Saturday, April 5, 2014
Activists of a few radical socio-political groups of the conservative orientation held meetings of protest in French cities on Saturday. The meetings were aimed against the current government’s policy. The largest actions took place in Lille and Toulouse. Random clashes with police also occurred.
Syrian expatriates in Tunisia have staged a demonstration to voice their support for the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Press TV reports. Tunisia-based Syrian expatriates took to the streets near the Tunisian Foreign Ministry in the capital city of Tunis on Saturday to show their solidarity with the government in Damascus and to express their hope of returning to their homeland. “I am confident that we will return home very soon thanks to the efforts made by the Syrian Arab Army and the great people of Syria,” one of the participants in the support rally told Press TV. Politicians in Tunisia have voiced alarm over the return of Tunisian nationals fighting against the Syrian government along with foreign-backed Takfiri militants.
The democratic transition [in Tunisia] is under permanent threat. We cannot hold elections while we fear the return of terrorists. Terror attacks could happen anywhere,” Mongi Rahui, a Tunisian lawmaker, said in an interview with Press TV.
According to extracts from British defense consultancy IHS Jane’s published in the Daily Telegraph last September, some 100,000 militants are operating in Syria. The militants have split into some 1,000 brands since the Syria crisis began three years ago, said the study, which is based on intelligence estimates and interviews with militants. Syria has been the scene of deadly turmoil since March 2011. Recent reports say over 150,000 people have so far died and millions of others displaced because of the foreign-backed violence. President Assad has pledged to strike terror “with an iron fist.”
Thousands of Shiite Muslims turned out peacefully Friday to call for political reforms in Bahrain, as practice began for this year's Formula 1 Grand Prix in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom. Demonstrations have been held during the event every year since 2011 by opponents of the ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty in an attempt to highlight the reform demands. The influential Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq had called for a rally Friday on the main Budaya highway, four kilometres (2.5 miles) west of Manama, which links several Shiite villages. Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman had urged supporters to protest "peacefully... and exploit the presence of (foreign) media attending the F1... so the world could hear the voice of the opposition and its demands and the oppression we suffer from in our country". The gathering passed off without incident, as demonstrators waved Bahrain's red and white flag and chanted their demands while avoiding direct reference to the race, which runs through the weekend. Clashes frequently erupt on the outskirts of Manama between security forces and protesters from the Shiite majority demanding that the Khalifas surrender their grip on all key cabinet posts in favour of an elected government. On Thursday, police had deployed along a main road linking Manama to the Sakhir F1 circuit in the south, as more checkpoints were set up on roads leading to Shiite villages. Following Friday's demonstration, Al-Wefaq issued a statement saying the security presence would simply "reinforce the people's determination to demand more democracy". Al-Wefaq's peaceful rallies are usually tolerated by the authorities and rarely end in violence. Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, remains deeply divided three years after a Shiite-led uprising was quashed, with persistent protests sparking clashes with police, scores of Shiites jailed on "terror" charges and reconciliation talks deadlocked. The International Federation for Human Rights says at least 89 people have been killed in Bahrain since the uprising broke out in February 2011.
When Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi gave a speech on the virtues of smaller government and privatization on April 8 last year, supporters called him an ideological heir to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died that day. Modi, favorite to form India's next government after elections starting on Monday, has yet to unveil any detailed economic plans but it is clear that some of his closest advisers and campaign managers have a Thatcherite ambition for him. "If you define Thatcherism as less government, free enterprise, then there is no difference between Modi-nomics and Thatcherism," said Deepak Kanth, a London-based banker now collecting funds as a volunteer for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kanth, who says he is on the economic right, is one of several hundred volunteers with a similar philosophy working for Modi in campaign war-rooms across the country. Among them are alumni of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan trading floors. "What Thatcher did with financial market reforms, you can expect a similar thing with infrastructure in India under Modi," he said, referring to Thatcher's trademark "Big Bang" of sudden financial deregulation in 1986. Modi's inner circle also includes prominent economists and industrialists who share a desire to see his BJP draw a line under decades of socialist economics, cut welfare and reduce the role of government in business. The BJP is due to unveil detailed economic plans on Monday and is expected to make populist pledges to create a massive number of manufacturing jobs and to restart India's stalled $1 trillion infrastructure development program. But conversations with top policy advisers to Modi suggest an agenda that goes further than the upcoming campaign manifesto, including plans to overhaul national welfare programs. There is also a fierce debate inside his team about privatizing some flagship state-run firms, including loss-making Air India. Bibek Debroy, a prominent Indian economist speaking for the first time about his role advising Modi during the campaign, told Reuters the Hindu nationalist leader shared his market-driven policy platform and opposed handouts. "It is essentially a belief that people don't need doles, and don't need subsidies," Debroy said. Instead, the government should focus on building infrastructure to ease poverty, he said. ASSET CREATION Modi's office did not respond to requests for comment on this article. Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, the man tipped to be the finance minister in a Modi cabinet, said the party would not do away with welfare programs entirely. "I don't want to immediately comment on what we will do with each one of them," Jaitley said. "India will need some poverty alleviation schemes, at least in the immediate future, but you could link those schemes with some asset creation." How far Modi can go down this road if elected will depend on allies in what is likely to be a coalition government. In the last big poll ahead of the election, the BJP was forecast to end up as the single largest party but fall short of an outright majority. But merely the possibility that India may move to the right has brought flocks of free-market champions home from high-flying careers abroad to join Modi's campaign. Two advisers involved in policy discussions within the BJP's top leadership said partial or total privatizations of Air India and other failing public sector enterprises were being debated. "We don't foresee any problems in selling a stake in Air India. It is one of those low-hanging fruit," said one of the economic policy advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another privatization target could be mammoth Coal India, the source of much of the country's electricity generation, but that is a more complex task, they said. Possible opposition by allies in government and India's strong labor laws mean that some of these policies will take time. "If you say is it going to happen in 2014-15, is the finance minister going to stand up and announce privatization, I'm inclined to think no, but will it figure eventually? The answer is yes," said Debroy, author of a book on the economy of Gujarat, the western Indian state Modi has governed for more than a decade. When asked about the possible privatization of Air India, Jaitley said only that it was a difficult issue. WELFARE ROLLBACK An attack on welfare would mark an ideological shift. Although India adopted free-market reforms 20 years ago, the man responsible for them, current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has refocused on redistribution of wealth in recent years under the influence of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. The battle of ideas between Modi and the ruling Congress party was mirrored in a public spat between two well-known economists of Indian origin, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and Columbia University's Jagdish Bhagwati. Sen's belief that public spending on food subsidies and health was needed to end poverty was adopted by Gandhi. The result was a proliferation of welfare schemes, most notably a rural work program and a giant subsidized food plan. Modi's economic thinking is closer to Bhagwati, who strongly advocates poverty reduction through deregulation-led growth. Bhagwati's colleague and writing partner, Arvind Panagariya, a former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, is tipped by some in the BJP for a role in any Modi government. The Congress party's rural job scheme is credited with lifting rural wages and reducing migration to cities. But critics, including Panagariya, believe the jobs it created - such as maintaining irrigation ponds and village roads - were unproductive. These ideas have found traction in Modi's circle of advisers, who propose tying such programs to skills training and putting employees to work on building highways or sanitation projects. Others in the group propose doing away altogether with dozens of centrally funded programs. The parallels with Thatcher don't end with economics. Like her, Modi is a small-town outsider to the capital's political circles and has a reputation for riding roughshod over opponents, who often pillory him as authoritarian. In Gujarat, critics say he runs a one-man government. For better or for worse, many Indians fed up with years of weak leadership, find that no-nonsense image part of his appeal. "We need action, a do-er," said Kanth. "We have seen enough of pussyfooting in the last 10 years."
Braving cold, rain and Taliban attacks, Afghans gathered in such long lines at polling places that voting hours were extended nationwide so they could cast their ballots to choose the successor to President Hamid Karzai on Saturday. Rather than the widespread disruption that the Taliban had promised in recent months, the thing most on display was determination, as Afghans turned out in higher numbers than expected, including in some places where votes were scarce in the 2009 election. There was no heavy barrage of attacks, though fears of potential violence did keep roughly one in eight polling centers closed nationwide.
