Democracy or disaster?

Sunday Herald

AFGHANISTAN: IT was aimed at giving the nation a common voice but Afghanistan’s election, riddled with corruption and violence, may have only added to the country’s ethnic and political tensions

AFTER weeks on the campaign trail, Afghan politics is suddenly quiet as president Hamid Karzai and his closest rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah wait for the result of Thursday’s presidential election.

Spokesmen for both candidates declared victory on Friday before bowing to pressure from the country’s Independent Election Commission to maintain a dignified silence.

“It is not the job of the campaign managers to announce the election results,” said Zekria Barakzai, a spokesman for the IEC, who estimated national turnout at 40-50%.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke met both candidates to ask them not to incite their followers. There had been fears their rhetoric might stoke violence and split the country along ethnic lines.

Karzai belongs to the Pashtun majority and derives much of his support from Pashtun voters in the south of the country, where turnout was lowest. Analysts fear that allegations of fraud among his supporters will prompt Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik, and has his support base in the north to protest against an unfavourable result, sparking violent clashes.

Another possibility is that high turnout in northern Afghanistan and low turnout in the south, where voters carried Karzai to victory five years ago, may force the race to a second round. Karzai has said in the worst-case scenario this may lead to a civil war.

“We’re in a period where the outcome is unclear … Everyone said that they would respect the process,” Holbrooke said.

The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said that the two candidates had responded with a “responsible attitude”.

International election observers also urged caution, saying it was too early to say who had won and whether fraud had affected the outcome. Violence, particularly in the south, made the vote hard to analyse.

The IEC will start to publish preliminary results on Tuesday. But election monitors have already criticised it for failing to release results from individual polling stations as they come in.

“I can’t think of an election that was this opaque, where no-one seems to have a good sense of how many people voted, whether they felt restricted or not in their ability to vote, what the breakdown between men and women was, what the support of various candidates was,” said Glenn Cowan, a principal with Democracy International. “All that information tends to act as a pressure release. You’re not getting that here.”

If Karzai receives the 50.1% of the vote he needs to win in round one, the depressed turnout in the Pashtun belt across the south and east Afghanistan, where he garners most support, may actually boost his legitimacy by showcasing him as a leader able to appeal to voters countrywide.

Some polling stations remained closed amid insurgent intimidation and violence. Residents of parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, and eastern Herat had little or no opportunity to vote. In Helmand, where thousands of British troops fought a month-long operation to provide security allowing 80,000 people to vote, just 150 were reported to have cast their ballots.

Gun-battles between militants and police raged all day in several districts in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland. Insurgents attacked the provincial governor’s palace at 3.30am and kept up a barrage of rockets, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades until after dark.

Police said they fought gun battles with the insurgents, killing several. About a dozen roadside bombs were destroyed in controlled explosions.

The Taliban targeted Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and a powerful figure in southern Afghanistan. Two rockets fizzed overhead as he voted. Another fell short of his house, blowing a young girl’s head off and wounding three members of her family. The Taliban fired more than 200 rockets across the province in total.

A few defiant Kandaharis did cast their ballots, mainly for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.

“We must make our country and now is the time,” said one voter, squatting by a puddle and trying to scrub away the indelible ink that election officials had stained his finger with. Although the ink was intended to prevent people voting twice, it also identified those who had ignored a Taliban boycott of the election.

“They will kill me,” he said, asking not to be named.

Exiting the white tent where he had just voted, another man, Mohammad Younis, recalled that the last time he had cast a ballot, in 2004, it was with a spirit of optimism.

This time a rocket exploded nearby.

“You see our situation,” he said.

By early afternoon, the explosions and the baking desert heat had driven almost everyone off the streets. Polling stations were deserted save for a few election staff. When polls closed at 4pm, 1838 men had voted at what officials said was the city’s busiest polling centre. The IEC had estimated 6000 would turn out to cast their votes. “It’s been a quiet day,” said Sediqullah, the registrar at another polling station in central Kandahar City. Only 387 people had voted there.

The numbers at female-only polling stations were even lower.

The deputy president of the provincial council said that besides security being “very, very bad,” minor irregularities in voting were being reported in Kandahar City. “First bring security, then elections,” said Toorjan Dastagir, a stocky shopkeeper who refused to visit the polling station barely a hundred yards from his store. “All night there were rockets.”

The insurgents hanged two voters in Kandahar and cut the ink-stained fingers off two others. Rumours that militants would cut off voters’ ink-stained fingers had spread before the vote. A Taliban spokesman had said militants would not carry out such attacks, but the Taliban remains a loose confederacy of individual commanders who act on their own initiative.

Overall, though, the level of violence was less than had been feared. The UN, American and Afghan officials hailed the election a success, not least because the Taliban failed to stage any of the “spectacular” attacks they had promised. The Afghan government said at least 26 people were killed in 135 incidents countrywide. US President Barack Obama called it an “important step forward”.

Meanwhile, campaign managers for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani have reported ballot-box stuffing by local commanders loyal to the Karzai family. This has been vociferously denied. Election monitors said turnout levels would give an indication of how much fraud had taken place; early indications are that a suspiciously large number of ballots were cast in places savaged by fighting.

In Kandahar one man also told the Sunday Herald that votes were being sold for $20 a time. Later, I saw people being admitted into polling stations after they had officially closed. The Election Complaints Commission has so far received 100 formal complaints about irregularities, including “allegations of ballot-stuffing in Kandahar”. European Union observers had difficulty getting to polling stations in southern Kandahar because of rocket attacks.

Nader Nadery of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said his group saw widespread problems of election officials pressuring people to vote for certain candidates. In Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, a fistfight broke out when a Karzai supporter began distributing campaign literature to people queuing to vote. In Balkh, three election workers were fired because they were campaigning for Abdullah during the election.

Election monitors saw voters carrying whole boxes of voting cards to polling sites, Nadery said. There were widespread reports of underage voters. In Kandahar, I found one 15-year old girl who had not only voted but was working as an election observer.

And yesterday, a long-shot presidential candidate displayed torn and mangled ballot papers that he said had been cast for him and tossed away by local election workers who support Karzai.

Mirwais Yasini said his supporters had found them ditched outside Spin Boldak city in southern Kandahar province. The ballots bore the stamp of the Independent Election Commission, which is applied only after they are used for voting.

“Thousands of them were burned,” he said. Spin Boldak is where campaign staff of Ashraf Ghani also alleged large-scale fraud was orchestrated by Karzai supporters.

Election observers were split in their opinions of the poll: some said low turnout reflected how dreadful security in southern Afghanistan has become. Others said just holding an election was a success. The ballot took place in a country at war, with little history of democracy, deep ethnic splits and endemic corruption.

The National Democratic Institute said it saw orderly voting, but added that the vote “involved serious flaws that must be addressed in order to build greater confidence in the integrity of future elections.”

The fact that members of the IEC were appointed by Karzai suggested a degree of bias, it said.

Democracy International reported that although violence and intimidation disenfranchised voters in large parts of the country, in more secure areas Afghans were able to cast their votes. The IEC was able to administer the elections effectively enough to prevent questions of legitimacy arising on this front, it said, but the lack of a voter list created plenty of opportunities for fraud. Around 17 million Afghans were registered to vote, although it is unclear how many hold duplicate cards.

United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide recently referred to the Afghan poll as “the most complicated elections anywhere in the world”.

After the events of last week few would question his assessment.

Taleban threats and attacks take toll on polls as voters stay away

The Times

Jeremy Page and Tom Coghlan in Kabul and Julius Cavendish in Kandahar

The credibility of Afghanistan’s presidential election hangs in the balance today after Taleban threats and attacks severely depleted voter turnout, especially in the southern province of Helmand, and observers reported widespread electoral fraud.

The Times has learnt that turnout in Helmand was as low as eight per cent and fewer than 150 people cast ballots in the district where British forces launched Operation Panther’s Claw in June to allow 80,000 more people to vote.

UN, Nato, American and Afghan officials hailed the election as a success last night, saying the Taleban had failed to disrupt a poll seen as a test of President Karazai’s popularity and international efforts to build democracy. But evidence from observers, electoral officials and polling stations visited by The Times suggests that turnout was so low, and electoral violations so rampant, that many Afghans will doubt the election’s credibility.

In Helmand, where British troops have been deployed since 2006, only about 50,000 people cast ballots out of an estimated 620,000 registered voters, according to the local election chief.

Panther’s Claw aimed to push back the Taleban and allow people to vote in the area around Nad e-Ali, Helmand’s most populous district with 107,500 residents. Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of British forces in Helmand, said last month the operation had allowed 80,000 more Afghans to vote.

But fewer than 150 people actually cast their ballots in Nad e-Ali out of about 48,000 registered voters, according to Engineer Abdul Hadee, the local head of the Independent Election Commission.

“The number we hoped to get to vote — it has not happened,” he told The Times.

Haji Ahmad Shah Khan, a tribal elder in Nad e-Ali, was one of many Afghans scared off by the Taleban’s warnings to attack polling stations and cut off voters’ index fingers, which were marked with indelible ink.

“We couldn’t come out of our house. The Taleban are patrolling the area,” he said. “Nobody could vote.”

Mullah Ghulam Mohamamd Akhund, a Taleban commander in the district, said: “Everything was fine. There were no polling centres and no voting. We didn’t face any problems.”

