Voter Intimidation, Ballot Box Stuffing, and "White-Ex": Fraud Accusations in Afghan Vote Too Many to Count
Qari Fazel Ahmad is undeniably a man. Nevertheless, the 65-year-old resident of Herat used a woman's voter registration card when he cast his ballot on election day.
"Women's cards don't have photos," he explained. "But nobody looked at my card, anyway."
Cases of alleged fraud in Afghanistan's presidential and provincial council elections, held on August 20, are now so numerous and so varied that it may take weeks or even months to deal with them all.
As of Wednesday, August 26, the number of complaints had swelled to over 1,000, with the Electoral Complaints Commission, ECC, warning that the deadline for the official results -- September 17 -- was unlikely to be met.
Preliminary figures are now being released gradually by the Independent Election Commission, IEC. Many observers feel the aim is to drain the energy and anger from frustrated voters.
On the evening of August 25, the IEC issued its first report, putting the incumbent, President Hamed Karzai, just slightly ahead of his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. With just over 550,000 votes officially tallied, Karzai had received 212,927, and Abdullah 202,889.
Few doubt that the proportions will change dramatically as the results from the southern provinces begin to be added to the mix. Insiders are already predicting that Karzai will gain a first-round victory, with over 70 per cent of the vote.
In the meantime, fraud allegations have been the dominant issue in the post-election debate.
Enormous coverage was given to the "indelible" ink used to mark voters' fingers.
According to numerous sources, a chemical compound called White-Ex in some cases removed the ink easily and completely, apparently allowing people to go again and again to the polls. All that was needed was a valid voter registration card and a clean finger -- but as Qari Fazel can testify, both of those requirements were flexible.
"I saw lots of people who voted many times," he said. "They knew the registration team, so they did not have to put their finger in the ink."
Mohammad said he was one such multiple-voter. He purchased White-Ex at a shop near the polling center.
"I was able to vote three times," he laughed. He was not, however, so pleased by the price he had to pay for his White-Ex. The cost increased precipitously as the elections drove up demand.
But faulty ink, hole punchers that would not penetrate plastic voter registration cards, late opening times at polling centers, even occasional shortages of ballots, are unlikely to affect the results of the elections, say the ECC.
Much more serious were stories of alleged ballot-box stuffing, stealing of ballot boxes, gross falsification of turnout figures and direct voter intimidation.
With almost half of the country considered volatile or insecure, Afghanistan has many no-go zones for observers. This eased the task of vote-riggers.
One province that was largely off-limits was Maidan Wardak, whose border lies just 25 kilometres from Kabul.
Out of Wardak's eight districts, six had almost no polling stations, and just a handful of voters. The results, however, tell a different story.
"In our district, the polling station was under continuous fire," said Rohani, a resident of Nerkh district in Wardak. "Nobody but the police and a couple of others voted. But they reported hundreds of ballots. It is clear there was fraud."
Mohammad Sarwar Rahmanzai, a resident of Sayedabad district in Wardak, also believes that the election was not transparent.
"In Sayedabad, Chak, Daimirdad and Nerkh districts, no election happened, really," he said. "Nobody's finger was stained in these districts, so nobody has any idea who cast all the votes."
The IEC authorities in Wardak acknowledge that there were problems in the voting process.
"There were complaints by candidates, observers, and people about the ballot-box stuffing," said Abdul Matin Haqbeen, the head of the provincial complaints commission. "We have sent these reports to the central office."
Shahedullah Shahed, spokesman for the governor, denies there was fraud in Wardak.
"The election in Maidan Wardak province was much better than in other provinces," he said. "There was no fraud here."
Afghanistan had over 6,200 polling centers open on election day, representing more than 24,000 polling stations. Given the numerous complaints of falsification pouring in from all over the country, it is not difficult to see how quickly the numbers could mount up, to the point where the legitimacy and credibility of the election could be called into question.
In Balkh province, in the relatively stable north, many alleged incidents of voter intimidation and ballot-box stuffing have been raised by the two main candidates, each pointing a finger at the other.
In three districts of Balkh -- Chamtal, Charbolak, and Balkh district -- voter intimidation and insecurity led to widespread fraud, according to residents.
"Two days before the elections, night letters were distributed in Chamtal, Charbolak, and Balkh, warning people not to participate in the elections," said Ghiasuddin a resident of Charbolak. "Then two people … showed up and told people, 'The Taliban will not let you vote, so give us your cards, and we will vote for you.' These men were very well respected in the area, so people gave them their cards."
Mohammad Azim, also of Charbolak, confirmed this.
"A very small number of people went to the polls on election day, because of the night letters," he told IWPR. "I also gave my card."
Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh, has demanded that the ballot boxes from these three districts be quarantined.
"These districts are not secure," said Atta. "I am sure that the number of ballots is far higher than the number of people who voted."
In other cases of alleged fraud, Tela Mohammad, a resident of Kaldar district of Balkh province, said he saw two campaigners distributing mobile phones in return for voter registration cards in two polling centers in his village. Other reports suggest that the men also traded sacks of flour for the cards.
Mohebullah, who works in the prosecutor's office in Balkh, told IWPR that a woman named Zarmina had wandered into their office asking for the "flour distribution point".
"I found out that even in Mazar-e-Sharif (the provincial capital) these men were distributing foodstuffs in return for voter registration cards," he said.
In one village, Langarkhana, gunmen loyal to a local commander marched people to polling centers, according to eyewitnesses.
"Around 1.30 pm, gunmen threatened the villagers," said one reporter who said he saw the incident. "They said they knew the population of Langarkhana, and if anyone did not vote for [their candidate], they would face serious consequences."
Mah Gul, the head of the ECC in Balkh, confirmed that the commission had received many complaints of local strongmen using their influence and power, but said the incidents were not well documented.
"We don't have the authority to investigate these complaints," he said. "We only send them to the central office."
But despite the problems, there are those who retain their optimism about the poll.
"This is an historic moment for Afghanistan," said political analyst Dinar Gul Amin. "They were conducted in line with the principles of democracy. In general, these elections, held in a country where only 50 per cent of the territory is under the control of the government … were successful. I do not think that the fraud is so great that it will affect the legitimacy of the election. This is always what happens when a candidate loses -- he makes accusations."
IWPR-trained reporters Fahim Farhod, Shapoor Saber, Abdul Latif Sahak, Samiullah Ghushtoon contributed to this report.