For the first time, Afghans were voting on what appeared to be an open field of candidates, after Mr. Karzai's dozen years in power. Accordingly, no one expected a quick result from the vote on Saturday: the top three candidates were expected to closely divide up the vote, and a runoff election seemed certain. That election would likely be held no sooner than May 28, continuing Mr. Karzai’s time in office for another two months at least. Even partial official results were not expected for a week.With eight candidates in the race, the five minor candidates’ shares of the vote made it even more difficult for any one candidate to reach the 50 percent threshold that would allow them to win outright. The leading candidates going into the vote were Ashraf Ghani, 64, a technocrat and former official in Mr. Karzai’s government; Abdullah Abdullah, 53, a former foreign minister who was the second biggest vote-getter against Mr. Karzai in the 2009 election; and Zalmay Rassoul, 70, another former foreign minister, who is the only major candidate with a woman on his ticket as vice-presidential candidate, Habiba Sarobi. Informal polls in recent weeks showed Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani in the lead, but polling in Afghanistan is notoriously unreliable. Early in the day, in a high school near the presidential palace, an emotional Mr. Karzai cast his own vote for his successor. “I, as a citizen of Afghanistan, did this with happiness and pride,” he said afterward. The streets of the capital, swamped by a heavy rain, were almost entirely devoid of vehicle traffic, except for members of the police force and the military, who were on duty at checkpoints every few hundred feet and searched nearly everyone passing by. Most people walked to vote. Long lines had already formed when polls opened at 7 a.m. in Kabul and other major cities. “People have realized that electing the president is far more important than standing in the rain,” said a voter, Abdullah Abdullah, 24, who had the same name as the candidate he said he was planning to vote for at a Kabul high school polling place. “Whenever there has been a new king or president, it has been accompanied by death and violence,” said Abdul Wakil Amiri, an attorney who turned out early to vote at a Kabul mosque. “For the first time, we are experiencing democracy.” To provide security for the voting, the Afghan government mobilized its entire military and police forces, some 350,000 in all, backed up by 53,000 NATO coalition troops – although the Americans and their allies planned no direct involvement except in case of an extreme emergency. Authorities did not expect that, however, as the overall level of violence in the months leading to the voting was much lower than before the vote in the summer of 2009, when Mr. Karzai was re-elected in 2009. This time, the Afghan security forces are nearly twice as numerous, and the election is taking place before the traditional start of the fighting season, both factors that have reduced violence by anywhere from 9 to 25 percent compared to the pre-election period in 2009, according to United Nations officials. A series of high-profile attacks on foreigners, including the murder on Friday of an Associated Press photographer and the wounding of her colleague, created an impression of greater violence, but were also indications that insurgents did not have as much capacity to strike forcefully during this campaign. They did not manage a single major attack on any campaign event, for instance, and two attacks on the Independent Election Commission had little direct effect on the voting. In the days before the voting, only one police officer was killed in attacks on convoys of election officials delivering materials, in Logar Province, according to the Afghan police. Halfway through election day, four voters were reported killed in a smattering of incidents, including two in insurgent attacks in the east — one in Kunar Province, the other in Paktia province. A bomb set off at a polling place in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar killed two voters and wounded two others, but the polling place reopened half an hour later, according to the district governor, Abdul Hamid. An election observer there, Qazi Nasim Modaser, said, “Now people are going back to the polling station.” Even before voting began, the authorities had already closed 750 polling centers, just over 10 percent of the total, because of security concerns, and there were fears more would be closed on election day. Just how many would likely be a key issue in the aftermath of the voting, especially if closures were seen as disenfranchising one ethnic group over another. Along with the threat of violence, the legacy of fraud from past elections cast a long shadow over Saturday’s voting. The authorities have gone to unusual extremes to try to guarantee an election at least credible enough to satisfy international donors, who have pledged to continue supporting Afghanistan with billions of dollars in aid, but want to be assured of an election free of the sort of widespread fraud that discredited the 2009 voting. Underwritten by $100 million from the United Nations and foreign donors, this year’s election is a huge enterprise, especially given Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain. Some 3,200 donkeys were pressed into service to deliver ballots to remote mountain villages, which along with battalions of trucks and minibuses, reached 6,500 polling places in all. The American military pitched in with air transport of ballots to regional distribution centers and to difficult-to-reach provinces. While many international election observers fled the country in the wake of attacks on foreigners, or found themselves confined to quarters