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Polling for chaos

Afghanistan | Opponents of President Hamid Karzai are poised to capitalize on his government's inability to conduct fraud-free elections

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

Afghanistan's parliamentary elections had "high degree of difficulty" written all over them long before they got underway last month. All summer campaign billboards lined the main boulevards in Kabul, as over 2,500 candidates competed for 249 seats in the country's National Assembly.

Political posters dominated main intersections in key cities, featuring large photos of candidates and their assigned number, which turned out to be crucial in sorting out so large a field. And for an electorate that is nearly three-fourths illiterate, there were simplified symbols-three neckties for one candidate, two pairs of shoes for another-as a kind of hieroglyphic system repeated on ballots on election day. The symbols allowed those who can't read to find their man-or woman. A record 386 women ran for office.

Election logistics in Afghanistan are daunting under any circumstance. Ballots had to be loaded on donkeys to reach remote villages. Fatalities and roadside bomb attacks (directed at coalition and Afghan forces as well as Afghan civilians) are at their highest level since war began in 2001: One in six voting stations was closed due to violence. Rocket attacks and bombings marred Sept. 18's election day itself, with at least 21 civilians and nine police officers killed.

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But the extensive field of candidates-plus distrust stemming from last year's contested and fraud-riddled presidential election-fed problems that will make certifying results difficult. At least one candidate had fake ballots printed in neighboring Pakistan. And the owner of a printing house in Peshawar told Radio Free Europe that several candidates submitted orders to him for phony voter registration cards stretching back months before the election.

One independent watchdog group, Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said it had received nearly 1,500 complaints about irregularities, even as the government's Independent Election Commission (IEC) prepared to release preliminary results on Sept. 23. Given the depth of investigations that requires, final results are not expected until the end of October.

"The votes have been counted at the polling center level, but not yet aggregated, and many counts will change as stations are investigated and quarantined," Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, told me two days after the elections.

Bijlert said the IEC "is to their credit quite transparent" in its calculations of voter turnout. But the Sept. 18 turnout-estimated at 40 percent-begs the question: 40 percent of what? A fact sheet put out by the IEC after the vote read: "Calculating the proportion of voters who cast a ballot remains a challenge for electoral authorities in the absence of a voter register, a civil registry, or census statistics." It acknowledged that the number of voter registration cards issued exceeded the estimated number of eligible voters and "thus ceased to be a realistic measure of how many voters could have cast a ballot on Election Day."

Bijlert's preliminary study of results found "evidence of massive ballot-­stuffing" and tally fraud. And voter turnout has steadily dropped-from a high of 7.4 million in the 2004 presidential elections to a low of 3.6 million estimated to have voted on Sept. 18 (nearly 5 million voted in the 2009 presidential election). Those results are discouraging, especially given that the IEC is under new leadership and additional scrutiny following fraudulent activities that accompanied the 2009 presidential election. "One of the main lessons," said Bijlert, "is that observer missions and the media stop paying attention too soon, as the manipulation takes place until the very end."

But some analysts argue that the level of cheating is part of the process of growing a more democratic government. "These campaigns and the election are not simply about winning and losing, but serve as an opportunity for individuals and groups to increase their political capital and, perhaps, in some places, to redefine the balance of power," said Noah Coburn in a report issued by the Kabul-based independent monitoring group, Afghanistan Evaluation and Research Unit. Those shifts also reflect frustration that the National Assembly has to win permission to act from President Hamid Karzai. As one member of parliament told Coburn's group, "We should be monitoring the government but the government does not accept this, and does not allow us to take on this role."

Challenging Karzai openly is one way for so-called conservative Islamic candidates to increase their influence-and possibly their numbers-in parliament. One such parliamentary candidate is Nasto Nadiri. A 27-year-old television host on the nationwide network Noorin TV, he is seemingly emblematic of Afghanistan's emerging press freedom. Yet Nadiri has used his popularity to demand a rollback of individual freedoms and a return to Islamic law. His show, called Sarzamin-E-Man or My Homeland, broadcast footage of Afghan converts being baptized in late May. It was replayed for consecutive days, triggering calls for the arrest and punishment of converts to Christianity, and Nadiri urged Afghans to turn in to authorities names of anyone suspected of conversion. That led to the arrest of Christians (see p. 32) and the suspension of two Christian aid organizations. It also led to an investigation of at least 14 other NGOs and several dozen Afghans suspected of evangelizing Muslims.

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