Observers cautious on calling Afghan election a success

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's second-ever presidential election was marred by vote-rigging, voter intimidation and low turnout in many areas and should not be declared a success until the full extent of problems is known, election monitors and other experts said Saturday.

The warning reflected concern that the United States and its allies, anxious to claim progress after eight years of war, are rushing to endorse a contest that may turn out to be flawed.

"We don't have a sense of the scope of the problem and we don't have a sense of the scale of problem," said Glenn Cowan, the head of a monitoring team from U.S.-based Democracy International. "We know as little now as we did on Wednesday (the day before the election) other than some people in some places got to go out and voted."

The campaigns of President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking a second five-year term, and his nearest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, have both claimed victory and accused the other of fraud. Karzai is favored to win, but it was not clear if he would gain the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff against the runner up. There were 37 candidates on the ballot.

Retired French Army Gen. Phillipe Morrillon, who led the European Union's observer mission, told a news conference that the vote was "a victory for the Afghan people" and "largely positive."

His comments followed President Barak Obama's declaration Friday that the election was "an important step forward in the Afghan people's effort to take control of their future."

Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch, however, said that such statements don't "ring true" for Afghans affected by Election Day attacks or other problems. She called Election Day "one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years."

"There risks being a serious credibility gap which will only serve to increase disillusionment with the effort to create a democracy," she said of Western declarations of success.

Election observers' efforts to oversee the vote were hampered by their inability to go to many districts for security reasons, by the remoteness of much of Afghanistan and by the sheer number of polling stations. Moreover, Afghanistan has no lists of registered voters, and millions of fake and duplicate voter registration cards.

Afghan and international monitoring teams released preliminary reports that found that the Aug. 20 vote was generally fair, but marred by fraud, intimidation, violence and a low turnout in the war-torn southern and eastern homeland of the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

At least 26 Afghan security force members and civilians were killed in Election Day unrest, according to the government.

Election observers cautioned against reaching any conclusion about the election until a panel of three foreigners and two Afghans and the Independent Election Commission finish checking complaints and verifying ballot counts in the 34 provinces. The ballot count was completed on Friday, but preliminary results aren't due till Tuesday.

Turnout appeared to be high in relatively safe northern and western areas of the war-torn country.

But attendance was reportedly extremely low _ perhaps as low at 5 percent _ in some Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern provinces.

Monitors detailed a number of incidents they said marred Election Day, including an incident in Kandahar province, where Taliban fighters cut off two voters' fingers stained with the ink used to prevent duplicate voting.

There were also rocket and mortar attacks on polling stations in a number of provinces and the early closure of some polling stations.

Observers also noted that candidates' representatives were excluded from some polling stations of candidates' representatives, that polling officials pressured people to vote for particular candidates, and that there were many reports of duplicate and under-age voting and proxy voting by men for women.

Mirwais Yasini, the deputy speaker of Parliament's lower house and one of the presidential candidates, turned up at the hotel where the observer missions were staying with two plastic bags containing torn ballots marked in his name and embossed with the Independent Election Commission verification stamp.

He said the ballots were among some 25,000 cast for him in his home district of Spin Boldak, in Kandahar Province, that Border Police officers emptied from ballot boxes and replaced with fake ballots for Karzai.

"These were votes in my favor that were destroyed by Karzai's people," he said. "This is a totally rigged election. This is a disaster."

Morillon said he was aware of allegations that despite low turnout, many ballot boxes were being reported full in some areas of Kandahar Province, where the government is controlled by Karzai's brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

Afghan and Western officials, however, said that they had no indications of systematic fraud, and insisted that there were mechanisms in place that could detect serious vote-rigging.

A senior Western intelligence source, who requested anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak publicly, said more than 500 incidents of insurgent violence nationwide were recorded on the day before the election and on polling day.

But he called the attacks "very, very uncoordinated, unsophisticated and ineffective," he continued. "Ninety-five percent of polling centers were open."

Kenneth Womack, who co-led a U.S.-based National Democratic Institute monitoring mission, said it's still too early to certify that the vote was a success.

"Many of the most serious election-related problems are likely to take place in areas of the country that are the least accessible to observers," he said. "The full extent of such problems may not be known until the results of the polls are carefully analyzed."

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