Violence and corruption still dog Afghan elections

Violence and corruption still dog Afghan elections

The 2010 vote has been declared a success but civilians faced widespread intimidation, closed stations, poor organisation and fighting throughout the country
Jon Boone

Afghans Go To the Polls For Parliamentary Elections
Many polling stations had no female staff, making it impossible for women in conservative areas to vote Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Rarely have the small, decrepit classrooms of Pul-e-Charkhi High School seen such rowdy behaviour as yesterday, when screaming election officials, soldiers and civilians came close to a fight.
At issue was how dozens of civilians were going to vote after some 800 soldiers marched into the school on the eastern edge of Kabul, where seven classrooms were supposed to be available for voting but only two had been opened because someone had forgotten to send enough ballot papers.
“These soldiers are here to stop us voting for Pashtun candidates!” said local resident Khaliq Noor furiously of the long line of red beret-wearing Afghan commandos.
“In the insecure areas of the south, people can’t vote because of al-Qaida, but in Kabul we have an internal al-Qaida who won’t let us vote!” he added.
At another nearby polling station in a mosque and madrassa complex, voters proceeded smartly from the cardboard voting booths to the ablution area for worshippers, where they set about removing the supposedly permanent ink stains from their right index fingers.
It is now a traditional part of the Afghan electoral process for the alleged resistance of indelible ink to even the most caustic of domestic chemicals to be publicly demonstrated a couple of days before the polls by a top foreign diplomat (this year, as last, it was the head of the UN mission), only for the supposed safeguard against double-voting to fail almost immediately. At the Siraj Ulom madrassa, it took little more than water and some vigorous rubbing of fingers against the concrete surroundings.
“I have to get the ink off before I go home,” said Ahmed Khalid, a labourer who had travelled from Sarobi, an hour’s drive to the east, where the presence of insurgents forced the closure of many polling stations. “If the Taliban see this, they will kill me or cut off my finger.”
The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan estimated that 1,584 polling centres opened late and that entire provinces lacked female election staff, making it impossible for most women in conservative areas to vote. It also reported 224 acts of “serious intimidation” against voters by insurgents, powerbrokers and candidates in the first four hours of voting.
Despite the violence, and the breakdown of the most basic anti-fraud mechanisms, the fourth set of national elections held in Afghanistan since 2001 was on track to be pronounced a success. That is because the Afghan government and its international backers have been at pains to set the bar of success low – extremely low.
In recent days, President Hamid Karzai has echoed the language of most western diplomats by wearily accepting that while “irregularities” were inevitable, the process of picking 249 MPs would not be worse than last year.
However, 20 August 2009 turned into one of the most violent days ever in Afghanistan. Turnout was feeble. More than 1 million votes were stolen (probably more), with most going to Karzai. The reports of violence around the country that reached Kabul by evening were bad, but not as awful as last year. By those standards, yesterday was progress.
The Taliban said in an emailed statement that they had attacked 150 polling stations across the country, including in northern Takhar province where they claimed to have killed three police and wounded four more in “hard fighting”.
Some 153 polling stations had to be closed because of security problems, according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC), in addition to the 900-plus it last month decided would not open because they were in areas that were too dangerous.
But the bigger question of parliament’s legitimacy, which will be greatly damaged if it is revealed fraud was as widespread as last year, will take weeks, possibly months to uncover, according the IEC’s own laborious timetable for certifying results.
Even if fraud is declared to be less prevalent than last year, it looks likely that turnout will be much lower – in many polling stations in Kabul voters were vastly outnumbered by candidate agents. And there were many indications of fraud, including the discovery of a car in the eastern province of Paktia carrying 1,600 fake voting cards.

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