By David Nakamura
Washington Post Foreign Staff
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 11:43 PM
KABUL - The decision by an independent commission to shutter more than 1,000 polling centers for Afghanistan's parliamentary elections Saturday has been touted as a way to reduce ballot fraud in unstable regions and produce transparent results that will restore the public's faith in the democratic process.
But among the estimated 1.5 million Afghans who have been effectively disenfranchised, it may have a very different effect. Residents and candidates in these places, mostly remote villages in dangerous southern and eastern provinces, said they worry that the move will deepen ethnic rivalries by creating electoral imbalances and accelerate a growing disengagement from the Afghan central government that has fed the Taliban's resurgence.
"In most of these places, the communities already have been somehow disconnected. People are living under very difficult circumstances," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. "This will give them more of a feeling they are left at the mercy of the Taliban and no major initiative is being taken to bring them back into the fold or provide them security."
That is precisely the scenario that the Independent Election Commission hoped to avoid when it announced this summer that it would close 1,019 of the country's 6,835 polling centers. After last year's fraud-plagued presidential election, in which Hamid Karzai was returned to office amid allegations of ballot stuffing and forged voter registration cards, commission officials and international groups hoped that the move would prevent abuses at insecure, poorly monitored polling stations. In 2009, the commission had planned to shut only a few hundred stations, but the election day chaos led hundreds more to be left out of the final vote tallies.
This year, the affected voters, who represent about 12 percent of the country's estimated 13 million voters, are clustered largely in Afghanistan's east and south. Many people in these areas are, like the Taliban, ethnic Pashtuns, a population that has felt underrepresented in government since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Though Karzai is a Pashtun, much of his cabinet is composed of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The inability of large segments of the Pashtun population to participate in the elections has led some to fear that they will be even further marginalized in the next parliament.
For example, in Ghazni, a diverse province of 1.3 million people, officials have closed 107 of the 379 polling centers, said Said Ismail Jahangir, spokesman for the governor, Mohammad Musa Akbar Zaba.
Risal Di Aji A'ha, a Pashtun who lives in the Ajristan district of Ghazni, complained that most of the shuttered centers are in Pashtun areas.
"People who know the importance of the elections are very concerned about it having a negative long-term impact," he said.
Daoud Sultanzoy, a legislator running for reelection from Ghazni, said that not only do most of the polling stations in the Hazara and Tajik villages remain open, but reports of falsified voter registration cards could allow thousands of additional votes to be cast at those stations.
"This is not the fault of the Hazaras, and it's not the fault of the Pashtuns," said Sultanzoy, who is a Pashtun. "It's the fault of the government and international community that allowed Ghazni to get where it is. We knew a few years ago where Ghazni was headed, and we raised this question with everybody. The government has not reacted in time to fill that void."
Jahangir dismissed Sultanzoy's concerns, suggesting that voters in the areas where polls are being shut did not participate in large numbers in either the presidential election last year or the parliamentary elections five years ago. Opening the polls in those areas would have pointlessly taken away security forces and poll workers who are needed elsewhere.
"The ethnic makeup is not the main question," Jahangir said. "We have closed down some sites in areas which were safe, but the reason is due to the disinterest of the people last time."
At a news conference Wednesday, Ahmad Zia Rafat, a commissioner with the Electoral Complaints Commission, acknowledged that the independent body has "received some complaints from some supporters of certain candidates who are being deprived of casting a vote."
The decision to close a polling station in the village of Sarkand in the eastern province of Nangahar shocked Malik Nazir Gul, an elder who joined other residents in petitioning the provincial office to reconsider. They pledged to provide their own security at the polls if the government was unable to do so, he said.
Instead, the provincial office instructed the 3,000 Sarkand households to cast their ballots in Kaskoot. That village would take more than an hour to reach by car over recently flooded roads that are littered with improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents, Gul said.
"I think that the security commander of the province thought it was better to close down stations to make his job easier," he said. "Our worry is that the district will sort of be deleted [from representation], and people are very angry and sad about it."
Abdul Qayom, mayor of the Khiva district, which includes Sarkand, said election officials informed him of the closures during a recent meeting in Jalalabad, the largest city in Nangahar.
"The reason was that these are far-flung areas and security is not very good there," Qayom said, adding that it is "really hard [for security forces] to approach that area. The roads are not paved."
Gul glumly offered a potential remedy.
"We would have no choice but to join hands with the Pakistanis and become part of Pakistan," he said. "If they accept us."
Special correspondent Masood Azraq contributed to this report.