BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Upcoming elections are the big story -- in the U.S., in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. Each country faces a different set of dangers. In the U.S., it's the specter of hanging chads, queasiness over voting electronically for the first time, and a campaign marked by mud-slinging. In Iraq, it is fear of proceeding with a partial election, because a real election seems less and less likely amid the violence. And in Afghanistan, where elections are slated for October 9th, the danger appears to be that the Taliban will take extreme measures to thwart the process despite, as President Bush reminds us, the exciting prospect of approximately 10 million registered voters. Pamela Constable is the author of Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia. She's reported for years from Afghanistan for the Washington Post. Pam, welcome back.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where do ordinary people get most of their information in Afghanistan?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: That's a very good question. Unfortunately, the answer is -- they don't. Radio probably is the most important medium in a country like Afghanistan, with very high rates of illiteracy and very few newspapers and very difficult transportation. But, you know, many, many people are very badly-informed about everything, including what's happening in their own country. There are many people in Afghanistan who don't even know there's going to be an election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What passes for media coverage of the election and the candidates there, then?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yeah, it's so bizarre. I mean there really is not any election campaign going on here. It's almost hard to describe. If you could imagine, you know, a typical sort of American or Western election with candidates giving speeches and the debates and going on TV or radio and talking and having slogans and platforms and reporters and cheers -- there's absolutely none of that. I remember thinking two weeks ago -- oh, my God, you know, there's 18 candidates and 34 provinces -- what am I going to do? Well, as it turned out so far, I was more than adequate to do the job. This is an eerily silent campaign. People are afraid to have public rallies or events, or they can't afford it. Very little traveling by the candidates. Very little of anything we would consider essential to holding an election in terms of the recognition of the candidates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How can they even know about the 17 candidates and who they should select?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: They don't. There have been posters printed of each candidate, with assistance from the United Nations, and those are everywhere --everywhere you go, even in small villages, you do see posters. So that's something. There's a huge list of problems. Lack of information is certainly one of them. There's the problem of lack of polling monitors. There's going to be the problem of getting ballots and ballot boxes to the voters, and then from the voters and polls to the places where they're going to be counted. I don't really know how you could get more information to people. It's such a-- it's a country with, you know, many, many rural, isolated areas. It's going to be an amazing miracle, actually, if the election happens at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have been told by the Bush administration that about 10 million people have registered to vote. Skeptics say there aren't that many people in the country. So-- can we even reliably know what the population of that nation is?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: No, we don't. There has not been a census in a very long time. There is no reliable estimate of the population. It was estimated that there would be approximately 10 million people of voting age in the country, and as you said, all of those - and more - appear to have registered. [LAUGHTER] I'd be careful, though, not to necessarily call it fraud, in the classic sense of the word. In many cases people did not understand what the registration was for. Many people, especially women, who are illiterate and don't know anything about politics in many cases, thought they were getting a food ration card. Therefore, if they had a chance to sign up twice, they would do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any sense in the media there, Pam, that these elections are being rushed in order to suit the election cycle here in the United States?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It's a comment that one hears all the time, from everyone -- that the whole reason this election is being held, and held now, is to make the United States happy, and to provide a foreign policy success for the Bush administration. The American officials here, of course, say that that's not true; that they simply want the best possible outcome. You know, I think there's a case to be made both ways. It is clearly true that a successful Afghan election would help the Bush administration's image, but I think that this election probably would have happened anyway. You know, what's amazing to me is that most Afghans still want to vote at all. They may not understand the election. They may be poorly prepared for it. They might not even know who the candidates are -- but there's a very strong feeling in this country that it's an opportunity to choose their own leaders. I think almost all Afghans understand that, and they want to take part in that, no matter what.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Pam, thanks very much.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pamela Constable covers Afghanistan for the Washington Post. Her latest book is Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia.