In Afghan election, corruption colors aims of many female candidates
The 386 women running in Afghanistan's election Saturday have been touted as a clear sign of success. But others say that many of them are merely puppets for rich powerbrokers.
In a cynical reminder that Afghan politics is rarely what it seems, activists in Kabul question whether many female candidates running in Saturdayâs parliamentary elections are actually champions of women's rights.
The record 386 women running for parliament is seen by many as one of the few clear-cut successes of an election campaign that has been marred by violence and fraud. Yet some womenâs rights campaigners say that many of the female candidates are merely puppets for shadowy figures trying to garner influence in the new Afghan parliament.
âItâs quite clear that there are many, many women who are running not because they have interests themselves, but to represent the interests of warlords and power brokers,â says Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, an Afghan nongovernmental organization.
âThose being supported by a bank, a warlord, a tribal leader, these are the people able to spend money,â adds Wajma Frogh, a member of the Afghan Womenâs Network, an NGO in Kabul. âI know villagers who have sold their votes [to a female candidate] for $20. People will vote for her. Another very honest womenâs rights activist is not able to pay $20 a vote. Sheâs not going to make it into parliament.â
An age-old rhythm of patronage?
If Ms. Frogh, Ms. Nehan and others like them are right, itâs an uncomfortable truth for those trying to portray womenâs participation in Afghanistanâs fledgling democracy as a beacon in an otherwise dark and stormy country. And the proliferation of proxy candidates represents a wider problem in Afghanistan â the countryâs politics still beat to an age-old rhythm of patronage.
But not everyone says that competition between female candidates has been compromised. Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Womenâs Network, strikes an optimistic note.
âI know some of the [female candidates] and I know there is no one behind them, no warlords, mafia, drug dealers. Weâve been working closely with the election commission and people at the grassroots level and I havenât heard anything,â says Ms. Hamidi.
Instead, Hamidi says, the participation of a record number of women is due to growing political awareness among Afghans and the march of womenâs rights across the country.
Still, says Frough, the corruption that runs through Afghanistan's political structure has also affected the new role of women in politics.
âItâs a patronage system,â she says. âHere democracy does not mean that peopleâs voices are important. Whoever is in power is in power because of coercion, because of someone elseâs powerâŚ. This parliament is only a check-the-box formality so the international community can say, âYeah, Afghanistan has a democracy.' "
Women's seats used to garner broader influence
Saturdayâs election will simply reflect how power is disbursed across Afghanistan as a whole, she says. Although parliamentarians in Afghanistan donât wield the influence they do in some countries, they do retain important powers, such as a veto on cabinet appointments and oversight of the governmentâs budget.
âAlthough we have a very centralized government, there is still power in the parliament,â say Nehan, the director of Equality for Peace and Democracy. âNow everyoneâs realized that they donât want just one seat, they want as many as possible. The easiest and least challenging way of doing this is to fill the womenâs seats because the competition between men is quite tough.â
With 25 percent of the 249 available seats reserved for women and just 386 candidates contesting them, the womenâs field is far less packed than the menâs, where competition is about twice as fierce. Trying to exploit the womenâs vote provides good value for money for patrons.
Proxy candidates entrench corruption
The problem with proxy candidates is that it entrenches the political corruption that has become a byword for Afghanistan.
âThe country is already damaged and there is no room for more damage,â says Shinkai Karokhail, a female member of parliament (MP) from Kabul. Most MPs, she claims, are âin the service of others,â while others are only âthinking about their own pocket, how to empower their own group.â
âThe country is sinking because of corruption,â she says, and every powerbroker wants âto take advantageâ of the politicians they bankroll.