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"Islam and democracy can co-exist"

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Emma Bonino, who led the EU Election Observation Mission in Afghanistan for the September 18 parliamentary elections, is optimistic about democracy in Afghanistan. Even if the country still has a long way to go.

The Italian Radical Party member and ex-Commissioner for the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), Emma Bonino, witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of politics in Afghanistan when heading the EU electoral observation in Afghanistan.

How useful are parliamentary elections, bearing in mind the fragile political situation in Afghanistan?

This country is still very unstable, which hinders the difficult process of democratisation. In this context, parliamentary and provincial elections are undeniably an important step forwards to reinforce the State and give direct political representation to the people. Clearly, the process is fragile and still has some weaknesses. For example, the programme for educating the citizens on their civil rights and what were going to vote for did not entirely reach its objectives. Even the candidates themselves have doubts about what their own role will be once they are elected. It is a transitional process, and the dynamics will naturally take many years to be fully carried out. The sooner they take that road, the better.

What was the involvement of Europe in the reconstruction of the country, after its military intervention that led to the downfall of the Taliban regime?

The involvement of the EU took various forms. It was present militarily, with the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and it also supported the civil reconstruction of the country, by helping to build infrastructures and institutions, which is what I follow more closely. On September 5, the European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, announced a further contribution of nine million euros to cover the cost of the parliamentary and provincial elections. That amount comes on top of the eight and a half million euros which had already been pledged. Moreover, the Election Observation Mission, which I led, cost the EU 4.1 million euros. A further 3 million has been allotted to help with the functioning of the future parliament. And considering the bilateral contributions granted by each EU member state, Europe covered more than 40% of the cost of these elections, that is to say 159 million dollars. On the whole, it’s a heavy investment for the future of the country.

What was the objective of the EU Election Observation Mission?

The aim of the mission was to “observe”, but not to interfere with the electoral process. The mission will evaluate the elections on the basis of international obligations that the Afghan state has signed, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966. This covenant fixes certain principles on the periodicity of the elections, universal suffrage, the right to become a candidate, the anonymous vote and freedom of expression. I, for one, have always thought that Islam and democracy can co-exist. It is not so much a question of obeying Islam, more a question that everyone interprets it in their own way. This is where we see the difference between the status of women in Morocco, Tunisia or Turkey, and with the problems yet to be resolved in Saudi Arabia, for example. Apart from Islam, we must take into account a very patriarchal, tribal and maybe even misogynist society, that derives from the Taliban regime. This is one of the main reasons for the clear political, social and economic backwardness of the country. The clash isn’t between civilisations, or even between religions, but, in my opinion, between “closed” societies and those that are more or less “open”, be they already democratic or on the road to democracy.

The war in Afghanistan is officially over. And yet more than 1,300 people have been killed since the beginning of 2005. How can peace win?

This country must be brought to its feet in every respect, starting with the infrastructures that are currently nonexistent: there are little more than 25 kilometres of tarmacked road in the whole country. There needs to be solid investment in the sanitary system. Afghan women have the lowest levels in the world with regards to health. Issues including illiteracy and widespread poverty need to be addressed. According to Unicef, 90% of women give birth by themselves and 1,600 women die in child-birth for every 100,000 babies born. From a political point of view, there must be an effort to create strong institutions, helping the ruling Afghan classes to have a positive future vision of their own country. Finally, there is a need to end all deleterious interferences from border countries – from Pakistan and Iran in particular.

25% of parliamentary seats are allegedly reserved for women. But the BBC revealed how difficult it is, in many regions, to find women on electoral lists. Will we ever see a Burka in parliament?

I am usually against the idea of quotas of women, but sometimes they can be useful as a temporary measure for countries that are opening up to democracy. In the case of Afghanistan, I would say that these quotas are practically necessary. Certainly, during this electoral campaign, the female candidates have been particularly targeted by intimidation. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, women participating in the September elections had to face near insurmountable obstacles when accessing information and partaking in public initiatives. Their freedom of movement was limited, their personal safety at risk and their financial support disproportionately different when compared with that offered to male candidates. This has been taken into account by our observers, who have been deployed in the provinces since early August. According to the law, the Lower House will have 68 female parliamentarians, and the local councils will have about 25% women, whether they wear a Burka or not.

Translated from Bonino: «Islam e Democrazia coesistano»