Outside a school in Charikar, Afghanistan, an unruly throng of people gathered near the entrance, waiting to be scanned by handheld metal detectors. Some of them had walked for more than an hour to cast their votes in last Saturday’s parliamentary elections. Others arrived in cars, taxis and campaign buses covered with candidate posters. A steady rumble rang down from the nearby hills — artillery shells.
Inside the school, which was being used as a polling center, Susan Hyde, an assistant professor in Yale’s Political Science Department, stood among crowds of voters jostling to enter gender-segregated voting booths. An expert in democracy promotion, Hyde spent more than a week in Afghanistan as part of a 90-person observer mission headed by the American electoral assistance organization Democracy International.
Hyde traveled to Parwan province, located in the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Afghanistan, following three days of security and procedural briefings in Kabul. Hyde, and fellow observer, Robert Balkin, accompanied by an eight-man armed security detail, traveled to four polling stations in Charikar. As short-term election observers, Hyde and Balkin were assigned to observe the general atmosphere, voter turnout, compliance with procedures and the possibility of voter fraud.
“I stayed the night at an [International Security Assistance Force] base, where I felt an earthquake, and in the early morning, we loaded up and went for the opening of the polling center,” she said.
ON THE GROUND
In the weeks leading up to her assignment in Afghanistan, Hyde had to prepare in two ways: by poring over latest reports on the political situation in Afghanistan and by going clothes shopping.
“I was told to dress very modestly, so I ended up buying a lot of long baggy shirts and dresses,” she said.
She said she was also told to sign an agreement stipulating that she would not refuse an order from security personnel to wear body armor and helmet.
By the time Hyde — a veteran of seven missions to monitor elections — arrived in Kabul on Sept. 12, the United Nations and other international organizations had pulled their nonessential staff out of the country because of the heightened security concerns during the elections, Hyde explained. Vehicles were prevented from entering the main airport and her own security detail was disarmed, she said.
Hyde said she spent the next three days at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, where she underwent a number of security and political briefings from Afghan officials and long-term election observers who had already spent months monitoring the lead-up to the vote.
Due to security restrictions, Hyde said she traveled into Kabul only three times and was not allowed to set foot on the streets. At all times, Hyde traveled in a two-car convoy: she and Balkin sat in an armored vehicle while the bulk of her security personnel following in a second car, armed with an assortment of AK-47 rifles, pistols and knives.
“The streets were crowded with people, vehicles and commerce,” she recalled. “I remember passing a street of wedding parlors that resembled the Las Vegas strip.”
Hyde also recalled the campaign ads that dotted billboards and hung from tree branches throughout the city.
Following a ride in an armored convoy to Charikar the day before the Sept. 18 election, Hyde and other observers spent the night at an ISAF base. Charikar, located in the Parwan province, was a relatively secure area, and the polling booths she visited appeared fairly normal by election monitoring standards, Hyde said.
The flow of people into the polling stations varied during the day: Women tended to vote early in the morning and late afternoon, often gathering together to cast group votes, Hyde said. At some polling stations, the overcrowding was so intense that some missed out on their cast their vote when ballot boxes closed at 4 p.m.
The gender-segregated polling centers provided twice as many polling stations for male voters than female voters, and as a result, overcrowding was particularly severe for female voters. In one instance, Hyde said she remembered a police officer desperately pushing back a crowd of women as they tried to enter the polling station. Initially, the man tried to hold up the crowd with his hands, but the pressure became so great that he grabbed a rifle with both hands and used it to hold back the mass of women.
Balkin said that fears about possible attacks made it difficult for the observer team to stay at polling stations for long durations, forcing them to leave before all the votes were countered. Hyde added that she could not monitor some male polling stations because she was not allowed into them.
Balkin and Hyde also observed some voter irregularities where people attempted to vote with invalid or even multiple ID cards, Balkin said. Others — particularly women — violated election procedures by openly voting in groups, Hyde said.
On the whole, both said the election process at the polling centers they visited appeared to be fairly transparent, with election officials appearing to follow election procedures earnestly.
Back in her office on Prospect Street, Hyde said her election monitoring work in Afghanistan is part of the broader move to improve the state of democracy and political transparency in the country.
“I think election observation is one of many tools to put pressure on government to be more effective and transparent,” she said. “Election observers can detect and deter election manipulation, while working with governments to improve electoral processes in the long term.”
Hyde has previously observed elections with Democracy International in Albania, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Venezuela, often with advanced notice of a month or less. After her first stint monitoring elections in Indonesia while still in graduate school, Hyde said she developed a close relationship with the leaders of Democracy International who have invited her on subsequent election monitoring missions.
“I’m interested to learn how international actors influence the politics of other countries and see this first-hand,” Hyde said.
Last week’s mission was the first time that Hyde has been assigned to monitor elections in Afghanistan. Last year, Hyde said she was traveling to Kabul when halfway into her flight between Washington and Dubai, news came that the second round of parliamentary elections had been canceled.
Hyde said she hopes the current election monitoring efforts in Afghanistan will be another way that the international community can support and improve the democratic process in a country fraught with conflict.