in Kabul, years of expensive preparations and the training of an army of some 70,000 Afghan election observers were expected to compensate, according to Western diplomats and Afghan election officials. “We have so many controls now, it’s going to be much safer this time,” said Noor Ahmad Noor, the spokesman for the Independent Election Commission. The American ambassador, James Cunningham, called the election a “really historic opportunity for the people of Afghanistan to move forward with something we’ve been trying to create together with them for several years now.” Despite an increasingly troubled relationship between the Americans and Mr. Karzai, who refused to sign a long-term security agreement with the United States, Mr. Cunningham said he had assurances from all the candidates that whoever won would sign the agreement upon taking office. Many of the worst fears about this year’s election — that Mr. Karzai would cancel them on security grounds or try to amend the constitution to prolong his tenure in power — did not materialize. Mr. Karzai pledged to stay out of the election campaign and not support any candidate, although there was no legal requirement for him to do so, and he forced his brother Qayum out of the race so that he would not be accused of trying to start a family dynasty. While there were persistent reports that Mr. Karzai’s government was quietly shoring up Mr. Rassoul as a preferred candidate, there was also evidence of government support in various parts of the country for all three leading candidates. The Taliban for their part vowed to derail the elections and punish anyone who voted — easily identifiable by the ink their fingers would be dipped in to confirm they had cast their votes. This time, election officials used two types of ink: invisible ultraviolet ink on one finger, and blue silver-nitrate ink on another. During the last election, it was discovered that nail polish remover could be used to remove the ink; this year, the solution is far more impermeable, meaning voters in troubled areas could be identified by insurgents for some three days. That made the turnout in conflict areas all the more impressive. While in some provinces, such as Helmand, 72 of the 219 polling centers were closed because of security concerns, in others where there had been relatively little voting in 2009 many were opened. In Kandahar Province, for instance, the police chief, Abdul Raziq, said 234 of 244 polling centers would be open on election day. That did not assure people would vote at all of them, however, as some open polling places were in such dangerous areas that participation seemed unlikely. And many places officially opened before the election might be closed on election day itself, officials conceded. How often that happened will be a closely watched bellwether of the validity of the results. “Voting on this day will be a slap to the faces of the terrorists,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, the acting head of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan domestic intelligence agency. But some were still too concerned to vote. “I won’t cast my vote because last night the Taliban came to us and warned us that we will be killed if we choose to vote,” said Parwiz, a 30-year-old villager from Bati Kot district in Nangarhar province, where at least 23 percent of the polling centers were closed, and many others were in dangerous areas. Others were defiant. “Threats exist always and we are used to it,” said Jahanzaib, 28, a farmer from Mohmand Dara district in Nangarhar. “I will use my vote. That is my right and the only way to transfer power from President Karzai to someone else.” Hajji Noor Mohammad, a farmer in Panjwai District, in Kandahar Province, was unable to vote in 2009 because there were so many Taliban around. He plans to vote this time, he said. “Today most people realize the importance of the election because the tribal elders were now telling us to use our vote and come out,” he said. Noting the Taliban threat to disrupt the election, Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations’ top election official here, said, “The failure to disrupt the elections will mean that they will have egg on their face after the elections.” More women than ever are on provincial ballots, and two are running for vice-president, marking the first time a woman has ever run for national office here. At the women’s polling station in the Nadaria High School, in Kabul’s Qala-e-Fatullah neighborhood, among those lining up to vote was Parwash Naseri, 21. Although wearing the blue burqa that is traditional here, she was still willing to speak out through the privacy mesh covering her face. She was voting for the first time for her children, and for women’s rights, she said, speaking in a whisper. “I believe in the right of women to take part just as men do, to get themselves educated and to work.”
Pakistan's main opposition party is demanding a transparent discussion in parliament over the origins of $1.5 billion paid into the country's coffers in March, and what the government agreed to in exchange for the funds. The money is widely believed to have come from Saudi Arabia -- a donation aimed at cementing a new and potentially controversial security deal with the nuclear armed south Asian country. Pakistan's liquid foreign currency reserves unexpectedly swelled to about $9.5 billion dollars in early March. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government has refused to name the country which provided the funds, saying only that it came from a "friendly Islamic country" to support Pakistan's weak economy. Officials at Pakistan's central bank confirmed that the money came from Saudi Arabia, and the government's opponents want a full explanation.
