Audio recordings raise new questions about Afghan elections

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 6:54 PM

KABUL - After some friendly chitchat, the man referred to as "your excellency" got down to business: In a cellphone call, he instructed the Afghan election official which candidates should be named winners in the parliamentary elections.

But the election official was worried. He had already doctored some votes, he replied, and the election staff was being searched every day at work, according to audio copies of alleged conversations between the two men.

The audio files, broadcast on Afghan television Tuesday night and obtained independently by The Washington Post, represent the latest in a gathering storm of recriminations against the Afghan organization responsible for administering the Sept. 18 elections for the lower house of Afghanistan's parliament.

If authentic, the conversations - purportedly between Afghan cabinet minister Ismail Khan and a member of the election staff - raise new questions about the fairness of the elections and the stewardship of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission.

The final results, which could be announced as early as this week, have been delayed nearly a month amid accusations of ballot box stuffing, falsified voter cards and bribery. Losing candidates have led protests and warned of possible ethnic strife. The attorney general, meanwhile, has opened criminal investigations into several members of the election commission staff.

A protracted political fight over the legitimacy of the elections is something U.S. and NATO officials are trying to avoid. As they prepare to make their case for progress in the Afghan war at a summit in Lisbon and a December review in the United States, they have said the allegations lack evidence.

'I was a winner, but . . .'

The audio recordings feature Khan, the minister of energy and water and the former governor of Herat province in western Afghanistan, according to several Afghan officials who have heard the tapes. The election official was identified as Abdul Rashid Ershad. A candidate for parliament from Herat, Al Haj Ghulam Qadir Akbar, said Ershad gave him recordings Ershad had made of his discussions with Khan in order to show the political pressure being exerted on the election staff.

Akbar said he would have won a parliament seat if Khan had not intervened.

"I was a winner, but by the order of the warlord Ismail Khan, I lost," Akbar said. "What they are doing is damaging the democratic process in this country."

On the recorded calls, Khan refers to Akbar as "completely crazy" and says he should be removed from the list of winners. According to preliminary results, Akbar finished 11th in his province, good enough to secure one of 17 allocated seats. But he says he was subsequently told by election officials that he had dropped to 19th.

A secretary for Khan said he was not available for comment. Ershad, the election official, could not be reached. One of the commissioners at the Independent Election Commission, Momina Yari, said Ershad "didn't have the authority to act in such a way."

She described him as a low-level, temporary employee in the public-outreach department with no authority over the vote database. "Definitely now an investigation will start today and we will take action against him," she said.

Votes invalidated

The commission has acknowledged that voting fraud took place on a large scale. In announcing the preliminary results last month, the commission said it had thrown out 1.3 million votes, about a quarter of the total cast, because of irregularities and signs of fraud.

The proportion of disqualified ballots is on par with that in last year's fraud-marred presidential vote, an ugly political spectacle in which the commission was accused of bias in favor of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.

This time, with new leadership at the commission, election officials say the voting process was improved through stricter, if more complicated, anti-fraud measures. The commission employs 350 people working in two shifts to tally votes at its headquarters in Kabul, all under videotaped surveillance.

The commission's "leadership, from all appearances, seems in a very, very deep way committed to delivering a better election, a rules-based election, a credible election," said a Western diplomat in Kabul.

A commissioner, however, conceded that "possibly there was technical fraud done by our staff in the tally center. I personally cannot claim it was 100 percent transparent."

Members of Karzai's ethnic group performed poorly in the election, with Pashtun candidates appearing to have lost 10 to 20 seats. In the majority-Pashtun province of Ghazni, where insurgents disrupted the voting, preliminary results gave all 11 seats to candidates of the Hazara ethnicity. That outcome could complicate government efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, which is predominantly Pashtun.

An alleged offer

In interviews, candidates described lower-level commission staffers as vote-riggers for hire.

When the first 20 percent of preliminary results were posted on the commission's Web site, Ali Hussein Nadam, a geometry professor from Kabul and first-time parliamentary candidate, languished near the bottom. Then, Nadam said, a commission staff member contacted him with an offer.

"He said, 'I can give you a thousand more votes, but there is a price for that,' " Nadam recalled. "I didn't want to make that deal; I'm not running a political business."

One of his supporters, however, was not so squeamish, Nadam says. As Nadam tells it, this businessman met the election official in a Kabul hotel, where the official demanded $16,000 and, in return, the businessman asked for a guarantee that Nadam would win. The official said that he would do his best but that a guarantee was impossible with so many politicians angling for additional votes, Nadam said.

"We did not make the deal," Nadam said. "And now I've lost all trust in this election. It was all a fake."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company