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Afghan election descends into war of numbers

A week after Afghanistan's parliamentary poll, election officials are under intense pressure over the credibility of the vote as figures show polling day was much more violent than last year's presidential election.

world Updated: Sep 26, 2010 11:00 IST

A week after Afghanistan's parliamentary poll, election officials are under intense pressure over the credibility of the vote as figures show polling day was much more violent than last year's presidential election.

Figures released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which organised the election and is overseeing the count, seemed aimed at making it appear more successful than it probably was, observers said.

The IEC's turnout figure had discounted thousands of people who were unable to vote because Taliban threats kept more than 1,000 polling centres shut, said Martine van Bijlert, of the Afghanistan Analysts' Network think tank.

Referring to an IEC statement that 4.3 million people voted, she said: "Even the actual numbers don't represent a turnout figure. They just tell us how many ballots have been used, they don't tell us how many people went out to vote."

Afghan and international news reports have detailed eyewitness accounts of intimidation, ballot stuffing and other irregularities that have the potential to alter the final results.

Violence -- initially played down by the Afghan government and its supporters in the international community -- was one-third higher than during last year's presidential poll, NATO's latest figures show.

Afghans went to the polls on September 18 for the country's second parliamentary election since the Taliban regime was overthrown in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

More than 2,500 candidates stood for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, with final results expected on October 31.

The Taliban, waging an insurgency dragging towards its 10th year, threatened attacks on polling centres and warned people not to vote.

The poll followed the presidential election in August last year, which set a benchmark for both fraud and violence, with more than a million ballots -- most for incumbent Hamid Karzai -- cancelled as fraudulent.

As counting continues, claims of irregularities have grown, with the country's main election observer body, the Free and Fair Election Foundation noting fake voter cards, proxy voting, ballot stuffing, underage voting, voter intimidation and washable ink that allowed for multiple voting.

Observers have also noted irregular voting patterns and higher than 100 percent turnout in some provinces.

These complaints are to be investigated by the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), which is being watched closely as upholder of the credibility of the poll and the legitimacy of the result.

"(The ECC is) not as transparent as it used to be," said Andy Campbell, country head for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

"I think every observer who has been involved in the process is justifiably concerned... that the impartiality and independence of the ECC may be trusted."

The ECC must process all complaints -- currently numbering almost 4,000 -- before final results can be announced.

"What's important is that irregularities are uncovered through the tabulation process of the IEC and the adjudication process of the ECC," said Jed Ober, of US-based Democracy International.

The IEC has already publicised a variety of possible calculations for voter turnout, ranging from 36 percent to as high as 47 percent depending on which figures are used.

Without a census it is impossible to know Afghanistan's population; a NATO official said the alliance works on an estimate of 30 million.

More than 17.5 million voters were registered, though the United Nations' said the number was more likely around 10.5 million.

The IEC said it initially planned for 12 million, but reduced the number to 9.2 million after more polling centres than expected stayed closed, effectively raising the turnout percentage as it reduced the number of eligible voters.

The vote took place amid Taliban threats, with figures from NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) showing the total number of insurgent attacks was 396.

This compared to 281 during the presidential election, which was at the time described as Afghanistan's most violent day for 15 years.

A "typical day" saw 170-180 insurgent incidents across the country, a senior ISAF officer said, on condition on anonymity.

The Afghanistan Non-Government Organisation Safety Office said it had recorded 443 insurgent attacks on polling day, a 56 percent increase over the 284 attacks it recorded last year.