Engineer Hadee said there was a similarly low turnout in most of Helmand’s 13 districts despite the recent efforts of British troops, 13 of whom have been killed this month. No votes at all were cast in Nawa and Garmsir districts, which had 85,000 registered voters between them. In Nawzad, which has a population of 46,300, the vote was cancelled because there were no presidential ballot papers.

The poor turnout is troubling for President Karzai, as well as for British forces, because most people in Helmand are from the Pashtun ethnic majority from which he hails and derives most of his support.

His aides worry that low turnout across the Pashtun-dominated south could mean that he fails to win the outright majority needed for a first-round victory. That would force him into a second round run-off in early October with his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik.

“One round will be in the interest of the nation,” Mr Karzai said yesterday as he cast his vote.

Early results from near Lashkar Gar, Helmand’s capital, gave an idea of people’s affiliations in the south. At a polling station at Kareyz School, about two miles south of Lashkar Gah, there were 2,418 votes cast, of which 2,400 went to Karzai, and 18 to Dr Abdullah, according to a local councillor.

Many observers, analysts and diplomats fear that Mr Karzai’s allies may try to rig the vote to compensate for the poor turnout in the south.

Although Helmand appeared to be the worst affected province, turnout was also low in many other provinces with large Pashtun populations. “This is Karzai country but they really failed to get the vote out today,” said Tom Fairbank, an observer for Democracy International in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which voted overwhelmingly for Mr Karzai in 2004.

“The interesting thing now is to see how many people they will say voted here when they release the results.”

Observers also reported a very low turnout in the southern city of Kandahar, where the Taleban fired several rockets, one of which killed a young girl.

The biggest attack of the day was on the northern city of Baghlan, which militants stormed in the morning, shutting down all its polling stations. Between eight and 22 militants were killed in the ensuing battle, according to local officials.

In Kabul, Afghan forces killed two more militants who took over a building in the east of the city.

“The kind of spectacular attacks that we were warned about have not happened,” said Kai Eide, the UN envoy to Afghanistan.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato chief, said: “Seen from a security point of view the election has been a success.” Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said: “So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong.”

The view from Helmand was less upbeat. Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a local councillor from Nad e-Ali, said he went to his local mosque at lunchtime and asked 40 elders who they were voting for

“They said, ‘are you crazy? My life is much more important than the presidential election’. Among all those forty I was the only one to vote.”

Kandahar voters live in fear as Taleban tightens grip before election

The Times

Squatting on the floor of a traditional Afghan house the chubby cleric shrugs off yet another Taleban death threat in the run-up to today’s presidential election. This one, delivered by telephone the previous night, warned Maulavi Hekmatullah Hekmati that he would be dead within a week.

Mr Hekmati knows that the threat is real: he often denounces the insurgents on local radio and enough of his fellow mullahs have been murdered for him to live under armed guard. For him, however, as for so many others in Kandahar, the threat of assassination has become almost routine as this southern city falls deeper into the hands of the Taleban.

The city is the heart of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun majority, which rallied behind President Karzai at the election in 2004. This year, however, the Taleban have been steadily infiltrating the city and waging a campaign of intimidation designed to disrupt the poll. Graffiti, posters and “night letters” tacked to mosque walls warn people not to vote. The chatter of gunfire is commonplace.

Dozens of government employees, clerics and activists have been killed, including a prominent female politician, Sitara Achakzai, who was shot by the Taleban in April.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the chairman of the provincial council and President Karzai’s half-brother, admitted that political violence was part of life in Kandahar. “This terrorising people is always in the air, people breathe it,” he told The Times inside his heavily fortified compound. “There will be attacks. The fear is there.”

Western officials and many locals say that Mr Wali Karzai is partly responsible because he is an alleged ringleader of the province’s powerful drug trade — a charge that he denies.

The fear, for many, is that the Taleban are taking over Kandahar — although to what extent it is difficult to gauge. Some say that a recent drop in suicide attacks means they already control the city; others say that the insurgents are trying to minimise civilian casualties by carrying out fewer bombings while continuing targeted killings.

For others police corruption is the main problem. Ghafar Shah was driving to the bazaar when he was stopped by three police officers, beaten unconscious, abducted and kept in chains in a house outside the city. “I didn’t think I’d live,” he said. He was rescued and his captors were jailed, but others have been held for ransoms of as much as $1 million (£600,000).

President Karzai hopes that Kandaharis will defy such risks to back him again today — but even those brave enough to defy the Taleban have little faith in the electoral process. “In the previous election there was fraud and in this election there will be, I’m sure,” Haji Mohammad Hussein, a local man said. “The country is corrupted. The power is with gunmen.”