Afghan vote counting begins as credibility of election cast in doubt by turnout, fraud claims

By Heidi Vogt, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Afghan observers question election as tally starts

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan election observers said they had serious concerns about the legitimacy of this weekend’s parliamentary balloting as officials began Sunday to tally the results — a process that could take months.

Saturday’s balloting holds a chance of redemption for a government that lost much of its credibility both with Afghans and its international backers due to a fraud-tainted presidential vote a year ago. But a showering of rocket attacks, polling station closures and charges that anti-fraud measures broke down mean the vote counting and investigation of complaints will have to be particularly rigorous to guarantee a legitimate outcome.

The country’s international backers rallied around the government as polls closed with praise for those who voted and hope for a democratic result, but the main Afghan observer group said the quality of the balloting was questionable.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said it “has serious concerns about the quality of elections,” given the insecurity and numerous complaints of fraud. FEFA deployed about 7,000 people around the country, making it the largest observer of the parliamentary vote. Many international observer groups scaled back their operations from last year because of security concerns.

At least 11 civilians and three police officers were killed during the voting, according to the Interior Ministry, amid 33 bomb explosions and 63 rocket strikes nationwide. The attacks appeared to have the desired effect, as many polling sites had light turnout. A number of polling stations were closed because of security problems, causing some in safer areas to run out of ballots.

The Afghan election commission has yet to provide an overall turnout figure but said late Saturday that 3.6 million people cast ballots at the 86 percent of polling stations that had reported figures so far. Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in the presidential vote last year out of 17 million registered voters. The election commission said before Saturday’s vote that its plan would allow a maximum of 11.4 million voters — an acknowledgment that turnout was not expected to be high.

Throughout Saturday’s balloting, complaints that anti-fraud measures were being ignored or weren’t working poured in from across the country. People said the indelible ink that is supposed to stain voters’ fingers for 72 hours could be washed off. In some polling stations, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with obviously fake voter cards.

“Ballot stuffing was seen to varying extents in most provinces, as were proxy voting and underage voting,” FEFA said.

At a polling station in Sancery village in southern Kandahar province, one man said hundreds of people in his village of about 600 gave their voting cards to the village elder, who cast their ballots for them.

“My father asked me to give the card,” said Matiullah, who only gave one name. “This is what we did last time. Everyone submitted their card to the elder.” It was not possible to verify if the elder had been allowed to vote for the village.

Individual polling sites started counting ballots as soon as polls closed Saturday and 95 percent of them had completed that process by early Sunday, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the election commission. As they complete their counts, the tallies are sent to a center in the capital that will compile and release results over coming days.

Full preliminary results are not expected until early October, and then there will be weeks of fraud investigations before winners are officially announced for the 249 parliamentary seats. With about 2,500 candidates running, there are likely to be a host of fraud complaints in each province.

If the people don’t accept the results of the vote, it could have a profound effect both inside the country and with Afghanistan’s international backers, who have 140,000 troops in the country and have spent billions trying to shore up the administration of President Hamid Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency.

Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 poll, said violence was a possibility if voters feel disenfranchised.

“There is a possibility of people taking things into their own hands,” Abdullah said. But he said he was also worried about the administration pushing through candidates regardless of accusations of fraudulent voting.

“If, as a result of massive fraud, it turns out to be a sort of rubber-stamp parliament in the hands of the government, then we will lose that opportunity for checks and balances which is expected from the parliament,” he said, warning that a weakened legislature would make it easy for Karzai to make constitutional amendments to stay in power past the end of his term.

In the south on Sunday, rockets disrupted efforts by officials to rally support against the Taliban in the Arghandab district of Kandahar.

Officials including the governor and Ahmad Wali Karzai, chairman of the Kandahar provincial council and President Karzai’s brother, addressed about 150 people in Babasab, a town that is a staging ground for attacks on Kandahar city.

“We need your help,” Ahmad Wali Karzai said. “We want you to give your men to the army and police. We will support you in every possible way.”

Three rockets were fired at the meeting, with the closest landing about 40 meters (45 yards) away. There were no injuries.

Meanwhile, NATO forces said they killed seven insurgents in an attack against a village compound in volatile Nangarhar province in the east, though Afghan officials said the dead may have been civilians.

The military alliance said “initial reporting indicates no civilians were killed or injured during this operation” that targeted a Taliban commander in the southern Khugyani district of Nangarhar, a hotbed of the insurgency.

Ghafor Khan, the district police spokesman, said five people were killed and two wounded in the attack. He said an investigators were determining whether the casualties were insurgents or civilians.

Afghan officials have repeatedly warned that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts.

Also Sunday, NATO said three of its service members died in attacks in southern Afghanistan on Saturday. Two died in a bomb attack in the south and another in an insurgent attack in the north. Their nationalities were not disclosed.

Associated Press Writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

will not be displayed