Sharif's refusal to be more transparent on the terms of the Saudi cash infusion has only fueled skepticism over the motives behind it."In the 1980s, Pakistani troops served in places like Tabuk (in Saudi Arabia) and the (Pakistani) troops served in Saudi uniforms. That deployment was part of Pakistan's defense agreement with Saudi Arabia," explains defense analyst Farooq Hameed Khan, a retired Brigadier in the Pakistani army. "There is nothing new about Pakistan having a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia which involves Pakistani troops serving there." Khan says the current scandal springs from reports which circulated last month suggesting a new agreement between the two countries is focused on Pakistan helping the Saudis bolster the opposition fighting forces in Syria, and -- either in tandem or by default -- shoring up Sunni Muslim ally Saudi Arabia in its regional standoff with Shiite-majority Iran. The problem is that Iran is Pakistan's neighbor, and also a nation with which Islamabad has enjoyed relatively cordial relations. "The danger now is of Pakistan getting caught in a Saudi-Iranian turf war," one opposition lawmaker, who didn't want to be named, told CBS News. Khursheed Shah, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the lower house of parliament, known as the National Assembly, says it is an issue he and his fellow lawmakers "need to discuss," adding that in his party's view, "Pakistan should not provide weapons or troops (to Saudi Arabia)." Though Shah gave the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, accepting a statement from Sharif insisting the money is not tied to any commitment to send troops to oil-rich Saudi, other PPP members and some diplomats in the region remain unconvinced. The concerns are driven by more than three decades of uncomfortable relations between Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family and vast majority of residents are Sunni, and Iran, where the ruling clerics and vast majority of residents are of the Shiite sect of Islam. The two powerful countries have sought to increase their influence in the region, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in part by pouring huge sums of money into all levels of society, from government right down to local Islamic organizations of the same sectarian leaning. And while the money from Saudi "may help boost Pakistan's finances in the short term," respected Pakistani security and political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi says it "carries the risk of dividing Pakistan internally." An estimated 20 to 30 percent of Pakistan's total population (of about 200 million) is Shiite Muslim. Almost all other Pakistanis belong to the Sunni sect -- only one or two percent of the population is non-Muslim. "This is a very, very delicate situation for Pakistan," said the Western diplomat in Islamabad. "It would be very difficult for the Pakistani government to remain friends with Saudi Arabia and Iran at the same time."
The famine-like situation in Thar is disturbing enough; now a report coming out of Balochistan speaks of a very high incidence of acute malnutrition. Ten of the total 20 high food insecure districts of the country are in that province, the report points out. And further that after Sindh, Balochistan has the highest level of food insecurity. About 63 percent of households face a dire situation, with 18 percent of them classified as "food insecure with hunger" and 11.5 percent as "food insecure with severe hunger." Overall, 90 percent districts of the province are classified as "extremely high" to "high" food insecure. As a result, the number of under-five children having stunted growth runs as high as 52.2 percent while 39.6 percent are underweight. Nearly half of them are anaemic and vitamin A deficient. The province has the highest number of infant and mother mortality rate. And the surviving babies of undernourished mothers are usually underweight. These depressing details highlight the fact that it is not enough to satiate hunger, food must include micronutrients ie, vitamins and minerals, that help in the physical growth and mental development of children. And for children and adults alike, proper nourishment is essential to build immunity against disease. At present, the government's Nutrition Cell together with WHO and UNICEF is helping people in the nine most malnutrition-prone districts of the province. It is a commendable effort, but does not offer a complete or lasting solution which must deal with the basic cause of malnutrition. As it is, most of the land in Balochistan is arid and water scarce and hence unsuitable for agriculture. Consequently a very small fraction of the population grows its own food. Besides, the population centres are separated by long, difficult to traverse distances, making access that much difficult. But the key factor, as in the case of Thar, is the problem of pervasive poverty. These people can eat better if they have cultivable land or jobs to earn enough money to be able to buy foodstuffs. Poverty of course is not peculiar to Balochistan, but that is where it exists in its extreme forms because of the province's relative economic backwardness, which for long has been the main issue in a litany of Baloch complaints. The previous government did give a lot of money to the province but almost all of it went into the pockets of the ruling alliance members' pockets instead of job creation and social uplift development projects. Under the recently revised multiple criteria of National Finance Commission resource distribution formula, there has been a substantial increase in Balochistan's share. It needs to be utilised for the wellbeing of the common man. The present Chief Minister, Abdul Malik Baloch of the National Party, boasts reputation of an honest and progressive thinking politician. Hopefully, he is cognisant of the hardships ordinary people face in his province, and can be expected to come up with a well thought-out longer term strategy to address extreme poverty and the attendant scourge of hunger and malnutrition.
