A Guide to Afghanistan's Electorate

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Afghan voters discuss their choice for the upcoming presidential election. Video by Joshua Partlow/The Washington Post

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Amanda Lilly
Washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 7, 2009; 1:41 PM

Population

As of July 2009, Afghanistan's population was estimated at about 33.6 million. In comparison, the estimated population of the United States is about 307 million.

In Afghanistan, about 24 percent of the population is urban, in contrast to 82 percent of the population of the United States. Part of the reason why voting is so difficult in Afghanistan is because the electorate is very spread out and many live in remote areas.

Literacy Rate

About 28 percent of the entire population is literate. For females, the literacy rate is about 12.6 percent. In the United States, 99 percent of men and women are literate.

Religion

Ninety-nine percent Muslim (80 percent Sunni Muslim, 19 percent Shia Muslim) and 1 percent other religions.

Ethnic Divisions

Historically, deep ethnic divisions have made it difficult for any central government to maintain power over all Afghans because the divisions often trigger struggles for political authority. However, throughout most of Afghan history, the Pashtuns have remained the most powerful faction. Besides religion, the most striking differences between ethnic groups are dress, particularly headgear, and other characteristics such as language, occupation and geography.

Although not a feature of every ethnic group, tribal divisions are important for understanding Afghan voting patterns, especially among the dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In theory, a tribe, called "qawm" in Arabic, is made up of descendants of a common ancestor, whose name often becomes the group's title. Tribes are then often subdivided into smaller divisions. For example, the two largest sub-groups of the Pashtuns are the Ghilzai and the Durrani.

A "qawm," however, typically entails more than just family lineage, often designating social, religious and political practices as well. Members of a "qawm" are often more loyal to their tribal leader than to the state. Leaders therefore have the capability to control the vote of their tribe's members. This tribal loyalty is why it has been so significant that Karzai has reportedly made deals with several leaders, making him likely to draw the votes of that tribe's members as well.

The major ethnic groups of Afghanistan include:

Pashtuns -- the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, composing more than 42 percent of the population. Pashtuns typically live within a large crescent-shaped belt along the Afghan-Pakistani border to the east. Several sub-tribal divisions exist among Pashtuns, the largest being the Ghilzai and the Durrani tribes. Pashtuns are generally Sunni Muslim, and have held political power almost consistently since Afghanistan became a state in the late 1700s. The government has historically based its power on alliances with Pashtun tribes.

Tajiks -- compose 27 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. Tajiks are mostly Sunni Muslim, but they are not organized by tribe. Instead, they usually designate themselves according to the valley or region in which they live.

Hazara -- a minority group who lives concentrated in the central mountains of Afghanistan and composes just nine percent of the population. Most are Shia Muslim, and scholars believe that they have lived in the region since the early 13th century.

Uzbek -- also make up nine percent of the population and live primarily in the north. It is fairly common for Uzbeks to live intermingled with Tajiks, but they do not share the same quarters. Uzbeks have a Turkish origin.

Voter Registration

The designated voter registration period occurred from Oct. 6, 2008, to Feb. 2, 2009. A recorded total of more than 4.5 million Afghans registered to vote during the process, according to a report released by the IEC Afghanistan in March 2009. The difference between men and women who registered was about 700, 000; however, women still composed about 40 percent of all registered voters.

International Aid

As of March 31, 2009, the international community had contributed about $150 million to aid the Afghan elections. The United States gave about $56.7 million. Japan was the next largest donor at $36.6 million, followed by Germany at $10 million.

Project ELECT (Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow) was created by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2006 as a vehicle to call on the international community to support the IEC of Afghanistan. ELECT's original goal was to aid the IEC in institutional building, but it also played a major role in the voter registration process.

Sources: CIA World Factbook, Paul V. Galvin Library, Country Studies ELECT (UNDP)


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