By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 28, 2009
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- One week after Afghanistan's presidential election, with the winner still undeclared, increasing accusations of fraud and voter coercion threaten to undermine the validity of the results, deepen dangerous regional divisions and hamper the Obama administration's goals in this volatile country.
With U.S. popular support for the war in Afghanistan wavering, an election viewed as illegitimate by many Afghans would be a major setback for President Obama, who has increased U.S. military and economic efforts in a conflict central to his foreign policy. Officials worry that a Kabul government tainted by allegations of election-stealing or destabilized by a potentially violent backlash could derail U.S. efforts to beat back a resurgent Taliban and build Afghan security forces.
In interviews here in the capital of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, the governor, election officials and residents described incidents of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation, particularly by election monitors. The many allegations of fraud add to the chorus of doubts from candidates and observers in other parts of the country about the fairness of the election process.
In a jailhouse interview, election monitor Abdul Hakim Ghafurzai, bruised and bloodied and slumped in his cell, said he knows how it feels to challenge election fraud in Afghanistan. "I am in pain," said Ghafurzai, who alleged he was beaten and arrested after complaining that police outside this northern city shut down polling places because people were voting for President Hamid Karzai.
"Fraud has taken place by the Independent Election Commission, and there were also many threats," said Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, who broke with Karzai before the election and backed his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is very popular in the north. "If this government wins through fraud, I won't be with this government."
All five leading candidates have filed complaints of ballot-box stuffing or destruction, intimidation and pressure on voters at polling stations, and ballots cast by phantom voters. One candidate, former anti-drug official Mirwais Yasini, personally delivered boxes full of shredded ballots to the foreign-led Election Complaints Commission. Yasini and five other candidates issued a joint statement this week saying the election was marred by "widespread fraud and intimidation" that threatened to "increase tension and violence in the country."
Because the complaint process is slow and cumbersome, officials at the complaints commission office in Kabul said they do not expect to finish their investigations until mid-September, at least two weeks after the official election results are announced. That could create public tension and possible unrest, especially if Karzai is announced as the winner before the numerous complaints have been resolved.
Karzai and Abdullah have denied allegations that their followers committed systematic fraud.
In the past week, Abdullah has held two news conferences to allege "widespread rigging" by the Karzai administration, its campaign aides and employees of the Independent Election Commission. He has shown reporters thick blocks of ballots with identical check marks next to Karzai's name and photograph, and shown videos of people sitting on the floor in closed polling stations and systematically marking ballot after ballot.
Legislators and other leaders in a number of provinces, especially those threatened by insurgent violence such as Kandahar, Khost and Wardak, have complained that at polling stations where very few people were able to vote because of insecurity, sealed ballot boxes inexplicably full of hundreds of ballots were sent to Kabul.
Election observers have described northern Afghanistan as a place where the election proceeded relatively peacefully, with as many as half of registered voters going to the polls -- far more than in some Taliban strongholds in the south. But interviews with those monitoring the election here and looking into allegations of irregularities painted a bleaker portrait that implicated the followers of both Karzai and Abdullah.
"I was a witness to fraud, and I couldn't do anything to stop it," said a female election monitor at a voting site in Barga village, in this province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She said her fellow staff members voted at least 100 times for Abdullah and forced other residents to make the same choice. "I was really upset. The voting system was not good. People didn't have the right to choose," she said.
At least one polling center was set ablaze, destroying all records, and an election supervisor was gunned down while driving with boxes of ballots, said the top provincial election official, Dur Mohammad.
"Some candidates bought off the election officials. I think there were several cases," said Mahgul Yamam, the head of the Election Complaints Commission in Balkh. "The system is not great in Afghanistan."
In a jailhouse interview, Ghafurzai, 47, the top election monitor in the Chimtal district outside Mazar-e Sharif, said he received a phone call about 3:30 p.m. on election day that police were shutting down polling centers in his district because too many people were voting for Karzai.
"Police interfered with the counting. They didn't let people vote; they locked the boxes," he said.
Ghafurzai said that he alerted his provincial superiors about the problem, and that the next day, while counting votes at the Wali Asr High School, he was visited by the local police commander and three of his guards.
The guards "punched me and kicked me," he said, showing his bruised arms and back and blood-speckled scarf. "I said, 'Why are you arresting me? You have no documents.' They didn't say anything. They just handcuffed me and took me away."
Ghafurzai is accused of assaulting the police commander, a charge he denies. Noor, the governor, described the matter as unrelated to politics and as a personal dispute between the police commander and the official, but he said he had formed a team to investigate the incident. Noor said Abdullah won 3,988 votes in the Chimtal district, compared with 2,287 for Karzai.
One tribal elder from Chimtal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Abdullah supporters collected registration cards from poor villagers and cast votes themselves. He said these supporters offered food -- taken from Red Crescent aid supplies delivered to the area this year after a flood -- in exchange for the voting cards.
"I am the elder of the tribe. People share their problems with me. I know this was going on," he said.
Palwa Shah, a 20-year-old university student, said that the polling site she attended was decorated with posters of Abdullah and that the election staff members and police there told people to vote for him.
"That voting center was not free. People could not choose their own candidate. They were being forced; they were not happy," said Shah, who voted in the Dehdadi district of Balkh. "They said, 'If you don't vote for Abdullah, the security situation could get worse, and you won't be able to live here anymore.' "
At the Election Complaints Commission office in Kabul this week, teams of workers began sorting through thousands of brown envelopes filled with complaint forms. More than 80 percent were blank, officials said, suggesting that there were few problems with fraud or, more likely, that many people were reluctant to file complaints for fear of retaliation or because they were illiterate. Few forms have been received from the southern regions, where fraud is generally thought to have been the most widespread.
"One reason so few forms were filled in may be because people didn't trust them," said Nellika Little, a public information official at the commission. "They do have to be in writing. If someone is being intimidated at a polling station, are they really going to complain to the officials there?"
Little said the commission had received nearly 1,500 formal complaints, including 150 that it considers potentially serious enough to affect the result of the election. Those 150 cases are being investigated by teams of professionals, including some who are traveling to the districts where they originated to question witnesses and officials.
Commission officials said many complaints would be difficult to investigate because they are vague and contain little or no evidence.
"I'm really worried about the result of the election. All the candidates are complaining, and they are feeling there were many problems," said Farid Muttaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e Sharif. "For sure the people will not cooperate with the government or feel they are a part of this government. And this could give a chance for the Taliban to come and do their work here."
Constable reported from Kabul.