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Afghan Voters' Dismay at Poll Fraud Claims in Southeast
Serious allegations of abuse by candidates’ election agents have been made in the southeast Afghan province of Khost. The list of alleged offences includes stuffed ballot-boxes, officials being intimidated, and an election monitor who was abducted and beaten up.
Residents of this mountainous province near Pakistan say they voted in the April 5 presidential and provincial council elections at great personal risk. Some say that unless the fraud allegations are addressed, they will not bother to come out again in the event of a presidential run-off vote.
At the moment, it looks as though the two leading contenders, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, will face each other in a second round. Early returns indicate that both won in the region of 40 per cent of the vote.
Media in Khost reported that on election day, a local campaign agent for another candidate, Zalmai Rasul, broke open ballot boxes and stuffed them with already marked papers.
Mohammad Nabi Kochai, an election observer who witnessed the incident, said the campaign agent, Arefullah Pashtun, arrived at the polling station with an entourage of armed men.
"First, he threatened a number of staff involved in counting votes. Then he broke open [five] boxes, removed votes for Ashraf Ghani and replaced them with votes for Zalmai Rasul,” Kochai said.
Ghani's campaign manager in Khost, member of parliament Homayun Homayun, said he too witnessed the incident.
"When I arrived at the polling station, I saw ballots for Ashraf Ghani being taken out of the boxes and votes for Zalmai Rasul placed inside."
Arefullah Pashtun denied the allegations outright, saying he would never lower himself to something so uncivilised.
In turn, he alleged that his own candidate had been the victim of the ballot-stuffing.
"I received a call that Zalmai Rasul's votes were being taken out of ballot boxes and votes for another candidate are placed there. When I arrived at the polling station, the boxes were broken and the ballots were gone,” he said. “I don’t know which candidate’s supporters did this."
The authorities are taking claims of ballot stuffing seriously but have not identified the culprits.
Mobarez Mohammad Zadran, spokesman for Khost’s provincial governor, said an election observer and a security guard at the polling station had been arrested and were now being questioned.
A few days after election day, IEC staffer Ali Gol Lemar Niazai was abducted and beaten up by armed men. Niazai managed to get away and later gave a press conference at which he linked the attack to members of Rasul’s campaign team.
He said that on election day, he had forced one of Rasoul’s campaign agents to leave a polling station because the man had no ID. He said the men who abducted him questioned him about this, and also about a Facebook post in which he claimed that another member of Rasul’s campaign team, parliamentarian Kamal Naser Osuli, had tried to coopt him.
"I hereby inform all security and civil institutions that my family and I are not safe,” Niazai said at the press conference. “The people who have kidnapped me should be punished harshly."
In response, Osuli denied that he or anyone else associated with Rasul’s campaign had resorted to intimidation or violence, both of which he condemned.
He said the claims had been concocted to damage his reputation.
"I myself fight against criminal networks in Khost. I am in no way involved in such incidents," he said.
Officials say they are dealing with three separate incidents – the ballot-stuffing at one polling station, the attack on Niazai, and claims by a district-level local government chief that he was threatened by supporters of one of the candidates.
According to provincial police chief Faizollah Ghairat, "We have arrested individuals in connection with the breaking of ballot-boxes. The boxes have been quarantined."
Ghairat said the other two cases were currently being investigated.
Fahim Naimi, a spokesman for the Free and Fair Elections Foundation for Afghanistan, urged the authorities to look into all the allegations as a matter of urgency. He specifically addressed his remarks at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Election Complaints Commission (ECC).
"If these complaints are not reviewed, the very existence of the IEC and ECC will be undermined, he said. “And if – God forbid – the elections go to a run-off, and offenders in the first round have gone unpunished, that will have a negative impact on the level of participation in the second round."
Many voters interviewed by IWPR agreed that if it turned out that the rich and powerful enjoyed the same impunity as in past years, the electoral process would lose all meaning.
"Our district is very unsafe. The Taleban issued ‘night letters’ [covertly distributed panphlets] warning that anyone who voted would be killed. But we voted nevertheless,” Mali Khan Yaqubi, a resident of Khost’s Sabari district, said. “Now powerful individuals are interfering [in elections] – that makes them traitors to the nation, because they are dragging Afghanistan towards instability.
“We were not killed in the first round, but the government is definitely going to get us killed in the second round."
Others like Zahed Shah Angar of Khost city agreed that the elections had involved huge risks on the part of voters and the security forces, making it all the more troubling to see strongmen come in and stamp all over the ballot’s legitimacy.
"If things continue like this, even intellectuals may not go and vote in a second round, let alone the general public, because people will have lost their faith in elections," said Faruq Jaan Mangal, who represents the NGO Mediotech in Khost.
IEC officials in Khost said they had noted the three cases of particular concern, as well as hundreds of other complaints in the province, and would investigate them thoroughly. (See Election Fraud Alleged in Khost on other concerns here.)
"People break the law in every country and region, but offenders must be punished,” provincial IEC head Jawed Wafa.
He urged voters not to be daunted and – if the presidential ballot came to a second round – to come out in as massive numbers as they did in the first.
"We are very punctilious about keeping people's votes safe; we hold them in respect,” he added.
Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost province.
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