Afghanistan will open more voting centers in next week's presidential runoff than in the fraud-tainted first-round vote, officials said Thursday, rejecting U.N. recommendations that they cut sites to prevent cheating.
The decision highlights the deepening rift between the Afghan election commission and international advisers pushing for a credible vote on Nov. 7.
Increasing the number of voting centers for the second round also would mean more security forces would be needed to protect them. The Taliban have already started to make good on threats of violence, killing five U.N. election workers and three Afghans in a brazen attack in the capital Wednesday.
The Aug. 20 presidential poll was so soiled by ballot-box stuffing and distorted tallies that U.N.-backed fraud investigators threw out more than a million votes, enough to force President Hamid Karzai into a second round against his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
This year's election — the first run by Afghans since the ouster of the Taliban — was supposed to affirm the government's credibility. Instead, the massive fraud has undermined the legitimacy of the Karzai administration just as U.S. officials are debating whether to send more troops to help fend off the Taliban.
Observers and U.N. advisers attributed much of the cheating to so-called ghost polling stations that never opened but returned results or to stations that opened in areas without enough oversight to ensure a fair balloting. The U.N. recommended cutting the total number of polling stations to make sure there would were enough monitors and security at those that did open.
Despite this, the Independent Election Commission plans to open 6,322 voting centers on Nov. 7, election official Zekria Barakzai said. That's well above the 6,167 centers that opened in the first round.
"Discussions with security agencies and our logistic preparations" assured the commission that it would be possible to open more centers, Barakzai explained.
Barakzai said that Afghan and international forces had said they could provide security for as many as 6,600 voting centers and that the election officials had decided to cut that by almost 300 because of concerns about fraud.
However, it is still unclear if there will be enough staff to run the stations or if voters and observers will consider centers in volatile areas safe enough even with the security force assurances.
And while election officials have promised that workers complicit in fraud in the first round will not be rehired, they have yet to say how many people that includes. The U.N. has said that about 200 district field coordinators out of some 3,000 had complaints against them and should be replaced, but the election commission has not confirmed this.
The U.N. had also recommended that only 5,817 voting centers open and that none of those that failed to open in the first round be put on the list for a runoff. Those in charge of logistics had said in recent days that they were planning for the smaller number.
The decision to open more centers is likely to raise more suspicions about the already beleaguered leaders of the Karzai-appointed election commission.
Abdullah has accused the election commission of being complicit in the fraud and called for the resignation of Chairman Azizullah Lodin by Saturday to ensure a fair runoff. Both the Karzai campaign and the election commission have said that Lodin will not step down.
Lodin had said previously that he hoped to open just as many voting sites as in the first round and that security officials had given assurances that they could do so safely. But many internally had continued to push for a lower number.
As was the case in August, the entire country will participate in the vote, but this time only Karzai and Abdullah are candidates.
However, 11 districts over five provinces will not be able to participate in the runoff because of security concerns or weather, Barakzai said. In provinces like Ghazni and Nuristan safety is an issue. In northern Badakhshan province, snows have already cut off some areas, he said. In the first round, there were eight districts that were kept out, he said.
It's unclear if the increased number of voting centers will also mean more polling stations, of which there are a number in each location. If the stations are simply more spread out among centers, it would decrease the number of ballots available in each location and therefore mean cheating at one center would have less of an impact.
Barakzai said they had not yet figured out how many polling stations there would be in all.
In the first round, election officials say nearly 24,000 polling stations opened. The U.N. figure would have amounted to about 16,000 polling stations.