KABUL, Afghanistan — Thirteen months after their fraud-scarred presidential elections, Afghans head to the polls Saturday to vote for a new lower house of parliament. It's a high stakes endeavor that could roil the war-ravaged nation's political scene still further — or conceivably help stabilize it.
If the voting proceeds with minimal violence and vote-rigging, it could restore some of the legitimacy that President Hamid Karzai lost in his re-election last year and bolster support for his embattled government and U.S.-led security forces.
But if the polls are marred — as many fear — by a repetition of the bloodshed and fraud of August 2009, popular anger could intensify against the corruption-tainted government and against Western-style democracy. This could boost sympathy for the Taliban-led insurgency with its goal of re-establishing Islamic rule, and complicate the Obama administration's search for a way out of the increasingly costly nine-year-old war.
Karzai's reputation suffered a further blow this month following the revelation of a major corruption scandal involving a major Kabul bank.
"The government has already lost its credibility," said Quorban Ali, 27, as he waited with other laborers to be hired for a day's work at a traffic-choked Kabul intersection festooned with campaign posters. "People will join the ranks of the Taliban" in the event of another electoral fiasco.
"The government and the international community will lose their credibility if there is trouble," chimed in Rohullah Hamas, a 19-year-old student.
Such an outcome would deepen the dilemma facing the Obama administration and its European allies. Their plans to extricate their 150,000 troops from Afghanistan hinge on being able to transfer territory to the control of a relatively stable Afghan government beginning next year.
Whatever happens in the polling process, the results are likely to be disputed in many constituencies, hampering the seating of the new parliament. Another critical factor is the reaction of the United States and its European partners, which last year endorsed the outcome of Karzai's fraud-marred election.
"The international community, so eager to demonstrate progress, will feel obliged to declare (the polls) a success," said a Western official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "This, in turn, only fuels contempt for the international community, alienates ordinary Afghans from their elected leadership, and weakens Karzai by making him simply the strongest of the weak, corrupt, and fraudulent."
"All of this, of course, strengthens the resolve and recruiting base of the insurgency," the Western official continued. "In short, there is great potential that Afghan citizens, Afghan institutions, the presidency, and the international community will all lose as a result of this election."
A study of the 2009 presidential election released Saturday by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a respected think tank, warned that "fraud is likely to again be blatant, unsophisticated and widespread" in many parliamentary contests.
The electoral procedures are "highly likely" to collapse again, said the study, which alleged that in addition to rigging in the field, large-scale manipulation last year occurred at the time the votes were being tabulated within the central administration of the Independent Election Commission.
The polls had been scheduled to take place in May, and Western countries, which are paying the $150 million costs, had sought a further delay beyond September in light of the intensifying war and concerns about the integrity of electoral procedure. .
But the U.S. and other donors ultimately agreed with Karzai to proceed on grounds that a further postponement was more damaging to their efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
"Not holding them holds major consequences for the democratization of this country," said Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation, an independent poll-monitoring coalition of civil society groups.
"We have a very large number of candidates who are running for office. They are running campaigns, they are taking risks, they have raised finances," he said. "To honor their risks and the interests of those who want to vote for them, we have to go ahead."
More than 2,500 candidates are competing in the second elections since the 2001 U.S. invasion for the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the two-chamber parliament. Some 17 million people are registered to vote, although an estimated 5 million hold counterfeit or duplicate voting cards.
The polls are proceeding amid the worst fighting of the war, with U.S.-led forces striving to subdue the Taliban's southern stronghold and the insurgents escalating attacks elsewhere, expanding to areas that had been relatively peaceful.
The deeply unpopular Karzai, meanwhile, is embroiled in new scandals involving alleged corruption by a top aide and a government takeover of Kabul Bank, the nation's largest private bank, in which one of his brothers is a leading shareholder.
The Taliban have vowed to sabotage the elections. They have killed three candidates and 11 campaign workers in a widespread intimidation campaign that is expected to keep turnout low, especially among Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the insurgency in the south and east.
The Independent Election Commission has ordered 1,019 of 6,835 polling centers closed because there aren't enough security forces to protect them, leaving more than 1 million mostly rural voters with the choice of staying home or risking a dangerous trip to the nearest operating center.
The move is also aimed at averting a repetition of a practice in which officials and polling staff last year stuffed an estimated 1.2 million fake ballots mostly for Karzai at polling centers where the threat of violence kept voters away.
The election commission has taken other steps to reduce malfeasance by tightening the distribution of blank ballots and publishing polling center locations well in advance, unlike last year, when "ghost" polling stations enhanced the massive fraud.
"The commission has done a much better job in terms of safeguards," said Jed Ober of Democracy International, a U.S.-based organization that is fielding monitoring teams.
Experts worry, however, that there will still be serious fraud and violence.
Local contests involving numerous candidates are more prone than a presidential election to the use of force by local powerbrokers seeking a seat for themselves, a relative or an associate, they said.
Malalai Ishaqzai, a lower house member who backed former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah's bid to oust Karzai last year, said she decided to seek a seat in Kabul out of fear that the president's powerful half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, would sabotage her re-election to a seat in Kandahar Province.
"It's not a security problem," said Ishaqzai, a girls' school principal. "The votes of the Kandahar people who vote for me wouldn't be counted."
Some experts worry about the decree Karzai issued in February that effectively gave him control of the Electoral Complaints Commission, a panel that adjudicates fraud allegations and exposed last year's massive vote-tampering.
The commission "has yet to prove that it is operating independently and professionally" said Nadery.
Some of the country's most notorious warlords, many of them suspected of war crimes and other abuses, also are being allowed to run despite a vetting process that is supposed to exclude candidates who command illegal armed groups.
Violence "will be much worse than last year," warned Sen. Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy education minister named to Parliament's upper house after he returned from Pakistan in 2004. "In every district there will be disputes. Trust in the government will be decreased significantly and people who support the government will be seen with more suspicion."
Fraud-riddled polling "will impact negatively on the idea of democracy, and the enemy will use it to make propaganda," Rahmani continued. "The Taliban are ready to make every kind of sacrifice to discredit this government and the international community led by the Americans."
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