Vote early, vote often

Observations on Afghanistan

Iraq may be mired in violence, but Afghanistan can still be touted as a success for the west. In no respect more so, it seems, than in the way Afghans are flocking to vote. Out of an estimated 9.8 million eligible adults, 9.64 million had registered by 10 August, according to the UN. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, claims that 41.6 per cent of those who have registered are women. During his visit to Afghanistan this month, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, claimed this as a vivid demonstration of the Afghan people's determination to make democracy work. And so it would be - if it were true.

Given the shortfall of women, the figures suggested that every eligible adult male in the country has registered - at least once. By 15 August, as registrations closed, the UN announced that 9.91 million would-be voters had registered - a total that, embarrassingly, exceeded the eligible population. Unfazed, officials upped the estimate of potential voters to 10.5 million. Afghanistan has suffered a variety of wars, disasters and mass migrations - thus, said the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body, the figures could be out by up to a million. Indeed yes. In the mujahedin-dominated Panjshir Valley, the number of registered voters is two and a half times the supposed population of adults.

Fraud? Anecdotal evidence is common, with people brandishing two voting cards and explaining how they bought the extra one as an investment. One taxi driver in the north proudly displayed five.

Yet the enthusiasm for registering appears genuine and widespread. People in remote areas seem to have made great efforts to secure their voting cards, sometimes trekking across mountains to do so.

Some minority communities have pres-sed all their people to sign up, hoping to get political leverage both in the presi-dential elections on 9 October and in next year's parliamentary elections. At least it's better than the normal Afghan way of seeking political influence - by maintaining the biggest possible militia, with the best possible weapons.

Perhaps this is what Karzai meant when, at the press conference that Rumsfeld attended on 11 August, he said cheerfully: "If Afghans have two registration cards and if they would like to vote twice, well, welcome. This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice."

Martin Huckerby works for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Kabul