x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Critics say election in Afghanistan is hardly fair

Allegations of ballot-stuffing in parliamentary elections could leave large sections of the country's electorate disillusioned.

KABUL // The effect from Afghanistan's parliamentary election is already being felt, with allegations of widespread fraud and warnings of possible unrest dominating the political landscape here. Saturday's poll initially received quick, if cautious, praise from the international community, including the United Nations and the United States. The official estimated turnout of 40 per cent was also higher than many people had anticipated following Taliban threats beforehand. The insurgents had called on people to boycott the event and warned they would take "certain measures" to disrupt it.

However, analysts and voters are now bringing much of that initial optimism into question amid reports of massive corruption and numerous incidents of violence. At least 17 people are now known to have died on Saturday. There are also growing fears that large sections of the electorate will be left disenfranchised and disillusioned as a result of what critics believe was a deeply flawed democratic process.

Chief among their concerns are allegations of ballot-stuffing that have recently come to light. "In Afghanistan several elections have been held and obviously all of them had some shortcomings. But the parliamentary election of a few days ago was the worst of them. In this election there was a huge amount of fraud and cheating," said Dad Noorani, an independent political analyst and commentator. He added that the public had been disillusioned even before Saturday's vote. The fallout now, he warned, could be catastrophic.

"The people will eventually think and realise that this democracy the government wants to apply is worse than the dictatorships in our history," he said, before adding: "And they will think what the Taliban are saying is right." More than 2,400 men and women are competing for the 249 seats available in the lower house of parliament. Now there is speculation that the final results could be delayed beyond the scheduled announcement at the end of next month, with candidates mired in allegations of fraud expected to launch appeals and a flurry of claims and counter-claims.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan has said ballot-stuffing was reported in 280 polling centres across 28 provinces. Underage voting took place in 1,259 polling centres and fake voting cards were used in at least 352 polling centres, the group claims. While cautioning against any definitive early conclusions, it said it had "serious concerns about the quality" of the election. Security was tight in the capital, Kabul, on Saturday and there were no major incidents inside the city. But sporadic attacks did take place across the country. In the northern province of Baghlan, one Afghan soldier and six pro-government militiamen were killed. Other provinces notably affected by violence included Kandahar, Nangarhar, Kunar, Khost, Takhar and Kunduz.

Despite this, there was an initial sense in some quarters that proceedings had gone better than expected. The US Embassy issued a statement that said "millions of courageous men and women went to the polls and exercised their democratic right to vote", but added that the quality of the election could not yet be judged. Praise also came from the UN's envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, although it was tempered with caution as well. "I would wait to talk about success," he said.

Asadullah Yusufi, who works in a predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of west Kabul, acknowledged that he was worried the situation in the country could ultimately deteriorate because of the fraud that had taken place. "I know our people are hungry and money can play a very good role in an election. I trust the election was 50-per-cent fair, but we heard some people sold and did deals with their voting cards," he said.

More than 1,000 polling centres were closed even before the election because of security fears. Those worst hit were largely places dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group. Mohammed Zubair Shafiqi, the chief editor of the Weesa daily newspaper, warned that the election would stoke anger among them, saying they "were not allowed to use their rights". He criticised the United States and its allies for failing to provide security and added that "we hope it was a mistake, not a deliberate policy".

"In the long term it will have a very bad effect on the international community," he said. "The majority of people in this country, who are Pashtuns, will cut their co-operation with the international community and by cutting off this co-operation both sides will face more problems." @Email:csands@thenational.ae