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Widespread fraud seen in latest Afghan vote

Evidence is mounting that fraud in Afghan election last weekend was so widespread that it could affect the results in a third of provinces.
Image: Afghans Go To the Polls For Parliamentary Elections
Workers unload ballot boxes at the Independent Election Comission warehouse in Kabul. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images file
/ Source: The New York Times

Evidence is mounting that fraud in last weekend’s parliamentary election was so widespread that it could affect the results in a third of provinces, calling into question the credibility of a vote that was an important test of the American and Afghan effort to build a stable and legitimate government.

The complaints to provincial election commissions have so far included video clips showing ballot stuffing; the strong-arming of election officials by candidates’ agents; and even the handcuffing and detention of election workers.

In some places, election officials themselves are alleged to have carried out the fraud; in others, government employees did, witnesses said. One video showed election officials and a candidate’s representatives haggling over the price of votes.

Many of the complaints have come from candidates and election officials, but were supported by Afghan and international election observers and diplomats. The fraud appeared to cut both for and against the government of President Hamid Karzai, much of it benefiting sometimes unsavory local power brokers.

But in the important southern province of Kandahar, where election officials threw out 76 percent of the ballots in last year’s badly tainted presidential election, candidates accused the president’s influential half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, of drawing up a list of winners even before the Sept. 18 election for Parliament was carried out.

“From an overall democracy-building perspective it does not look rosy,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Thousands of complaints
The widespread tampering and bare-knuckle tactics of some candidates raised serious questions about the effort to build a credible government that can draw the support of Afghans and the Obama administration and its NATO partners as they re-evaluate their commitment to the war.

American and international diplomats kept their distance from the tide of candidate complaints this week, and NATO and American Embassy officials said little other than that the election was an Afghan process and that it was the Afghans who were responsible for its outcome.

But a less than credible parliamentary election, following last year’s tarnished presidential vote, would place international forces in the increasingly awkward position of defending a government of waning legitimacy, and diplomats acknowledged that it could undermine efforts to persuade countries to maintain their financing and troop levels.

The Election Complaints Commission said Thursday that it had received more than 3,000 complaints since last Saturday’s election. So far they have registered case files on nearly 1,800 of those complaints — 58 percent of which were considered serious enough to affect the outcome of the balloting. That may change in the course of investigations but that preliminary figure is high, election monitors said.

The complaints are not evenly distributed and were markedly worse in 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In those 13, at least half the complaints were deemed to be high priority — forecasting bitter fights over the outcome.

In addition, complaints in four provinces — Kandahar, Nuristan, Zabul and Paktika — have yet to be categorized, but fraud is expected to be extensive and has already been widely reported.

“That preliminary figure is bad,” said a knowledgeable international observer.

Volatile region
Many analysts predicted there would be serious fraud in the unstable Pashtun belt, in the south of the country, an important base for both the Taliban insurgents and President Karzai. But serious complaints were also coming from provinces in the north and west.

Interviews by The New York Times in 10 provinces and discussions with election monitors elsewhere found a resurgence of local strongmen with armed backers who coerced and threatened voters, and the involvement of local government employees in ballot stuffing.

“In general the election has been a free-for-all, in that different power blocs were putting forward their candidates in different places,” said an international official who has been following the elections.

“It’s not necessarily the pro-Karzai bloc that has done so well, it’s that the Parliament will be more dependent on big power brokers,” the official said, adding that they would be more likely to make deals with Mr. Karzai that did not necessarily serve the Afghan people.

Lawmakers and opposition candidates openly accused the Karzais, and in particular Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful official in Kandahar, of fixing the election for a list of favored candidates.

“Of the list of 50, it is already decided who will come” to Parliament, said Izzatullah Wasefi, an opposition candidate from Kandahar.

Nur ul-Haq Uloomi, a member of Parliament who won the largest vote from Kandahar in 2005, and has since become an outspoken critic of the corruption and inefficiency of the Karzai government, accused Ahmed Wali Karzai of manipulating the vote to deny him another term.

He said he had sent one of his campaign managers to the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, in Kabul to warn of potential fraud before the election, but he was rebuffed.

“Mr. Manawi said: ‘We can do nothing about Kandahar because he is the brother of Karzai,’ ” Mr. Uloomi recounted. “It is a kind of preparation for fraud.”

Mr. Manawi was too busy to take individual calls last week, his spokesman said.

Paying and bullying for votes?
In one Kandahar border district, Abdul Karim Achakzai, an independent candidate from Spinboldak, said three groups of election workers were handcuffed and detained for the entire day of the election by border police officers and prevented from conducting the vote in the Maruf district.

In the evening the polling papers with the results were brought to them to sign, but they refused. They were freed the next day after promising not to complain, he said.

Mr. Achakzai accused the provincial head of the border guards, Abdul Razziq, an ally of Ahmed Wali Karzai, of orchestrating the detention. Mr. Razziq, who has influence in several border districts, was also accused of ballot-stuffing and intimidation in favor of President Karzai in the 2009 election, according to election observers.

A cellphone video from an adjoining district showed men ticking dozens of ballots in favor of certain candidates. The video, which was recorded surreptitiously by a candidate’s agent, also captured a candidate’s representatives and election officials inside a polling station haggling over the price of votes.

“You will get as many votes as you asked, just pay 72,000 Afghanis ($1,500),” said the election official, who identified himself as the head of the polling center.

In the northern province of Takhar, several witnesses described gunmen threatening election workers and dragging voters to polling stations to vote for their candidate, Adbul Baqi. The abuse happened in Farkhar district, according to one witness, Hassibullah, 35.

“Mr. Baqi and his gunmen were slapping and pulling people to the ballot boxes to vote for him,” he said. “He is a very cruel man.” After that, he added, they went to the women’s section of the polling station and forced the female employees of the Independent Election Commission to put more than 200 votes in their ballot box.

'Dogs around him are not good'
Abdul Haq, 50, another voter in Farkhar district, said that when he asked the security guards to stop beating people, one of them attacked him with a knife. “The candidate himself is a good man and people do like him, but his dogs around him are not good,” he said.

Mr. Baqi could not be reach by phone for comment. The Independent Election Commission official for the district, Engineer Kebir, said that the supporters of the candidate “did make some disturbances and violent acts and were threatening each other.” But, he insisted, “They did not disrupt the election process.”

Alissa J. Rubin reported from Kabul, and Carlotta Gall from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, and an Afghan employee of The New York Times from Kunduz.

This story, "Widespread fraud seen in latest Afghan elections," first appeared in the New York Times.