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Will fraud mar credibility of Afghan elections?

Afghanistan observers say they expect irregularities in the voting for Thursday's presidential elections but added that their concern lies in whether the problems would rise to a level that would impact the credibility of the balloting.

world Updated: Aug 19, 2009 19:45 IST

Afghanistan observers say they expect irregularities in the voting for Thursday's presidential elections but added that their concern lies in whether the problems would rise to a level that would impact the credibility of the balloting.

The election has been problematic even to mount in a country plagued by a Taliban insurgency, poor infrastructure and high illiteracy. Not only have Taliban militants vowed to disrupt the voting and retaliate against voters, but more than 3,100 donkeys, have also been dispatched with voting supplies to areas that are otherwise inaccessible.

"If you are talking about free and fair (elections) in terms of an established democracy, then I think that goes beyond the expectations of a country like Afghanistan, in conflict with weak structures and institutions," said Kai Eide, the UN special representative in Afghanistan.

"This is the most complicated elections I have ever seen," he said.

He said that while improvements had been made to prevent fraud since the 2004 presidential election, problems would persist.

"Will there be irregularities? Yes, I feel there will," Eide said.

"I believe and hope with the measures that have been undertaken it will be possible to keep it at the level which will not affect the credibility of the elections."

Problems identified in the run-up to the voting by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent election-monitoring group, included voter registration of minors, multiple registration cards issued for one voter and registrations of women based on unverifiable lists provided by their male relatives.

The campaign of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, the main rival of incumbent and frontrunner Hamid Karzai, charged that the number of people registered, 17 million, exceeds the number of eligible voters in a country of an estimated 30 million people, half of whom are believed to be under the voting age of 18.

Abdullah and other presidential candidates accused Karzai's campaign of manipulating the vote, and the spectre of fraud was raised by the former diplomat at a campaign rally this week in Kabul: "If there is not vote-rigging, the people will win. If your vote is not stolen, you will put an end to this corrupt government."

At the back of election officials' minds is the June presidential election in Iran and charges made by its opposition that fraud stole the election for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The accusations resulted in deadly protests and some governments refusing to recognise Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Several officials within Abdullah's campaign have predicted street violence while a number of other candidates have warned about post-election implications if Karzai should win.

What was at stake after the election was made clear by Eide Tuesday. "The political establishment must come together to demonstrate ... a unity of purpose after the elections. Afghanistan cannot afford anything else. A national consensus must be formed to address the most critical problems this country faces."

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent policy research organisation, shared the fears of election fraud. He said Afghans from across the political spectrum have told him that manipulation in Thursday's election would be worse than that seen in 2004.

He said there are not enough Afghan or foreign election observers, who number 271,000, and expressed particular concern about polling stations where no observers would be present.

"We face a series of black holes," he said. "What will take place in these black holes during the election is anybody's guess."

Large-scale corruption was feared in the south, where Karzai's loyalists were trying to persuade the Independent Election Commission to open more than 400 polling centres deep inside the Taliban heartland with large numbers of Pashtun voters, Karzai's power base.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's brother and head of the Kandahar provincial council in the south, said he had struck a deal with several Taliban commanders to allow voting to take place in their areas.

Amrullah Saleh, head of the Afghan intelligence service, also said Taliban fighters in Kandahar and Helmand provinces have agreed to allow balloting.

However, the Independent Election Commission has said it would not open polling centres in areas that could not be secured by Afghan security forces. Commission officials said they fear that without security forces or election observers overseeing the process, the ballot boxes would be stuffed with fraudulent votes.

Ruttig said free and fair elections were not realistic in Afghanistan but the priority was what Afghans would think of the voting. "It's about elections that are acceptable for Afghans, but I doubt whether that will be the case here," Ruttig said.

Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, was more hopeful: "Nowhere in the world can we ensure 100 percent fair elections, and what is important is to make sure that the people of Afghanistan can participate in the elections and the results are accepted by them.

"As an Afghan I am confident that we have survived so many years of war and will be able to be successful in these elections too."