UNAMA Year in Review June 2009: Preparations for elections and the best wheat harvest in Afghanistan

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Campaigning for the presidential and provincial polls kicked off on 16 June 2009, with 41 presidential hopefuls and over 3,000 provincial candidates competing for the 20 August elections.

On the eve of the campaign, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, stressed the need to ensure that the elections would be credible and their results accepted by all, noting that the candidates could contribute by campaigning with "dignity and fairness."

"It is the shared responsibility of all candidates to ensure that these elections strengthen Afghanistan's democratic institutions and people's confidence in the democratic process," Mr Eide noted in a statement issued in Kabul.

As thousands of colourful posters and banners lined the streets of towns and cities across Afghanistan, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body constitutionally assigned to manage the first Afghan-led elections, and the international community, also, began their own preparations for the forthcoming polls.

The IEC, for instance, commenced a huge country-wide voter education campaign with more than 1,600 civic educators speaking to groups of people about the election. A special elections telephone hotline that was set up grew in popularity, receiving as many as 25,000 calls a week from a questioning electorate.

The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) also began training its staff and sent out 76 provincial complaints officers into the 34 provinces of Afghanistan to start the process of receiving, reviewing and adjudicating on complaints.

Not to be left behind, the Media Commission, composed of five members started keeping a watchful eye on televisions, radio stations, and newspapers everywhere, as they covered the August polls.

With the elections only two months away, training for election observer groups also commenced in June. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), one of the biggest organizations in the country observing the elections was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP/ELECT), employed about 8,000 people.

"We will be able to cover about 70 per cent of all polling stations," said FEFA's Jandad Spinghar.

A major UNDP/ELECT and European Union Police Mission (EUPOL) programme to train 35,000 police officers in time for the elections also got underway, with officers being readied to tackle security threats and to provide the necessary cover to enable voters to come out confidently and cast their ballots.

While election preparations were in full swing, progress was being made in other areas as well. The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) announced Afghanistan was seeing its best wheat harvest in 32 years.

According to MAIL/FAO estimates, overall cereal production in 2009 would rise to 6.3 million tons in 2009, up by 74 per cent from last year. Of this, wheat would account for a majority of the produce, with yield up by 63 per cent.

"The main reason for this year's bumper harvest is the heavy rainfall in March and April," said Asif Rahimi, the Minister of Agriculture.

The United Nations also marked World Refugee Day on 20 June. This day has great importance for Afghanistan, which is the world's largest returnee-receiving country. Since 2002, more than 4.36 million refugees have come back to Afghanistan with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Afghans have been returning from Iran and Pakistan since the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.

"In December, this year, it will be 30 years since the start of the Afghan refugee crisis. It is among the most complex and protracted of all refugee situations, except the Palestinian refugees," said Nader Farhad, UNHCR's Spokesperson in Kabul.

Meantime, the new Deputy-Representative of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Peter Galbraith, arrived in Afghanistan to lead UNAMA's political arm. Mr Galbraith, who was the first US Ambassador to Croatia in the 1990s, took over from Canadian diplomat Chris Alexander.

By Aditya Mehta, UNAMA