Rejecting U.N. advice, Afghan panel to open 6,300 polls in runoff

As Afghanistan prepares for a second round of voting in the presidential election, the country braces for increased attacks by militants aimed at disrupting the poll scheduled for Nov. 7.
By Pamela Constable
Friday, October 30, 2009

KABUL -- Rejecting advice from U.N. officials, Afghanistan's election commission announced Thursday that it would open more than 6,300 polling centers for the upcoming runoff vote, far more than international experts here say can be adequately protected and monitored.

The announcement surprised U.N. officials, who had recommended that only about 5,800 voting centers be opened because of the danger of insurgent attacks in some areas, the likelihood of fraud in others and the short time available to prepare and staff the Nov. 7 presidential election.

Officials with Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission told reporters they were confident that Afghan security forces could protect the larger number of centers, but they did not say how they would be able to staff all of them and still fulfill their pledge to get rid of hundreds of polling officials accused of fraud in the original Aug. 20 election.

The runoff is being held because the credibility of the first round collapsed amid revelations of widespread fraud, especially at "ghost" polling stations in areas under Taliban threat. This time, President Hamid Karzai and his chief rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, will be the only names on the ballot.

The election panel said it would close 11 voting stations in five provinces because they were vulnerable to insurgent attacks or because of approaching winter weather in mountainous regions.

The upbeat assessment by the election panel echoed reassuring comments Wednesday by a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, who said more than 300,000 security personnel would be deployed to ensure voter safety on election day.

U.N. sources, however, suggested that the commissioners might be adding stations to maximize votes for Karzai, who appointed them. This dispute threatens to revive the tensions that erupted in September between the Afghan election panel and a U.N.-appointed commission that oversaw the investigation into fraud in the first round of balloting.

Abdullah has repeatedly accused the Afghan commission of being biased toward Karzai, and he demanded several days ago that its chairman and two members be replaced. Karzai refused to accept this demand and several others, and Abdullah has left open the possibility that he will boycott the runoff.

Concerns about preparing and securing the election have intensified this week because of fresh Taliban efforts to sabotage the poll. Early Wednesday, a heavily armed Taliban suicide squad invaded a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul, killing five international staffers and three Afghans before the attackers were killed by Afghan security forces.

The apparent target of the attack was a group of U.N. election workers who were staying in the house, and Taliban officials warned that they would carry out further attacks to disrupt the poll. U.N. officials have insisted that their election preparations will continue along with their other programs here.

Nevertheless, with the runoff only nine days away, most foreign U.N. staffers have been confined to their lodgings, costing them valuable time. Officials said that restriction will remain in effect for several days. Moreover, about 20 election workers who survived the attack, including some who were injured, are being flown out of the country Friday.

"Our election support operations are still going on, but for all the U.N. agencies here, it is definitely not business as usual," said Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. mission.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company