Monday, August 17, 2009

Electoral fraud and intimidation of the press

We saw in a recent blog posting about the August 20 presidential and provincial elections that the US is said to be negotiating with Ashraf Ghani to manoeuvre him into some as-yet-unspecified prime minister type position in the Afghan government. The reason being that "the United States might be interested in an Afghan government with a more technocratic bent."

We saw that locals in Kandahar are accusing Hamid Karzai's brother of vote-rigging by buying voter cards. It is also believed that many women living in conservative areas will be prevented from voting by their husbands.

Meanwhile, journalists are reporting increased pressures coming from government sources. "There are continuing problems with the insurgents, but a lot of our problems end up being with government," says the owner of Tolo TV.

There is more that we can add to the growing list of irregularities. In Herat, locals report outright coercion by government officials trying to get the vote out as well as suspected efforts to fraudulently use voters' unused voting cards:

Herat Officials Accused of Dirty Tricks
In parts of the province, bribery and intimidation are said to be rife

HERAT, Aug 16 (IWPR) - [...]

"I was threatened by a local commander named Samadi," said a village elder in Kajabad [Herat province]. "He said that I would face very unpleasant consequences if the villagers do not vote for Karzai. I am doing what they tell me. [Karzai] is the most powerful person in our country. How could I resist, and put myself in danger by not following orders?"

From every part of the district, the stories pile up. Bribery and threats seem to be the preferred tactics.

Jan Gul (not his real name) owns an auto parts store in the district centre. He is a popular man, and said he had been courted by campaigners for his influence among the people.

“People come to me all the time asking me to campaign for Karzai,” he said. “I participate in gatherings and read a speech that has been written for me. Powerful people have forced me to do this. I have been threatened. I have to follow orders.”

Eight years after the United States-led invasion that sent the Taleban packing, Afghanistan appears to be in worse shape than ever. The insurgency is growing rapidly, seemingly undeterred by the ever increasing numbers of foreign troops determined to put an end to their movement...

[Regarding the voting system:] Anyone with a card can cast a ballot, and the poll worker just notes down the number. No signatures or thumbprints are required.

The suspicion is that if local officials have copies of the registration cards, those inclined to falsify the vote would be able to cast the ballots of people who fail to show up at the polling station...

If the government cannot guarantee the security of polling stations, local elders may be allowed to relocate voting to their homes, according to the Independent Election Commission, IEC.

This has raised fears of massive fraud, since there will be almost no observers. Ballot boxes will be dropped off in the morning and collected at night, with little information about what happens during the day... (link)
Local notables are not the only ones feeling the pressure of extortion by government functionaries. Journalists from all over Afghanistan have spoken to Amnesty International about threats from government officials:
Journalists caught between government, Taleban
Amnesty International

AUGUST 15 - Days before the Afghan presidential elections, journalists from thirteen provinces in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International that they had recently been threatened by Afghan government officials because of their critical reporting...

“Afghans have made government corruption and failure to implement the rule of law as key aspects of the current election campaign, but some government officials want to respond to criticism by silencing the journalists who monitor government conduct and provide vital information to the voting public,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

In some cases, government officials have initiated criminal proceedings against journalists for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression and information. In other cases, government forces have even directly attacked journalists. For instance, in July 2009, five journalists were beaten by police officers in Herat for reporting on a public demonstration and police corruption.

One reporter from Ghazni, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, told Amnesty International, “People working on the Karzai election campaign are calling me and other journalists and threatening us if we report on corruption or anything bad that Karzai’s government is doing. Taleban and other groups contact me and threaten me, telling me I must stop writing any positive news stories about the elections because they don’t want people to support the elections. I am caught between these two sides.” ... (link)
Another report from IWPR reveals deeply disillusioned voters in Herat:
Young Heratis Have Little Faith in Elections
Many believe outcome of ballot will be determined by foreign powers
By Mohammad Shafi Firozi

HERAT, Aug 16 (IWPR) - “Everybody knows the United States will choose the next president of Afghanistan,” said [university student] Shah Rahman Afzali. “We should not participate in sham elections.” ...

Among Herat’s intellectual elite, it is widely believed that NATO countries will determine the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial council elections, scheduled for August 20.

Herat, which sits on Afghanistan’s border with Iran, is one of the country’s most cultured and developed cities. But political disaffection is rife, particularly among the most highly educated segment of the population.

“We are imprisoned,” said Wajiha, an economics student. “Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy control us. They claim that Afghanistan is a democracy, but this is not true.”

Another student, who did want to give his name, agreed, “I will never vote as long as foreign countries decide everything in Afghanistan.” ... (link)
In a similar vein, the BBC reports that many Afghans feel the heavy hand of US influence will be the real deciding factor in the elections: "It is a generally held belief here that foreigners in general and Americans in particular will decide next week's election."

Finally, veteran Afghanistan correspondent Jason Straziuso confirms earlier reports of a black market for election cards and reveals evidence of massive fraud in Afghanistan's south eastern provinces:
Fishy voter list sparks doubts
Seemingly inflated registration, busy black market for polling cards threatens to put results in doubt
Jason Straziuso

KABUL, Aug 14 (AP) –Voting observers expect fraud during next week's Afghan presidential election and warn that cheating will likely take place in remote or dangerous areas where independent monitors can't go.

A suspiciously high number of women – far more than men – are registered to vote in culturally conservative provinces where President Hamid Karzai expects to do well, a leading election monitor said this week. And an adviser to the top U.S. military commander said she bought voter registration cards on the black market and could have bought hundreds more.

Monitors said they would tolerate a limited amount of fraud in the Aug. 20 balloting.

"If the level of corruption or violation is under 10 per cent, it will be acceptable for me," said Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group...

But questions over fairness raise the possibility that losing candidates and their supporters will not accept the results. That could lead to political turmoil in a country where the government is struggling to exert control in many regions.

Among the questionable election figures is the number of Afghans registered: more than 17 million. The campaign of Abdullah Abdullah – Karzai's top challenger – alleges that is more than the number of eligible voters.

The CIA estimates the population of Afghanistan at 33.6 million, and says half the population is younger than 18. The country hasn't conducted a census since 1979.

The number of women registered over the last year in Paktia, Khost and Logar provinces is also raising eyebrows, Spinghar said.

Men there registered multiple women from their families – sometimes as many as 10 or 15 – saying the women could not register in person because of cultural reasons.

The dominant ethnic group in all three conservative provinces is the Pashtun tribe. Karzai, the leading candidate, is a Pashtun.

Figures from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission show 72,958 women registered in Khost, compared with 38,500 men... (link)

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