Reports on Thursday that the government has released 19 non-combatant prisoners produced some unnecessary confusion. The confusion owed more to lack of coordination and communication between branches of the government than anything else. Eventually the confusion was sorted out, but it left a strange taste in the mouth. Initial media reports presented the release as having been ordered by the prime minister (PM) as part of efforts to keep the peace process going. Since the PM’s Secretariat knew nothing about any such release, it initially denied the PM had issued any such orders. It would have been better if the Secretariat had first checked with the interior ministry, whose purview the peace talks and the security situation is, before rushing to the media with a denial. The interior ministry then responded to the denial by issuing a statement clarifying that 19 non-combatants in custody belonging to the Mehsud tribe had indeed been released by it since they were cleared of any involvement in militancy or terrorism. The detainees, according to the ministry’s statement, had been released in three batches, three on March 21, five on March 25, and 11 more on March 28. In addition, reports spoke of the impending release of another 100 such detainees. It took a meeting between the PM and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali, if reports are to be believed, to clarify the fog. The whole brouhaha can be rightly ascribed to the right hand of the government not knowing what the left hand was up to. Given the sensitivity of the talks process, and how delicately it is poised after the month long ceasefire by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has ended, it would serve the purposes of the government better if such pronouncements were carefully handled to avoid this kind of unnecessary controversy. One of the compelling reasons also for being careful in this regard is that parts of the media cast the affair in the hues of the PM overruling the advice of the military that prisoners should not be released, especially those responsible for the deaths of military officers and soldiers. Such reports unnecessarily put the government on the back foot, from where it has then to try and manage the fallout of a perception gained that the military still calls the shots on the matter of dealing with the militants. The facts belie such speculation. From all accounts, the military is fully on board as far as the government’s moves are concerned, and is willing to see if the government’s strategy of peace through talks can succeed, while at the same time keeping its powder dry in case it does not. The military may have offered firm advice against the ‘free zone’ in South Waziristan demanded by the TTP and rejected the release of combatants, but this hardly constitutes a difference of opinion or a civil-military divide on the issue. The gesture of releasing some non-combatants and contemplating the release of more is a move to generate goodwill and reciprocity from the TTP. So far, of course, despite lip service to the reciprocal release of non-combatants such as Shahbaz Taseer, Ali Haider Gillani and Professor Ajmal, in the custody of the TTP or affiliated groups, no such conciliatory gesture has been forthcoming from the TTP. Perhaps patience is the watchword for what is intrinsically a most sensitive affair and rush to judgment should be avoided. A protracted process rather than sudden gains is what we are perhaps undergoing. If the resolutions of the Central Executive Committee of the PPP, meeting on the eve of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death anniversary in Garhi Khuda Buksh are taken note of, they assert, inter alia, that no extra-constitutional solution to the problem of terrorism would be acceptable. They also demand that the government take all the political parties into confidence on the peace process. This is a justified demand and would also help the government if its moves enjoy the support and confidence of the political class as a whole. Ironically, the PPP wants the government to ensure the release of the three non-combatant prisoners mentioned above, now that the shoe is on the other foot. It should be recalled that the PPP could not make much headway in this regard while it was in power. Nevertheless, the best approach to the talks/peace process is to wish it well without putting all one’s eggs in that basket.
As polls opened amid threats of violence and lingering memories of fraud, Afghan voters turned out on Saturday morning to choose a president who will lead them into the post-American era in Afghanistan. Election day dawned cold and drizzly in Kabul. Residents made their way to ballot boxes in schools and mosques, navigating desolate streets guarded by thousands of police and soldiers across the city. In some locations, the polls opened as much as an hour late, but throughout the morning there were few reports of violence or disruptions. Voters assembled in long and orderly lines at the city’s major high schools and elsewhere to cast their ballots for their first new leader after a dozen years of President Hamid Karzai.Afghan voters who have lived through decades of war spoke of their hopes for peace, better schools, more jobs. Using a side entrance reserved for female voters, Zakia Raoufi, a 45-year-old housewife, voted at the same school where her son graduated three years ago, and Karzai years before that. After she had woken up, washed and prayed, she said goodbye to her children and left the house for the first time in three days, where she had been worrying about the near daily bombings in Kabul ahead of the election. “I was wondering whether I will come back home alive or not,” she said. Her son had studied computers and learned English at Habibia High School but the family had no connections among the government elite, and no money to pay bribes for employment, so he moved to Iran and is now working as a tailor. “So this election means a