Electoral fraud charges linger in Afghanistan

For some incumbent MPs and observers there are clear signs that institutionalised corruption is behind consistently flawed polls.

Afghan election workers sort ballot boxes at the Independent Election Commission warehouse in Kabul last month.
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KABUL // The allegations of pervasive corruption in Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election have led to demands by candidates and civil society groups for a top-to-bottom shake-up of the democratic process.

More than 2,400 men and women competed in the poll on September 18, but because partial preliminary results are gradually announced there are concerns that fraud will have a major hand in deciding the winners.

It is not the first time a ballot here has been plagued by claims of widespread cheating and serious questions are now being raised about the entire structure of the electoral system. For some incumbent members of parliament and observers who have watched the events of the past few weeks closely, there are clear signs that institutionalised corruption is behind much of what consistently goes wrong when Afghans head to the polls.

In the build-up to the parliamentary vote, on voting day itself and in the period that has followed, they claim that everything from nepotism to undue government influence have tarnished the democratic process. This has led to calls for deep-rooted changes to the electoral law and to the two main polling oversight bodies before public discontent grows further. It is up to the international community and the administration of the president, Hamid Karzai, to take the necessary action, said Jandad Spin Ghar, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (Fefa).

"After each election they lose their interest to support some activity to reform the system," he said. Established in 2004 by civil society activists eager to promote democracy, Fefa alone has uncovered a litany of alleged cases of fraud and irregularities in last month's vote. These include more than 300 instances of intimidation and coercion by "local powerbrokers" and ballot stuffing in 280 polling centres.

Many of the problems can be traced to what he believes was a deeply flawed electoral law passed by the president this year, Mr Spin Ghar said. He said the legislation contains "a lot of weaknesses", including the fact that there is no criteria for the recruitment of staff to the independent election commission (IEC), which means they can even be related to candidates. There is also no mechanism to carefully monitor limits on campaign financing, he said.

"If there was criteria about education for candidates, I am sure most of the warlords would not have been able to run," he said. Many of the fraud allegations that have come to light since the poll are connected to the IEC, which has delayed announcing the full preliminary results until October 17. It has always maintained it is an impartial body that aims to strengthen democracy. Since last year's controversial presidential election, where fraud was widespread, the IEC claims it has taken measures to increase its transparency and accountability.

Despite this, the commissioners continue to be chosen by Mr Karzai. Mr Spin Ghar said: "When the president is directly involved in the selection of a commissioner, of course there will be a lot of questions about their impartiality." He is not alone in his concerns. Shireen Mohseni, a female member of parliament for the central province of Dai Kundi, alleged that both the government and the IEC were "obviously" involved in the corruption.

She claimed people who had links with specific candidates were purposely hired as staff by the IEC. To prevent fraud in future elections, Ms Mohseni said, the IEC's district field coordinators, in particular, should not be allowed to work in their home provinces. Foreigners should also be members of the commission, "whether they are from the UN or any other organisation", she said. With 249 seats available in the lower house of parliament, final results are due to be announced on October 30. Acutely aware of the sensitivity surrounding the vote, both the IEC and the other oversight body, the electoral complaints commission (ECC) have been keen to stress that they are doing all they can to filter out the effect of any cheating.

The IEC has said it has a list of 142 candidates "on behalf of whom electoral frauds and violations have taken place". It has also said the chairmen or chairwomen of polling stations linked to violations will face "judicial investigation" by the attorney general's office. Yesterday it confirmed that the electoral chief in the eastern province of Khost had been arrested. The ECC, meanwhile, said it received 3,138 complaints between September 18 and 22.

Qazi Mohammad Ayoub Maher, an MP for the northern province of Takhar, suggested one way to prevent corruption in future would be to stop government officials, including the local heads of police and the intelligence service, from having access to the electoral process. He also claimed that "economic, ethnic, tribal and family" connections between candidates and the election authorities "had a very bad impact" on the ballot.

"We accept that the majority of people did not participate in the election, but those who did now have a lot of concerns that these relationships caused fraud and their clean votes will be for nothing," he said. csands@thenational.ae