Karzai's race is over, but Afghanistan's provincial races linger on

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2009 

MAHMUD-I-RAQI, Afghanistan — Hamid Karzai may be Afghanistan's next president — the result of ballot rigging and his opponent's withdrawal from a runoff — but Afghanistan's elections are far from over.

In the 34 provinces, legions of frustrated candidates who took part in district elections on Aug. 20 are still awaiting a final outcome. They say that the results of provincial balloting, which occurred the same day as the disputed presidential race, were skewed by insurgent violence, voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing and misconduct.

"There were people saying that if you give $20,000, we can make you a member of the council," said Abdul Wahab, a provincial councilman who in preliminary results lost his bid for reelection in Kapisa province in central Afghanistan.

The Taliban issued repeated threats on Wahab's life, and once tried to ambush him, in an effort to block his campaign. On election day, they prevented the delivery of many of the ballot boxes. No votes were recorded in Wahab's district.

Provincial candidates have filed 640 high-priority complaints — Wahab's among them — with the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which is investigating them before issuing final results.

Because the outcome can hinge on small numbers of votes from a single district, the provincial polls are even more vulnerable to manipulation than the presidential election is. The high-priority complaints — those that might alter the election outcome — span most of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Because Karzai appoints governors, these councils comprise the only elected politicians at the provincial level. Their powers are limited, lacking even the authority to approve or shape the budgets allocated by the central government.

Yet U.N. and NATO officials hoped these provincial elections would produce a new crop of leaders who'd become partners in the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, and also help root out the endemic corruption in the Karzai administration.

Provincial candidates are getting impatient waiting for these final results. In Nangahar province late last month, candidates who alleged widespread fraud held a press conference to call for a new provincial election and prosecution of those who stuffed the ballot boxes. They warned of protests in villages throughout the province if their demands aren't met, according to Pajwok Afghan News.

"We are treating these complaints as equally important as presidential election complaints," said Scott Worden, an American who serves on the Electoral Complaints Commission. "It is important to resolve these so that . . . local governments can be seen as legitimately elected."

Many of the problems that roiled provincial elections appear to have converged in Kapisa, which is about 30 miles north of Kabul, and just east of Bagram air base, which houses the largest concentration of U.S. and other NATO troops. In one Kapisa district, election day violence shut down voting, and elsewhere, candidates allege that government officials put seats up for sale.

Kapisa, with a population of about 360,000, encompasses a plateau that offers spectacular mountain backdrops that hint of the American West, but with nomads who set up tents in some of the farm fields, and camels.

Four of Kapisa's six districts, including the capital city of Mahmud-i-Raqi, are considered relatively stable. In two other districts, Tagab and Alasai, insurgents have made big gains in the past two years, however.

This summer, insurgents ambushed French forces and set roadside bombs, now one of the deadliest weapons of the war. By September, seven French soldiers had died in Kapisa, and 35 had been wounded.

"We hope that we will have the means to improve the situation in the winter," said Col. Francis Chanson, who commands some 800 French troops in the province. "Then we will be ready (for the Taliban offensive) in the spring.

On Monday, insurgents fired rockets into the Tagab market, killing 13 civilians and wounding 38, an apparent attempt to disrupt a shura, or meeting, between the Afghan national police, a high level provincial official and French officers to discuss security in the area.

Abdul Wahab said Tagab and Alasai districts have fewer clinics and other facilities than the provincial capital does, and it's one reason the Pashtun and Pashai ethnic minorities in these districts feel left out of the regional government.

"The enemy has used this for good propaganda," said Wahab, a Pashai from the Alasai district whose base of support was largely among his ethnic group there.

Wahab once worked as prosecutor in Alasai. He quit that job in 2005 and ran successfully for the council seat in hopes of serving as a bridge, he said, between the Pashai and the provincial government.

Winning a high-profile political post proved perilous, however. Wahab faced so many insurgent threats in his home district that he moved his family to the provincial capital. He still needed to campaign in his home district this summer, but his campaign visits grew increasingly dangerous.

On one foray home, Wahab got word of a Taliban plot to kill him on the return road trip to the capital. So he took a circuitous route that involved ditching his car and hiking through the backcountry for six hours.

On election day, insurgents killed one policeman and injured another in Alasai District. The fighting was so intense that many ballot boxes never got sent to the polling places, and voters didn't show up at the polls, he said.

The thwarted election in Alasai is reflected in the records of the Afghan Election Commission, which recorded no votes in the district.

That was a huge blow to Wahab, who in a 2005 election had gathered most of his 2,780 votes in his district. He's reported his concerns to the Electoral Complaints Commission.

There also are allegations that the Kapisa provincial election was undermined by corruption.

One unsuccessful candidate, Moustafa, who like many Afghans uses only one name, told McClatchy that a government employee solicited a bribe in exchange for enough votes to win. He said he filed a complaint about that with the electoral commission.

"I refused, but this request was made to other people, as well," said Moustafa, who declined to say how much money he was asked to pay, or what government agency was involved in soliciting the bribe.

Wahab said he heard plenty of reports from Moustafa and others about the bribery solicitations but was never directly approached. He alleges that some of those who won had scant voter support.

Wahab doesn't have much hope that complaints will change the outcome in Kapisa, so he's preparing to leave his office in a fortified compound, and is looking for a job that can support his wife and four children.

Wahab's home district offers the best chance of employment. One day, he hopes that the insurgency will fade away, and he can resettle there. A quick return could be a death sentence, though.

"The Taliban have called me three times and threatened me," Wahab said. "They say if they catch me, they will kill me."

(Bernton reports for the Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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