August 18, 2009 / 10:08 AM / 9 years ago

Afghan refugees in Pakistan yearn to vote

(For more on Afghanistan and Pakistan, click on [ID:nAFPAK])

By Zeeshan Haider

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Qutub-ud-din, an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, is keen to vote in this week’s presidential election in his country, but cannot.

"Why not?" the 50-year-old Afghan refugee, selling vegetables in a dusty neighbourhood in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, said when asked whether he wanted to cast his ballot.

Unlike the previous presidential election in 2004, Afghan election authorities have not made arrangements for about 2.5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran to take part in Thursday’s polls. Most are too poor to make the trip home just to vote.

"I am earning a meagre living for my five children by selling these onions and potatoes. If I go to Afghanistan to vote, who will feed my family?" said Qutub-ud-din.

Of an estimated 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, about 45 percent would be eligible voters, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Afghanistan is facing its worst violence since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the militants have threatened to disrupt the vote, raising the fear that security will have a major impact on turnout and perhaps the outcome.

Polls show President Hamid Karzai is likely to win but not with the outright majority required to avoid a second round.

Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun, as are most Afghans in Pakistan. He is facing a tough challenge from former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is believed to have little support among the refugees.

Most Afghans in Pakistan asked this week said they would have voted for Karzai, so in the event of a very close first round, refugees’ support could have been crucial for the incumbent.

But with Karzai widely seen as winning a second round, if one is held, refugees’ votes would have been unlikely to have had a bearing on the final result.

Nevertheless, the exclusion of refugees could add to questions about the legitimacy of the vote if turnout is low.


Abdul Hadi Fazali, an Afghan who runs an English-language school in Peshawar, said it was unfair that he and his countrymen in Pakistan had been excluded.

"They’re very unhappy as they are Afghans too. They think the organisers didn’t give them their basic right," he said.

Zekria Barakzai, deputy of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, said a lack of funds was the major reason for barring the refugees.

It would have cost about $50 million to make polling arrangements in Pakistan and Iran, Barakzai told Reuters.

"We asked the international community for funding but it was not accepted," he said.

Worries about security in Pakistan, where militants allied with the Afghan Taliban have stepped up attacks, was another major reason for not giving refugees the vote, he said.

Unlike the previous time, when candidates ran lively campaigns in Pakistan, there is nothing in Pakistani refugee camps and neighbourhoods inhabited by Afghans to give any hint of the vote.

Nor was there any sign of efforts by candidates to encourage refugees to go home to take part.

"I saw on television that elections are taking place but I don’t know who is running," said Maria, a 20-year-old student wearing a black scarf and a long gown at a school in a poor Afghan neighbourhood in Peshawar. "If they are not interested in my vote then why should I bother about them?"

Several refugees said they were not interested because whoever won would not be able to end decades of violence.

"We want peace but those running cannot bring peace. Security in Afghanistan is worse than it was four years back," said Sher Ali, a labourer from the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

"They can’t provide security in Afghanistan so how can they give us security if we go to vote. That’s why I am not going." (Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in KABUL; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

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