Afghan election panel reports new evidence of serious fraud

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 21, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Internal reports Tuesday from Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission provided new evidence of serious fraud in the country's parliamentary elections, including turnouts that exceeded 100 percent in many southeastern districts under the control of the Taliban or other militants.

One district in Paktika province recorded 626 percent voter turnout, according to reports obtained by McClatchy.

The new indications of fraud appear to strengthen allegations of widespread intimidation, vote rigging and violence that independent Afghan poll monitors began making almost immediately after the polls closed on Saturday and cast new doubts on the commission’s assertion that it knew of no instances in which commission staff members stuffed ballots.

An independent analysis, meanwhile, estimated that the number of violent incidents during Saturday's contests for parliament's 249-seat lower house was higher than it was for last year's fraud-marred presidential election.

The new data on violence and turnout could make it harder for the Obama administration and the international community to portray Afghanistan’s second parliamentary polls since 2001 as a step forward in consolidating the country’s shaky democracy and containing the Taliban and allied insurgents.

Indicium Consulting, a Kabul-based private security analysis firm, estimated that there were as many as 600 insurgent attacks on Saturday, compared to about 450 in the 2009 presidential contest.

“The amount of violence on polling day, especially early morning, was clearly higher this year than during the presidential election, and threats and attacks closed down a fairly huge amount of polling centers,” said Sami Kovanen, Indicium’s senior information analyst.

In a related development, the deaths Tuesday of nine U.S. troops in a helicopter crash made 2010 the deadliest year of the nine-year-old conflict for the U.S.-led coalition, according to the iCasualties website, which tracks casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The toll surpassed last year’s high of 521.

The International Security Assistance Force said no enemy gunfire was reported at the time in the area in southern Zabul province.

The commission polling reports document district-by-district breakdowns of voter turnouts in Paktika, Paktia, Zabul and Ghazni provinces in Saturday’s contests for parliament’s lower house, the Wolesi Jirga.

The reports put the total turnout for the races for the five lower house seats from Paktia at 111.37 percent, with six of 10 districts reporting attendance that exceeded 100 percent and one reporting precisely 100 percent, a glaring indication of fraud.

In Paktika, where the total turnout in the contests for four seats reportedly was 69.09 percent, three of five districts recorded turnouts greater than 100 percent. One of the districts, Warmamai, had 626 percent turnout.

“The situation is terrible,” said a Warmamai resident, who spoke by telephone on condition that his name be withheld to avoid retaliation. “The government controls only the district headquarters compound. There was no real election in all of Paktika.”

In Khost, where the overall turnout in contests for five seats was recorded at 28.39 percent, 107.84 percent of the voters in Terzayi, one of eight districts, reportedly cast ballots. The turnouts in three other districts were less than 2 percent.

The report from Ghazi showed excessively low turnouts in districts dominated by Pashtuns, the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim ethnic group that dominates Afghanistan and the insurgency, in apparent compliance with militants’ warnings to stay home.

The upshot, however, could be serious ethnic tensions, because robust turnouts were reported in Ghazni districts dominated by Hazaras, a long-persecuted Shiite Muslim minority.

The excessive turnout levels recorded in the insurgency-controlled districts of Paktia, Paktika and Khost appeared to reflect the numbers of ballots cast, not the number of people who went the polls, several experts said.

The only way that so many votes could have been cast in such insecure circumstances, they said, was if ballots were stuffed — or allowed to be stuffed — into ballot boxes by election commission staff members being paid by local power barons and using fake voter registration cards as verification.

“The only explanation for these high percentages is that these fake voter registration cards have been used en masse and have been recognized by the IEC staff,” said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “This places the credibility and seriousness of the electoral institutions in question.”

“Those figures should not be published before there has been a serious investigation,” he said.

Last year’s fraud-tainted re-election of President Hamid Karzai was rife with ballot-stuffing by commission staffers, 6,000 of whom were banned from working on this year’s contests.

Jandad Spinghar, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent election watchdog, said the reports made it “very important” for the IEC and the Electoral Complaints Commission, which adjudicates fraud charges, to do a better job this year of weeding out malfeasance.

Zekria Barakzai, the deputy IEC chief, declined to comment directly on the excessive turnouts reported in the southeast districts. He said that the commission would refer all questionable tallies from the 34 provinces to the complaints panel.

“It is a little early to judge this whole process,” he said. (McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)

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