Impatient Afghan candidates are counting their own votes

In this rugged country where ballots are counted by hand and election results are viewed with suspicion, impatient presidential candidates are not willing to wait for official numbers and have started counting votes themselves.

Since Saturday’s presidential election, tens of thousands of volunteers for the candidates have been visiting polling stations across the country to call in results that have been taped on the walls of mosques and schools. The team of former finance minister Ashraf Ghani has created a slick Web site with pie charts and bar graphs that show partial returns as they come in, three weeks ahead of the expected announcement of the winner. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his Web site is projecting that he will be the victor (by a margin of 57 percent, with a quarter of the ballots counted).

The days after the vote have transformed campaign offices into command centers where candidates’ staffs are calling around the country collecting photos and videos and complaints about alleged fraud, calculating vote totals and positioning themselves for a possible runoff election if no candidate passes the 50 percent threshold.

The early and partial results, which have been bandied about on social media and are showing a tight race between Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, have galled the candidates who appear to be losing.

“It’s illegal work and it’s against all principles,” Gul Agha Sherzai, a presidential candidate and former governor of Nangahar province, said about the early totals in an interview Monday.

The Afghan presidential campaign has narrowed to a field of eight men, who are running to succeed Hamid Karzai.

“I think this is not correct for them to do,” said Gulbuddin Hillal, another candidate expected to finish far from the lead. “They are misusing the media. This is a joke on the election and on the people.”

Trucks loaded with plastic tubs full of ballots are making their way to the capital, and the official vote count starts this week. It will be conducted by the country’s Independent Election Commission at a tally center in Kabul. Election officials said that partial and preliminary results will be released this week but that, until then, candidates should refrain from making their own predictions. “The candidates should not confuse the public mind by posting or publishing baseless and inaccurate election results,” said Noor Mohammad Noor, an election commission spokesman.

The other main activity among the candidates’ teams is collecting allegations of voting fraud or coercion that might help tip the scales in a close race. The staffs are manning call centers and collecting complaints from around the country and filing them with election officials. At an office in Kabul run by a political party supporting Ghani, young men made calls to the provinces, watched videos on their laptops of alleged fraud and wrote up complaints to be submitted for review.

In the previous presidential election, fraud became the defining theme, and more than 1 million votes were invalidated, forcing President Hamid Karzai into a second-round runoff that he won when the challenger, Abdullah, dropped out before the race. There have been allegations of fraud this time as well, as well as of a shortage of ballot papers that prevented people from voting, but so far the troubles don’t appear to be on the scale of those in the 2009 election.

There were news reports Monday that gunmen broke into an election commission office in the eastern province of Khost and filled boxes with new ballots.

“It was clear that there was going to be fraud, and there was, but none of the reports so far are really massive or solid. We’re not getting the impression yet that
it’s been huge,” said Martine Van
Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “People are going to be looking at the shortage of the ballot papers, how that affected the outcome, and whether it was linked to partial ballot stuffing.”

The homemade results making the rounds on the Internet are not to be trusted, she said, and are “potentially harmful.”

“When you’re making people believe that you’ve already won, you’re in essence priming your followers to be upset,” she said.

Kevin Sieff contributed to this report.

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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