Flawed election

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST



Irregularities and voter intimidation mar the second parliamentary election in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

DESPITE claims by Afghan and American officials of having conducted a comparatively fair and free election, widespread allegations of electoral fraud marked the September 18 voting to elect a new Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. It was the second general election since the United States' invasion of the country in 2001. The first Parliament, elected in 2005, was packed with notorious warlords and their henchmen. This time too history seems to be repeating itself.

The new assembly could even see supporters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami party in the benches. Hekmatyar, who is formally aligned with the Taliban, put up many candidates in his area of influence. President Hamid Karzai seems to have been successful in persuading Hekmatyar, with the blessings of Islamabad, to enter into negotiations with the government.

Another notorious warlord in the fray is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf. In the early 1990s, Sayyaf, who was then with the U.S.-backed mujahideen (freedom fighters) that was fighting against a secular government in Kabul, was involved in the massacre of hundreds of the minority Hazara people. None of the warlords facing grave charges of human rights violation has been prosecuted. Instead, they have been rehabilitated politically by Washington for providing support to the 2001 invasion of the country. Karzai signed a Bill in 2007 granting amnesty from war crimes to all the warlords and their followers.

Malai Joya, the outspoken former parliamentarian, said the majority of the seats in the new Parliament would go to photocopies of Sayyaf. She was expelled from Parliament in 2007 for her criticism of Karzai's policies and his patronage of warlords and drug lords. With the warlords and their proxies in the fray and the Taliban calling for a boycott, it was no surprise that vote rigging, intimidation and violence were widespread. It has been reported that out of 2,500 candidates contesting for 249 seats, the majority have been tainted by accusations of corruption and bloodshed.

According to the independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, in the 2005 election, more than 80 per cent of the legislators from the provinces and 60 per cent of those elected from Kabul had links to armed groups. Many of those who won the last election have managed to become owners of luxurious villas in Dubai.

Karzai did not take the outgoing Parliament seriously. He used his executive powers to allow some of his Ministers to stay on even after no-confidence motions were passed against them. An election decree issued by Karzai, which was rejected by Parliament, went on to become law. Although power is concentrated in the presidency, legislators do get a platform to air their views. Many Members of Parliament, for instance, had called for strong action by the government after several relatives of Safia Saddiqi, an MP, were killed during a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) raid on a house in Nangrahar. The MPs said that the incident highlighted Karzai's inability to protect Afghans from the foreign forces.

However, a friendly Loya Jirga, the grand council comprising male representatives of various tribes and factions, will help Karzai rewrite the Constitution so that the limit on the term of the presidency can be removed. The Constitution in its present form prohibits Karzai from seeking a third term. A pliable legislature is also needed to rubber-stamp the U.S. plans to have a long-term military presence, in the form of military bases, in Afghanistan.

The Independent Election Commission had issued 17.5 million voter registration cards. Most observers were of the view that the figure was very high as the number of registered voters was not known to exceed 12.5 million. Besides, election observers reported that millions of fake registration cards had come from Pakistan, allowing voters to cast their votes many times over. The security situation in the country discouraged a large number of foreign observers from coming to Afghanistan. In contrast, hundreds of international observers were present to witness the presidential election held last year. For the parliamentary election, the government in Kabul deployed 280,000 police personnel and soldiers to provide security at the polling booths. For the presidential election, only 150,000 security personnel were deployed.

The latest quarterly report from the Canadian government states that the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening. It describes Afghanistan as an increasingly volatile nation, where the incidence of assassination is growing and casualty figures are reaching record levels. The casualties U.S. and NATO troops have suffered so far this year have been the highest for any year since 2001. There are still three more months to go.

The U.N. Special Representative in Kabul, Stefan de Mistura, implicitly suggested that the international community should learn to live with the facts of life in Afghanistan and accept the election results. Let's remember we are not in Switzerland; we are in Afghanistan at the most critical period of the conflict, he told the media. Haroun Mir, the Director of the Afghan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a think tank in Kabul, said what Afghans hoped for was an acceptable election, not a fair and transparent election. Abdullah Abdullah, who had contested against Karzai in the controversial presidential election last year, warned that if elections were once again rigged, it would only strengthen the hands of the Taliban resistance.

In the run-up to the election, four candidates and 20 of their supporters were killed. The voter turnout was uneven. In many provinces, the polling booths were empty. The Election Commission had to remove more than 400 voting centres as the government was unable to provide security. The Taliban had issued a call to Afghans to boycott the election and instead focus on driving away the invaders from the country. Although there was voter turnout in Kabul, in many areas, such as the troubled Helmand province, there was zero turnout.

The Commission reported that in many constituencies, especially in the south-eastern part of the country where the Taliban is in control of the countryside, there was more than 100 per cent polling. The only way this could happen is when election officials stuff ballot boxes without verification of voter identity cards. A campaigner for the influential politician and strongman Haji Abdul Latif Ahmadzai, contesting from the southern Logar province, was caught with 300 fake voter cards. The police also detained a man with 600 fake registration cards in Jalalabad city.

Reports by observers indicated that the levels of violence were higher than that witnessed in the flawed presidential election. A private security firm based in Kabul has enumerated 600 insurgent attacks on the day the parliamentary election was held. A Taliban attack on a polling station in northern Afghanistan claimed six people. In the presidential election, there were only 450 reported attacks. Karzai has, however, hailed the parliamentary election as a success and a positive step towards democracy.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the Afghan people for their courage and determination. The statement of the U.S. embassy in Kabul was more nuanced. The results and the quality of the elections will not be immediately evident, it said. The statement added that the U.S. would support the Independent Election Commission's efforts in carrying out thorough measures to detect and adjudicate fraud. At a press conference in May, President Barack Obama had said that the holding of credible parliamentary elections was a crucial part of the U.S. and Afghan administration's efforts to improve governance.

That goal, going by the evidence of the parliamentary election, seems to be a distant one. The Afghan government itself says that only 3.6 million people cast their votes, that is, only 31 per cent of the 11.3 million registered voters. The Election Commission's claim of more than 17 million registered voters is generally treated with scepticism. In the presidential election, more than seven million votes were cast though it is widely acknowledged that a significant number of the votes resulted from ballot rigging. Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak blamed the Taliban propaganda for the low turnout, saying that it had affected the psyche of the people.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said in a statement that it had serious concerns about the quality of the elections. The organisation had sent out 7,000 observers to monitor the election. Violence by candidates, their agents and local power brokers were reported in several areas and so were a worrying number of instances of government officials interfering in the voting centres to sway the results in favour of their chosen candidates. Ballot stuffing was seen in varying extents in most provinces, as were proxy voting and underage voting, the statement said.

The New York Times reported that in Kunduz city, journalists and election observers saw election officials and party workers stuffing votes behind locked doors. Preliminary results are expected in early October, but going by the experience of the previous election, a deluge of complaints by the defeated candidates to the Election Commission is bound to delay the announcement of the final results.

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