Herat Officials Accused of Dirty Tricks

In parts of the province, bribery and intimidation are said to be rife.

Herat Officials Accused of Dirty Tricks

In parts of the province, bribery and intimidation are said to be rife.

The mullah looked nervous about speaking to a reporter.

“Who will guarantee our safety if we tell the truth about what is happening here?” he said.

Mawlawi Ahmad (not his real name), preaches in a mosque in the Shindand district of Herat province. He insisted that he not be photographed or recorded.

“This election is for the people,” he said. “Anybody should be able to vote for whomever he or she wants. But here things are different. Powerful men enter villages and impose their will on the population. They have asked me several times to work for a specific candidate. When I refused and tried to stop them, they offered me money. I finally understood that nobody can stand against them.”

Shindand district, 100 kilometres from Herat city, is one of the largest and most heavily populated areas in the country. As Afghanistan prepares to go to the polls on August 20 to elect a new president, as well as some 420 provincial council members, many of Shindand’s residents are complaining of interference by local leaders in the campaign.

“People are uneducated, and do not know their rights,” said Mawlawi Ahmad. “This could very easily lead to fraud in the elections.”

With just one week to go before the vote, the question of the poll’s credibility is being raised. Turnout is likely to be low due to a lack of security as well as widespread voter disaffection. Many expect significant fraud, exacerbated by a dearth of election monitors and growing insecurity.

According to the residents of Shindand, these fears are well-founded.

“I was threatened by a local commander named Samadi,” said a village elder in Kajabad. “He said that I would face very unpleasant consequences if the villagers do not vote for [incumbent president Hamed] 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.

Development has lagged, aid money has been misdirected or embezzled, and the population is very far from the optimism and enthusiasm that surrounded the country’s first presidential election in 2004.

Karzai won a first-round victory then, in a field of 18, with 54 per cent of the vote. While still favoured to win this election, Karzai has lost much of the lustre that clung to him during his first campaign.

He has, however, consolidated his political power. Once derided as “the mayor of Kabul” for the weak authority the central government had in much of the country, he has been able to field a team of campaigners that are said to have alternately bullied or cajoled the local population.

While Karzai’s campaign team is not the only one to face accusations of arm-twisting or bribery, his incumbency appears to have worked in his favour.

Residents of Bagh-e-Jahan, about 30 km from the district centre, complain that village leaders – who locals assume, rightly or wrongly, are loyal to Karzai – collected their voter registration cards and copied them, with the copies being sent on to the authorities in Kabul.

Many are now suspicious that their cards will be misused, although officials have apparently told them that the purpose of the copying procedure is to ensure that everyone who’s registered to vote will receive state aid.

Abdul Satar, a teacher in Bagh-e-Jahan, said, “The village leaders told us that we would get some kind of assistance if we gave our cards. I handed in mine, as well.”

Abdul Wahab, a village leader in the area, admitted that voter registration cards were collected and copied. He seemed nervous to be sharing his information, but he spoke willingly.

“We received orders from Kabul to collect people’s cards and make copies, so that the people could be supported after the elections,” he said.

The issue of registration cards could be pivotal if allegations of fraud surface after the elections. Afghanistan has no universal voter rolls, no names and addresses. 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.

IWPR reporters spent a day in Kabul and a day in Herat attempting to contact Karzai’s campaign team about their alleged electoral tactics, but they would not respond to our enquiries.

Shindand’s district governor, Lal Mohammad, confirmed that voter registration cards had been collected by some organisations. He called it “re-registration”, without elaborating.

Lal Mohammad said that he, too, had heard that local commanders had been misusing their authority during the campaign, but he would not be drawn into a discussion of which candidate had been the beneficiary of their tactics.

“I do not think that the election process is proceeding properly in Shindand,” said Lal Mohammad. “More than 60,000 eligible voters have not received cards. This calls into question the whole legitimacy of the elections. Also, tribalism still dominates the political debate: people look first at a candidate’s tribal background, rather than his personality or his qualifications.”

Security, he said, will be an issue on election day, “The central government has promised to secure the area, but we do not have enough security forces.”

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.

Local IEC officials for the western region of the country told IWPR that they had not received any complaints about powerful individuals subverting the normal campaign process. However, they did indicate concern at reports that this was happening.

General Esmatullah Alizai, police chief of Herat province, told IWPR that his forces were prepared, regardless of the threat.

“We cannot extend our operations into the furthest reaches of Herat,” he said. “It is possible that some people will try to take advantage of this to disrupt the elections but we are ready to tackle this situation.”

Maruf, a thin, worried man from Bagh-e-Jahan, was eager to speak with a reporter.

“I have four grown daughters,” he said. “I have no son to help me. I am scared at night, because God forbid that something should happen. People here are supporting Karzai because they are made to do so. The village leaders tell us that if we vote for Karzai and he wins, we will all be given a chance to fulfil our wishes.”

He stopped, and looked around, “I do not know what to wish for.”
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