Increasing accounts of Fraud cloud Afghan vote

Posted in Afghanistan | 31-Aug-09 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: New York Times

A watchman at a school in the Afghan village of Pul-i-Charkhi, where ballot boxes in the recent election were said to be stuffed.

PUL-I-CHARKHI, Afghanistan - A Kabul teacher assigned to run a polling station in this village arrived at 6 a.m. on Election Day to find the ballot boxes already full, well before the voting was to start. When he protested, the other election officials told him to let it go; when he refused, he was taken away by the local tribal chieftain's bodyguards.

Now he is in hiding and receiving threats, he said. And the village's polling place is under investigation in one of the most serious reports of fraud that officials worry could affect the results of the country's Aug. 20 elections - in this case, as in many others, in favor of President Hamid Karzai.

Afghan election officials said Sunday that the serious fraud reports that they were considering had suddenly doubled - to 550 from 270, in a development likely to stoke public outrage and perhaps even delay the official results past September. By law, each of the more serious cases, out of more than 2,000 complaints of irregularities so far, must be investigated before the elections results can be certified.

Western officials say they are increasingly ill at ease with the prospect of a national government in limbo even while American and NATO troops are pressed by the Taliban in a new phase of war that commanders concede is not going well.

"It does indicate there were a lot of allegations that have to be taken seriously, and if fraud did take place, that it was systematic," said Martine van Bijlert, an analyst with The Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent policy research organization. Concern was mounting among members of the international community, but there was uncertainty about how to deal with it, she said.

Politics in Afghanistan works through a system of tribal, factional and ethnic networks in which power brokers organize support for a candidate in return for money, power or position. Yet this election has surpassed previous ones in the scale of bribery, corruption of election officials, ballot stuffing and altering the count, election observers and political analysts said.

Mr. Karzai and the leading opposition candidate - his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah - both claim to be winning. With just over a third of the vote counted as of Sunday, Mr. Karzai had expanded his lead with about 46 percent of the vote, election officials said, but he remained short of the necessary 50 percent to win without a runoff vote. Mr. Abdullah was reported to have just over 31 percent.

But as the reports of fraud widen, the legitimacy of any results is coming under increased question. The reports from this sprawling settlement of mud-walled houses show why.

Opponents of Mr. Karzai have accused the local member of Parliament, Hajji Mullah Tarakhel Mohammadi, of organizing the ballot stuffing in Pul-i-Charkhi in order to deliver thousands of votes in favor of Mr. Karzai. The scale is such that it will change the overall result for Kabul Province, they said.

Mullah Tarakhel, 30, a colorful tribal figure whose nickname is Crazy Tarakhel, denied any ballot stuffing in an interview at his home. But he said he had urged his tribe to vote for Mr. Karzai.

Mullah Tarakhel is a leader of the Kuchi tribe, traditionally nomadic Pashtuns estimated to number more than a million people, and he boasted that across 18 districts of Kabul Province, Kuchis produced 180,000 votes for Mr. Karzai. Just in this dusty settlement on the eastern edge of the capital city, nearly 50,000 people voted, so many that they needed more ballots, he said.

But those claims were put in doubt after a British journalist, Tom Coghlan of The Times of London, visited the settlement, just half an hour from the center of the city, on the morning of the elections. Mr. Coghlan arrived at the Hajji Janat Gul High School an hour after the polls had opened, and found no voters. But he did find 12 ballot boxes already full. The lists indicated 5,530 people had already voted, an impossibility in such a short time.

The Kabul teacher, who did not want to be identified by name for fear of reprisals from Mullah Tarakhel, was assigned to be an election worker at the same school, named after Mullah Tarakhel's late father.

"I said that during the training we were told we must have empty boxes at the beginning," he said. He found pre-filled boxes.

The election officials, all locally hired from Mullah Tarakhel's tribe, tried to persuade him to drop his protests. Then Mullah Tarakhel telephoned him and asked him to accept the boxes as valid. When he refused, four of Mullah Tarakhel's armed guards came in a car and took him away and kept him under guard for the rest of the day.

A week later there were few traces of the election at the Hajji Janat Gul High School, except for a broken ballot box seal and a pink sheet posted on a classroom wall showing the ballot count. The numbers had been visibly altered and did not tally. The total ballots cast were 600, but Mr. Karzai was shown to have 996 votes. Two other candidates won 4 votes and 1.

At least three presidential candidates have raised concerns about the ballot stuffing in Pul-i-Charkhi, including the former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, and Sarwar Ahmadzai, both of whom had hoped to pick up votes from Kuchis through their own tribal affiliations.

Mr. Ahmadzai, who met with the United States ambassador in Kabul for electoral affairs, Timothy Carney, before holding a news briefing at his home in Kabul last week, said fraud in Mr. Karzai's favor had been so extensive that he wanted a rerun of the vote in the entire ethnic Pashtun belt that stretches across 12 provinces, a third of the country.

Mr. Ahmadzai accused Mullah Tarakhel of stuffing the boxes with ballots in favor of Mr. Karzai in his house in Butkhak and of getting 90 percent of Kuchi votes by fraud. "We will give them a chance to see how they announce the results; otherwise, if the results are announced with fraud, then our people will go out on the streets all over the country to protest," he said.

Mr. Abdullah, whose main aim is to win enough to force a runoff, accused Mr. Karzai last week of "state-engineered fraud," and challenged the world not to turn a blind eye. On Saturday his campaign team posted video clips of reported instances of fraud.

If fraud is proved in Pul-i-Charkhi and similar cases, the ballot boxes will be excluded from the general count, election officials said. Other suspicious cases have been found in places like Paktika Province, where the votes counted have outnumbered the registered voters in some areas, said one of the election commission chairmen, Fahim Hakim. In Helmand Province, where the heaviest fighting against the Taliban is happening, even the province's election commissioner, Abdul Hadi, expressed surprise in an interview at how high the reported turnout had been. Yet without witnesses and solid evidence, proving fraud may be difficult, election officials acknowledged.

International election observers who have been working for months in Afghanistan said the problem was not just individual cases of ballot stuffing, but systemic and institutional corruption. The election commission, supposedly independent, is heavily politicized, from the chairman down to local district officials appointed by the government, said one election observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the process. "The whole mechanism is flawed and the people in the system will perpetuate the fraud," he said.

Sultan M. Munadi and Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.