KABUL // Candidates in Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election said fraud was so widespread that the vote will have done irrevocable damage to democracy here unless those responsible are severely punished.
More than 2,400 men and women competed in the September 18 poll, but the spectre of corruption is threatening to overshadow the entire process as claims and counter-claims emerge with each passing day. Many incumbent members of parliament who ran for office again expressed concerns that the fallout from the election will create lasting public resentment.
They allege that there was systematic and often officially backed cheating in provinces from the north to south. This included individuals voting multiple times and the stuffing of ballot boxes. Some MPs have called for thorough investigations into any apparent corruption and strong-arm tactics before results are announced at the end of next month. However, they were not optimistic this would happen.
"The election was not free and fair," said Parween Dorani, an MP for the Kuchi nomadic community. "In Afghanistan there is no democracy. Those who have power or gold are at the front." Between September 18 and 22, the electoral complaints commission received 3,138 complaints. Having sorted through 1,772 of them, the commission found 58 per cent were deemed serious enough to potentially affect the outcome of the vote.
It has vowed to do all it can to examine these cases and still ensure that final results are announced as scheduled on October 30. However, the concern that some MPs have is that, whether they win or not, much of the fraud will be overlooked. Ms Dorani's grievances are aimed largely at two male candidates who are fellow nomads. She claims one stole ballot boxes and stuffed them with votes, while the other forcibly stopped women from voting for her in a district of Kabul.
Another MP, Moeen Marastial, who represents the northern province of Kunduz, agreed that the election "wasn't fair, it wasn't free" and likened anyone who had orchestrated the cheating to a "murderer". He said ex-mujaheddin commanders who are now members of a pro-government militia had used their power to pressure people into backing particular candidates. He also alleged that a senior local official had worked actively against him on election day by telling constituents he did not need their support.
To demonstrate another problem, Mr Marastial pulled out three fake voting cards that he claimed had been used - two of which included the symbol of the United Nations. He added that local staff of the independent election commission often either "belonged to specific candidates" or had been bought off. Before the poll, bloodshed rather than fraud had been the main concern for the government and international community. Although no major security breaches took place, the Taliban did follow through on their pledge to disrupt the process. The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force has since acknowledged that there were 396 rebel attacks on the day - one-third more than during last year's presidential election.
Mr Marastial said four of Kunduz's districts were under the control of the insurgents and fighting was raging "from 7 o'clock until the evening" when people were meant to be voting. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said it "has serious concerns" with the vote. It claimed that there was ballot stuffing in 280 polling centres. Mohammad Bakhir Sheikh Zada, an MP for Kabul, said some voters had been bribed to support certain candidates and many people had also voted more than once. He doubted that those behind the fraud would be punished.
"We will hear a lot about implementing the law and preventing cheating, but in fact nothing will happen," he said. This week the election commission ordered partial recounts in seven provinces. It has cautioned against early judgments of the election, describing cases of fraud and misconduct as "inevitable in the current security climate". It has also pledged to help eliminate the effect of cheating on the final results "insofar as possible".
Despite these reassurances, Mirwais Arya, a candidate in the southern province of Ghazni running for office for the first time, said he had little faith left in the democratic process. "I think two main groups of people will go parliament," he said via telephone. "One are the candidates of the big mujaheddin parties and the second are those people supported by the current government." firstname.lastname@example.org