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The New York Times, August 12, 2010

Unrest Is Undermining Hopes for Afghan Vote

“There’s a good chance most of the seats will be taken by people committing fraud”

By Alissa J. Rubin

KABUL - Worsening insurgent violence in many parts of the country is raising concern about Afghanistan’s ability to hold a fair parliamentary election in little more than a month, a crucial test of President Hamid Karzai’s ability to deliver security and a legitimate government.

After last year’s troubled presidential election, both the government and its foreign supporters are under intense pressure to hold a credible vote for Parliament, scheduled for Sept. 18. Last time, insecurity, inadequate monitoring and rampant fraud led to a drawn-out dispute that soured relations between Mr. Karzai and his Western backers so badly that they have yet to recover the trust lost on both sides.

As American commanders look toward a deadline to begin withdrawing troops next year, they would like the election to show that the government is capable of standing on its own. But already Western diplomats and observers are lowering expectations for the election, while Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and fatalistic about the prospects for democracy.

Security has worsened in many places since last year, making it harder to get Afghan and international election observers to polling centers. Candidates have complained that they cannot reach districts where they need to campaign because it is too dangerous.

A voting card distribution centre in the heart of Kabul has been favouring certain parliamentary election candidates, Pajhwok has reliably learnt.
On last Friday (August 6), a closed holiday, a Pajhwok reporter saw police allowing supporters of particular parliamentary candidates to receive the cards after paying bribes.
In order to learn what was going on inside the centre, the Pajhwok reporter tried to enter, posing as a voter. But the policemen on duty refused to let him in.
After paying 330 afghanis in bribe, police let him enter the centre. He learnt that 10 people had been let in at the behest of Naeem, a campaigner for Qader Zazai. They had paid 1,000 afghani as a bribe.
Naeem told the reporter he would be allowed to enter the centre whenever he wanted, if he promised to vote in favour of Zazai.
PAN, Aug. 9, 2010

“In the south there will be no free, fair, acceptable elections,” said Haroun Mir, a political analyst, who is running for Parliament in Kabul. “You cannot open most sites there and guarantee security — so in half the country there will not be a safe election.”

Those areas, he said, now also include Kunduz and Baghlan Provinces in the northeast. Nearby Badakhshan, where 10 aid workers were killed last week, now also appears troubled, and there are pockets of instability in the northwest as well.

One of the biggest concerns is that the insecurity will open fresh opportunities for fraud, especially for the creation of so-called ghost polling centers. The presidential election last year was marred by numerous cases in which hundreds of ballots were recorded for a single candidate — usually Mr. Karzai — in places where no one had actually voted. Election officials ended up throwing out more than a million votes.

At the time, diplomats and international observers underestimated the potential for widespread fraud until it was too late. Once hundreds of complaints surfaced, they took Mr. Karzai to task, something the Afghan leader considered an embarrassment and a betrayal, officials who know him say.

This time, international officials are taking a long step back from the elections, emphasizing that they are “Afghan led,” partly in hopes of distancing themselves from any questionable outcome.

But that may be hard to do if fraud is rampant once again, placing the more than 130,000 coalition forces here in the awkward position of acting as guarantors of the survival and stability of a government of increasingly dubious legitimacy.

Even so, many international analysts say a high level of fraud may be impossible to prevent, especially since these elections are for provincial representatives, and even a relatively small number of illicit ballots could shift the outcomes.

“There’s a good chance most of the seats will be taken by people committing fraud,” said Martine van Bijlert, a longtime observer of Afghanistan and a co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

The United Nations is playing a supporting role in the election, but its officials are speaking up early about potential problems, trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s problems.

“We know it’s not Switzerland,” said Staffan de Mistura, the special representative to the United Nations secretary general for Afghanistan. “But I am concerned, and I am raising a yellow flag.”

He said it was crucial that the government make sure that ballots are secure from the time they leave warehouses in Kabul until they are returned there for a final count, and for the government to be honest about how many polling centers the security forces can actually safeguard.

The goal is “to secure the chain of custody of sensitive election materials,” Mr. de Mistura said. That may mean the government will have to admit that there are large areas it does not control, he said. “One has to be honest about this; there is no harm in saying frankly, ‘We cannot secure those polling centers.’ ”

Last year, in many cases, provincial officials — including even election officials and the police — were found to be complicit in carrying out much of the fraud. Four provincial election officers were removed and either are under investigation or have fled the country.

Under heavy international pressure, Mr. Karzai replaced the two top officials of the Afghan Independent Election Commission in April under a cloud of scandal and charges that they were too close to him.

The new chairman, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, a judge and mullah by training, has received high marks from international election experts as well as Afghan candidates.

His commission agrees with United Nations officials that much of the fraud last time was made possible because the police and the army did not decide which polling places they could guard until just a couple of days before the election. That meant that balloting materials were sent to provincial or district capitals, where they were subject to manipulation by local officials.

It also made it harder for observers and voters to know the location of polling centers and for the local police to guard them. Some polling places never actually opened, making it easy for ballots and boxes to be diverted, several international election analysts said.

This year, the election commission will make the final decision on which polling places will open. But the security forces have already sent a list of 6,800 polling places that they say they can guard, even more than the 5,800 last year.

Many observers, including Mr. de Mistura of the United Nations, say that is probably too many. That is why he is encouraging the government to admit the limitations of the areas it controls.

“I know it may require an act of reality and an act of honesty,” he said, “but I prefer this to saying to the electorate, ‘Everything is fine,’ and then having ghost polling stations.”

In addition, the commission has laid out several conditions, which United Nations officials endorse, to try to prevent fraud.

It wants all sites that are supposed to open to actually open.

It wants security officials to be present from the beginning to the end of the process, so there is no time when ballots will be unattended.

And it wants the security forces — the police and the army — to remain neutral, and avoid engaging in or facilitating fraud on anyone’s behalf.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a nongovernmental election monitoring organization, will have observers in roughly 60 percent of polling centers, said Ahmad Nader Nadery, its chairman. That leaves those parts of the country that are most insecure almost certainly without observers.

For its part, Mr. Karzai’s government appears to be more focused on keeping polling places safe on election day than on preventing fraud.

“Security is a concern,” said Waheed Omar, the president’s spokesman, “but what is important, and what the president will emphasize to all Afghan security forces and international partners, is to secure the election.”

Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting.

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