lot to me. What I’m hoping for from the next president is someone to stop the bloodshed in this country, to provide us peace and stability and education and opportunities for our children,” she said. “We are not afraid of our enemies anymore,” said Anahita Amadyar, 41, who had voted with Raoufi. Before the vote, polling suggested a tight race. The palace and Karzai’s inner circle has pushed Zalmay Rassoul, a French-educated physician and former national security advisor and foreign minister. But Abdullah Abdullah, another former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and World Bank official, have been attracting large crowds at their rallies. In the last election in 2009, Abdullah ultimately dropped out instead of facing a run-off against Karzai. The vote caused weeks of political crisis and more than a million votes were tossed out because of fraud. “I hope that the Afghan people can go to the polls and cast their votes in a peaceful environment and use their vote for bringing peace, welfare and stability to the country,” Abdullah said after voting at Lycee Esteqlal high school in Kabul. There were some reports of violence in some parts of the country. Afghan officials said there had been rocket attacks and IED blasts that have forced some voters to flee. At least four people who were waiting to vote were injured in a blast in Logar province, authorities said. In the volatile Wardak province outside of Kabul, some polling stations were largely deserted and soldiers were engaged in sporadic gunfights with Taliban insurgents. Over the past two presidential elections here, voter turnout has fallen as the insurgency has gained strength. Early on election morning, Rahmatullah, one of the bodyguards for Kabul’s mayor, received a call from his brother-in-law in the central province of Sar-e-Pul. “He said, ‘We have been threated by the Taliban not to go out and vote.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about the Taliban, just go vote,’” Rahmatullah said after he had voted at Lycee Isteqlal, a high-school in downtown Kabul. He dipped his index finger in blue ink and had his voting card punched with a crescent moon. “Our hope is for peace and stability, for job opportunities, and to provide shelter for the homeless people,” he said. “We are here to decide about the future of Afghanistan.” Ahmad Shah Hakimi, a 43-year-old official in the commerce ministry, who also works as a currency trader, said he is tired of working for a corrupt government. “We just want change and we want to elect our own president,” he said. “I voted in the last election, but the government turned out to be corrupted, and people are really tired of that.” Qureshia Sirat Ahmadi, an 18-year-old high school student voting in her first election, said that she was reciting verses from the Koran in her head as she drove to the polling station, to calm her worries. “The enemies of Afghanistan always wants to disturb these national days, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come and vote,” she said.
FIRST, the good news. A third consecutive presidential election in Afghanistan is a historic achievement — Pakistan has only recently managed to hold consecutive on-schedule parliamentary elections. There is genuine competition, in the sense that the winner of the Afghan presidential election is far from clear. And, after the disastrous and disputed election of 2009, there is a possibility that the 2014 Afghan presidential election may be politically more credible than the last one. To be sure, much hinges on an acceptable electoral process. This is the year of transition for Afghanistan on the political and security fronts and the country needs a capable and credible leader in the presidency to steer it through arguably the most difficult time in its modern history since the Bonn Agreement of 2001. Now, to the less welcome news. Much as Afghanistan needs a strong and credible leadership via an acceptable presidential electoral process, there are many, many hurdles in the way. The most obvious hurdle is the credibility of the electoral process. Because international coverage of Afghanistan is shaped by and large by the Western press, there has been much focus on the evacuating of foreign election monitors after several attacks against foreigners in recent weeks. While fewer monitors and observers is certainly an issue, there are other problems elsewhere that have received attention. A major one is the decision by the Afghan election authorities to not make provision for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, overwhelmingly of Pakhtun origin, to cast their votes as they were allowed to do in 2004. With turnout already predicted to be a significant problem in the Pakhtun-dominated south and east of Afghanistan, the absence once again of the refugee vote could dramatically impact results — an outcome that myopic politicians inside Afghanistan do not appear too concerned about. Given that legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakhtuns of the next president could shape much of what happens in the year or two ahead in Afghanistan, the large-scale disenfranchisement of those displaced by war appears to be a short-sighted idea. Beyond that, there is uncertainty, and fear, shrouding every aspect of Afghanistan over the course of the next presidency. The year 2018 appears to be a lifetime away over the course of which the option, at least as far as conventional wisdom goes, is between an Afghanistan that limps on or descends into chaos. Yet, there is another possibility, however unlikely or remote it may appear at the moment: Afghanistan, with the help of its neighbours and regional and international powers, could stabilise and move towards a growing economy, internal security and institutional stability. While much has been made about the intentions and old agendas of the outside powers, it is also true that no side has forcefully vetoed the decisions Afghans have made for themselves.