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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/AFGHANISTAN: Poll Fraud Probe Will Decide Runoff

KABUL, Sep 2 2009 (IPS) - Partial results in Afghanistan’s presidential polls tend to favour President Hamid Karzai with Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, trailing in second place. Kabul lawmaker Ramazan Basherdost who is at third place, seems to have garnered more votes than former World Bank economist, Dr. Ashraf Ghani.

6.5 million Afghans voted in the Aug. 20 presidential election Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

6.5 million Afghans voted in the Aug. 20 presidential election Credit: Najibullah Musafer/Killid

With a majority of polling stations yet to announce their results, and investigations into major fraud complaints underway, the contest is still wide open.

Whoever the winner, unless that candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be inevitable.

Daud Ali Najafi, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), says that his agency is prepared for such an eventuality. “The preliminary work of the second round, such as designing ballot papers, is already well under way,” says Najafi.

Richard S. Williamson, of the International Republican Institute, a USAID-backed election monitoring group, says that if the election does go to a second round the technical issues that plagued the first round of elections – such as lack of hole punches for ballots – “should not arise.”

CountdownWhile it will be weeks until the complete results of the Afghan elections are announced, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) says that it is has nearly completed counting presidential votes from the majority of provinces.

Daud Ali Najafi, head of the IEC, says that the votes are in from 30 provinces. “Provincial vote counting from Kabul, Herat, Baghlan and Nangrahar is slow because there were so many candidates.”

The IEC wants to declare a winner as soon as possible, but the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), an independent body sponsored by the U.N., will not certify the election results until they have investigated dozens of election-related complaints that could affect the outcome of the contest.

Grant Kippon, head of the ECC says that there is no fixed deadline for certification of the results and his organisation will take “as long as we need” to complete the process. “We are the ones who have to certify the election results,” Kippon says.

It is unclear whether the IEC will adhere to the rules laid down before the election. According to Afghan election law, if there is to be a runoff it must be held two weeks after the original election is certified.

Overall, election monitoring groups were satisfied with the electoral process, despite violence, threats against voters and widespread corruption. They are quick to point out, however, that though the elections were fair, the freedom of voters was severely restricted.

“Thursday’s (Aug. 20) elections were fair,” says Phillip Moran, head of a European team of 300 election observers. “But they were not free.”

Grant Kippon, head of the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), says that over 225 complaints were filed immediately after the election. Of these, 150 have been sorted through and approximately 35 were assigned “high priority,” meaning that if true, these allegations could affect the outcome of the contest.

The complaints run the gamut from ballot stuffing, tampering with ballot boxes, problems with indelible ink, non-IEC personnel present at polling stations, polling stations opening late, and voters being threatened to vote for a particular candidate.

Kippon also says that many of the complaints came from Kandahar, Ghazni, Wardak and Kunduz provinces.

The ECC investigation process involves teams of 250 investigators in provinces throughout Afghanistan, who will look into complaints and then send results to the ECC office in Kabul.

“All complaints that could potentially affect the outcome of the election will be dealt with in a thorough manner,” Kippon said at a press conference, days after the election.

Kippon and others in the ECC say that they will look into all irregularities, whether ECC receives an official complaint or not.

The Fair Elections Federation of Afghanistan (FEFA) says that participation in this year’s election was as low as 20 percent in the troubled regions of Afghanistan. The northern part of the country saw much higher turnouts while in the south, voters stayed home out of fear for their lives.

Throughout the country, polls were allowed to stay open for an hour past the original closing time of 4 p.m. Analysts on a Killid national radio broadcast, said that people all over Afghanistan were frightened of what a trip to the polls might bring.

Analyst Ustad Habibullah Rafi said that “no positive or major change has come to people’s lives, so people do not want to participate in elections. But what participation is taking place should be appreciated.”

The registration numbers alone tell the tale of how Afghan participation has changed since the last election. In 2004, 12 million Afghans were registered to vote. This year the number of voting cards delivered went up to 17 million, though only estimated 6.5 million people voted.

In Kabul alone there were many clashes between Afghan security forces and insurgent fighters. Explosions rocked the 5th, 7th and 12th police districts of the city. The 8th district was the site of a fierce battle, perhaps the longest military engagement in the country on Election Day.

Punch tools – small, hand-held pliers used to indicate that a voting card has been used– were in short supply on Election Day. Many of the punch tools that were available did not work properly and election officials were forced to use scissors or other sharp objects to mark the cards.

These inefficiencies led to voter fraud. In Takhar province, one man admitted to Radio Killid that he voted three times with two cards because the punch tools were not working. He says that no one at the polling station seemed to mind.

Najafi, head of the IEC, says that he raised this issue with polling centres prior to the election, but still no steps were taken to rectify the situation.

A lack of indelible ink was also apparent as soon as the polls opened. At one north Kabul polling station, poll workers delayed the start of polling for almost two hours while they awaited a delivery of ink.

Substandard ink was also a problematic hurdle to fair elections. Many voters complained that the ink washed off shortly after it was applied, making vote fraud an easy game.

Basherdost who voted at Kabul’s Habiba High School noticed that the ink did not stay long on his finger. “This is clear fraud,” the candidate said, holding up his finger for journalists to see. Bashardost also filed an official complaint with the ECC.

The IEC’s Azizullah Lodeen first rejected that these things even happened. After Killid gave him concrete evidence, Lodeen backtracked, admitting that these things happened but “this is not a common problem. Perhaps it happened once or twice. Also, these people could have used special chemicals to remove the ink.”

(*The story moved Sep. 1, 2009 contained an error in the name of one source. It is not Richard Sun, but Richard S. Williamson.)

(*Published under an agreement with the Killid Group. This independent Afghan media group and IPS have been partners since 2004.)

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