The 2018 Election Observed (4) in Nuristan: Disfranchisement and lack of data

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Author: Obaid Ali, Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica

Organising elections in Nuristan, one of the most remote, under-served and unknown provinces, presents a severe challenge. Most villages are far from their nearest district centre and all of the districts are under some degree of Taleban control or influence. In two districts – Mandol and Du-Ab – people were fully deprived of their right to vote. Elections were held in the six others, but even then only in parts of the districts. Contradictions on the number of polling centres reported as having been opened on election day have also raised suspicions that some vote rigging may have taken place. AAN’s Obaid Ali, Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig scrutinise the context in Nuristan which makes holding free, fair and inclusive elections so very difficult and report on what was a troubling election day where few Nuristanis were able to exercise their franchise.

Holding elections in Nuristan in 2018 was difficult. Mountainous terrain plus insurgency made logistics, eg getting voting material in and out, tricky. It was then difficult or impossible for many people to get to polling centres, if they had managed to register and if the centres opened. Monitoring the poll was even more difficult. It seems that, in many places, the IEC ‘subcontracted’ security and administration of the elections to local elders. Meanwhile, discrepancies in some of the basic reporting about election day, for example how many polling centres actually opened, flag up concerns about vote-rigging. Before delving into how the 2018 parliamentary elections went in Nuristan, we wanted to give some background and context about a province which is under-reported and seldom visited by outsiders.

The ethno-linguistic and administrative framework

Nuristan is one of the remotest provinces in Afghanistan. Its people, numbering an estimated 158,000 for 2018/19 by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) were, until their forceful conversion to Islam in the mid-1890s, non-Muslim. At that point, the province was renamed from Kafiristan (land of the infidels) to Nuristan (land of light) and the people re-named Nuristanis (read a good overview of this period here). However, locals have preserved elements of their pre-Islamic culture.

Livelihoods are based on subsistence farming, animal husbandryand forestry and people typically live in wooden houses on Nuristan’s mountainous slopes in order not to use up scarce agricultural land. Individual settlements are often isolated both from each other and from those in other valleys, as well as from the often token government presence in the district centres. Mohebullah Hamdard, a local journalist, told AAN it still takes days to travel from one valley to another. Various local sources told AAN that most Nuristanis have no interaction even with their district centres. Most decisions are taken by community elders and police are only present in the district centres. (This pattern was the same during Taleban rule when the ‘Islamic Emirate’ also had only a token presence in the province.)

This mountainous province, which borders Laghman and Kunar to the south and the southeast, Panjshir to the west and Badakhshan to the north, consists of three thinly-populated valleys largely isolated from one another. (See a population distribution map here, p 48).

In western Nuristan, in the upper reaches of the Alingar River valley (a tributary of the Kabul River), there are three districts, Mandol, Du-Ab, and Nurgram (also known as Nangarage).

In Central Nuristan, in the Pech River valley (a tributary of the Kunar River) there are two districts: Parun (also known as Prasun), with the eponymous provincial centre, bordering Badahshan to the north, and Wama, bordering Kunar to the east.

Eastern Nuristan, which lies along the Durand line and has Pakistan’s Chitral district to the east, has the Landay Sin River valley (also known Bashgal River), another tributary of the Kunar River and of the Kunar River itself. There are three districts here: Waigal, Kamdesh, and Barg-e Matal (Bargromatal).

Both eastern and central Nuristan share a border with Badakhshan to the north and Kunar to the south. The province’s eastern and central valleys are accessible through Kunar and the western valley through Laghman. The provincial capital, Parun, is hardly accessible from anywhere in the winter months due to heavy snowfall and poor roads. (1)

Nuristanis are widely considered to be a single ethnic group and are mentioned as such in the Afghan national anthem. However, they, in fact, are comprised of various ethnic and sub-ethnic groups, many of them speaking distinct, Indo-European languages, sometimes summarily called Dardic (see a detailed description here). Even specialists disagree on how many there are, counting up to fifteen ethnicities and between five to ten languages. The main ethnic groups are the Kata (speaking Kati) in the mountainous north of both eastern and western Nuristan; the Vasi (also known as Paruni) and the Kalasha in central Nuristan; the Ashkun in the southern, lower part of western Nuristan; and the Kom (speaking Kamviri) in the southern, lower part of eastern Nuristan. There are also non-Nuristani minority populations, Pashai (around 15 per cent of the population), Pashtuns of the Safi tribe and Gujar (see here).