x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Week in review: Afghan election fraud

President Hamid Karzai is accused of being responsible for 'state-crafted, widespread fraud' as his chief rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah showed pre-marked ballots and presented evidence of election officials stuffing ballot boxes.

As the results from last week's presidential elections in Afghanistan started trickling in, the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, had a slight lead but may he not reach the 50 per cent threshold required for avoiding a runoff election against the second-place candidate. Final results will not be declared until mid-September at the earliest, after numerous complaints of fraud have been investigated. "Low voter turnout and the fraud allegations have cast a pall over the vote, seen as critical to efforts to stabilize the country, which is wracked by Taliban insurgents and doubts over its fragile democracy. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has accused Karzai of widespread rigging, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation, claims Karzai's camp has denied," the Associated Press said on Wednesday. The New York Times reported: "even as election officials announced the first glimpse of returns, presidential candidates presented a growing bank of evidence of vote rigging. Most of it appeared to favour President Karzai, and in some cases, to have taken place with the complicity of election or security officials. "What was presented included sheaves of ballots stamped and marked for one candidate, cell-phone video of poll workers and others marking off ballots and stuffing boxes in front of local police officers and security personnel, and votes said to have been thrown out of ballot boxes and discarded. "At a news briefing in his home in Kabul, Mr Abdullah, the president's main challenger, held a whole book of ballots and flicked through the pages to show that every one of them had been marked and stamped, apparently in advance of election day, for Mr Karzai. Supporters had seized the ballots and brought them to him, he said. "He also displayed a series of photos showing a man whom he said he knew voting several times, and video of the local election chief stuffing ballot boxes himself. " 'So which part of this process do we trust?' he said to the massed ranks of journalists and photographers. 'These were a few pieces of evidence out of thousands.' " The Independent said: "To date it is the Tajik provinces, which favour Dr Abdullah, where the majority of votes have been counted, but the picture is sure to change when southern Pashtun provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand come into the equation. Suspicions were being voiced last night that the country's Independent Election Commission had deliberately published the results from the north first to defuse protests from Dr Abdullah's supporters, and that it is 'drip-feeding' results to dissipate outrage at a large majority being given in the coming days to Mr Karzai. "The organisation has already been accused of bias and colluding in fraud. Azizullah Lodin, a former advisor to Mr Karzai, was appointed head of the organisation by decree and since then the president had repeatedly ignored calls from opposition parties to have the posting ratified by parliament. "The Karzai campaign has already claimed a landslide victory in the first round, with one minister boasting that it had received 68 per cent of the votes, 18 per cent more than needed for outright victory. "This led to a blistering response from Dr Abdullah before the release of yesterday's figure in which he accused the president of being responsible for 'state-crafted, widespread fraud'." Atif B, a former aid worker living in Kandahar who did not want his real name used for fear of retaliation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "the Taliban's objective wasn't to commit dramatic acts of violence. Its objective was to shut down the election, and it succeeded. "The village where I was born lies north of Kandahar, among the rocky hills of the Khakrez District. It has been under effective Taliban control for at least 18 months. My family home is a 15-minute drive from the district centre, but no one can go there without explaining his business to the Taliban. In such a situation, who would risk death or amputation to cast a vote he's pretty sure won't count anyway? "The situation was similar in another 13 of the 17 districts in Kandahar province. In town, I was willing to take the risk and vote. But those of us who went to the polling places scrubbed our inked fingers with brushes and soap or kerosene as soon as we left. I removed the ink because I wanted to avoid an argument with my mullah, who had exhorted us not to vote; others were afraid of retaliation. "Based on the number of my friends who didn't vote and conversations around town and at prayers, I'd estimate the turnout in Kandahar city was 20 per cent at best. Province-wide, in all but three districts, 5 per cent would be a generous guess. Total for the province? I'd estimate 10 per cent to 15 per cent." Jean MacKenzie, director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan, suggested that the elections were really a cynical public relations exercise, designed to convince the citizenry of nations sending to troops and aid to Afghanistan that their efforts have not been in vain. "The dust had barely settled on the Afghan elections before the US government, the United Nations and the European Union were hailing them as a success, commending voters for their heroism and election workers for their relative efficiency. "This would be laughable if it were not such a great shame. The elections were severely marred by violence and widespread fraud, and the results are unlikely to placate a population already frustrated by eight years of mismanagement and corruption. "The haste with which UN Special Representative Kai Eide held a press conference to say that August 20 was 'a good day for Afghanistan' merely served to underscore the central, if unappetizing, truth about the Afghan poll: It was never meant for the Afghans. "Instead, it was intended to convince voters in New York, London, Paris and Rome that their soldiers and their governments have not been wasting blood and treasure in their unfocused and ill-designed attempts to bring stability to a small, war-torn country in South Asia." In the United States, the war in Afghanistan is now being described as the current president's war, leading to fateful comparisons between the presidencies of Barack Obama and that of Lyndon B Johnson. "In this summer of discontent for Mr Obama, as the heady early days give way to the grinding battle for elusive goals, he looks ahead to an uncertain future not only for his legislative agenda but for what has indisputably become his war," wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times. "Last week's elections in Afghanistan played out at the same time as the debate over health care heated up in Washington, producing one of those split-screen moments that could not help but remind some of Mr Johnson's struggles to build a Great Society while fighting in Vietnam. " 'The analogy of Lyndon Johnson suggests itself very profoundly,' said David M Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. Mr Obama, he said, must avoid letting Afghanistan shadow his presidency as Vietnam did Mr Johnson's. 'He needs to worry about the outcome of that intervention and policy and how it could spill over into everything else he wants to accomplish.' "By several accounts, that risk weighs on Mr Obama these days. Mr Kennedy was among a group of historians who had dinner with Mr Obama at the White House earlier this summer where the president expressed concern that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency. Although Mr Kennedy said he could not discuss the off-the-record conversation, others in the room said Mr Obama acknowledged the LBJ risk. " 'He said he has a problem,' said one person who attended that dinner at the end of June, insisting on anonymity to share private discussions. 'This is not just something he can turn his back on and walk away from. But it's an issue he understands could be a danger to his administration.' "Another person there was Robert Caro, the LBJ biographer who was struck that Mr Johnson made some of his most fateful decisions about Vietnam in the same dining room. 'All I could think of when I was sitting there and this subject came up was the setting,' he said. 'You had such an awareness of how things can go wrong.' "

pwoodward@thenational.ae