi's view and that of many of his colleagues, the lack of truth-telling stemmed from a lack of knowledge. In his hometown in Konduz, Sediqi knew, most of the polling centers were closed because it was too dangerous to open them. A polling place in a high school in his area had opened on schedule, but around 10 a.m., militants fired two missiles at it, and it too shut its doors. "Afghan officials always do this," he told me. "They always use these words and they escape from the truth. Many of them can't face the truth."