Clashes, and threats, spook Afghan voters

KABUL — Election day in Afghanistan began with a bang. Several of them, actually. Multiple IED explosions in Kabul caused little damage, but made the point that this time, the opposition was not making idle threats when they vowed to disrupt the elections for president and provincial council.

All over the capital, polling centers stood nearly empty.

“Maybe everyone is drinking tea, or sleeping,” said Abdul Mubir, manager of a polling centre in the Kart-e-Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul. “They may come later.”

But Nilo, an election observer for Hamid Karzai, was not so hopeful. She sat alone in a polling station reserved for women — only one had come by 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes after the polling centre opened.

“People are afraid, and they are staying home,” she said.

A news blackout by the Afghan government prohibited Afghan media from covering violence, but reports from all over the country indicated that major cities were being rocketed, there were sporadic clashes between Taliban and government forces, and, most damaging of all, polling centers throughout the country stood empty or were closed altogether.

It did not make for a successful start to what is being widely touted as “the most complicated elections ever.”

Results are not expected for several days; the deadline for preliminary results is Sept. 3. Exit polls are not in the Afghan tradition, and most voters, emerging from polling stations with ink-stained fingers, were reluctant to talk about their choice.

“I am voting for my country’s destiny,” said Attaullah Yaqubi, who described himself as a staff member of a local non-governmental organization.

 “I am not satisfied with what has been happening in my country.” Asked whether he had faith in the legitimacy of the elections, he pursed his lips and shook his head.

“There will be fraud,” he said. “Also, these coalitions of candidates and political figures – they are just trading the people’s future.”

The two major candidates — incumbent President Hamed Karzai and former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — have both made some pretty serious alliances over the past few months.

But Karzai, the undisputed master of such political sleight-of-hand, is way ahead. He received backing from two major power brokers in Afghanistan — Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hajji Mohammad Mohaqeq, both of whom ran against him during his first campaign, in 2004.

Dostum, a notorious warlord who had been effectively exiled to Turkey after assaulting a political rival and defying police attempts to arrest him, made a triumphant return to Afghanistan on Monday, just in time to sew up the vote in the north for Karzai. In His native Jowzjan province, as well as in neighbouring Sar-e-Pul and Faryab, Dostum’s well-organized team was busing voters to the polls, exhorting them to vote for Karzai, of course.

The elections will undoubtedly be marred by fraud. Election experts have been debating the “acceptable level of falsification” for weeks. Most agree that, as long as it is not more than 10 percent, the results should not be skewed one way or another.

“This is Afghanistan, after all,” shrugged one, speaking privately.

But it is highly unlikely that the tens of thousands of election observers will be able to trace the full scale of vote rigging during the election. The bulk of the fraud is likely to occur in areas where no observers are able to go — the highly volatile provinces in the south and east.

Journalists in Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, Ghazni, Logar, and Wardak have all reported minimal turnout and escalating violence. But security forces and government officials have insisted that the situation is fine and the ballot is proceeding normally.

In many of these areas, local officials have spent the past month collecting and copying voter registration cards. With no one looking over their shoulders, it will not be difficult to stuff ballot boxes with votes for a specific candidate. 

The fraud is virtually untraceable, and has the added advantage of boosting turnout numbers, giving added legitimacy to the final results. Election experts estimate that up to 20 percent of the vote — two to three million ballots — could be compromised in this manner.

More modest means of tweaking the vote have also been recorded. Numerous media outlets have reported on the easy availability of fake voter cards — at prices ranging from $1 to $5. And voters from several provinces have reported that the two main “fraud prevention” mechanisms — indelible ink and hole punchers — are failing.

A voter is asked to dip his or her finger in a bottle of indelible ink, in order to prevent multiple voting by one person. But election insiders have told GlobalPost that, out of the approximately 50,000 bottles of ink imported for the occasion, only one was actually tested for its indelible qualities.

“I was able to clean the ink off my finger with just a bit of spit,” said Firuza, 20, a voter in Kapisa province. Another voter in Kapisa, Hamed, had the same experience, which he reported to the provincial governor.

“Don’t tell the media,” was the only response.

Once a voter has received a ballot, his or her voter registration card is punched through, in order to prevent multiple voting with one card. But in at least one province, Kapisa again, no hole punchers were to be found.

“They didn’t work,” lamented one election worker.

Most polling stations had one or more Afghan election observers, representing one or another of the candidates, or the several organizations that are involved in organization and monitoring. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan both had a visible presence.

But conspicuously absent were the 200 or so international observers who have been brought in at great expense to vouch for the legitimacy of the elections. The European Union has sent in slightly more than 100, the United States about the same.

The observers, who live in heavily guarded compounds and cannot travel without multiple guards and body armor, will not be observing much. They are restricted to their hotels, or, in rare instances where they have been sent to volatile provinces, to the military bases in their areas. 

“We are locked down,” said one European observer.

Regardless of the multimillion-dollar fig leaf supplied by the international observation team, it is the Afghans themselves who will have the final say on the credibility of the vote.

“I voted for my candidate, but nobody inked my finger or punched my card,” said Taiba Zahedi, a senator from Herat Province. “It is not clear to me whether this election will be fair.”