Tags: afghan | election | fraud | runoff

Afghan Run-off Now Only Has One Runner

Sunday, 01 November 2009 09:20 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan — What if they gave an election and nobody came?

Afghanistan took a giant step closer to political chaos Sunday as Abdullah Abdullah, who was due to face President Hamed Karzai in a runoff election on Nov. 7, pulled out of the race, citing the failure of the government to ensure a free, fair and transparent vote.

Election experts were at a loss to predict how this would affect the runoff, or the prospects for the much-needed legitimacy the elections were supposed to confer upon Afghanistan’s beleaguered government.

Any hopes that Abdullah would go quietly were dashed as the dapper former diplomat, dressed in a smart suit and trendy shirt and tie, delivered an impassioned 35-minute speech excoriating his opponent for eight years of corruption and waste. He hammered the president and the election commission for the widespread fraud perpetrated in the first round of the election on Aug. 20, and emphasized that his decision was motivated solely by a desire to serve his country and further democracy in Afghanistan.

“I will continue my struggle to bring a bright future to Afghanistan,” he said. “But I will not participate in this election.”

Abdullah had advanced a set of demands, among them the removal of the head of the widely discredited Independent Election Commission, as a condition for his participation. Karzai refused to sack the official, Azizullah Lodin, and rejected most of Abdullah’s other stipulations as well.

Although dismissing one official would probably not have had an appreciable effect on the outcome of the vote, it would have been an important symbolic move. The president has never acknowledged the full extent of the fraud in the August poll, insisting that the elections on the whole had been clean and fair, despite some irregularities.

Abdullah’s withdrawal, although widely anticipated, threw a monkey wrench into the already creaky electoral works.

The electoral commission had spent the past several days dismissing the notion that Abdullah could upset the process by pulling out.

“If one of the candidates pulls out, his name will still remain on the ballot, and his votes would be counted,” said Daoud Ali Najafi, chairman of the election commission. “It is not allowed for a candidate to withdraw.”

But international election experts disagreed. Many had spent the past few days researching the legal ramifications of the move, since there is no provision in the law for a candidate withdrawing from a two-man contest at the last minute.

If Abdullah were to officially withdraw, then votes cast for him would have to be discounted, said one election official, speaking on background. In the unlikely event that the elections do proceed, Karzai would automatically get 100 percent of the turnout.

“(Canceling the runoff) would be a good option,” said the official. “Or the IEC could choose to hold the election at enormous cost and potential for death, violence and more complaints.”

The first round of the elections cost over $300 million, and took dozens of lives. More than 400 separate attacks were registered on the day of the vote, and the Taliban have already warned that they will do their best to disrupt the runoff as well.

A third option would be to hold a purely symbolic election, opening one polling station in a secure area such as the capital. As long as Karzai received even one vote, he would be the winner, said the official.

In any case, the international community in general, and the United States in particular, seems eager to hail a Karzai victory as legitimate, no matter the circumstances under which it is achieved.

“I don't think (Abdullah’s withdrawal) has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a press conference in Jerusalem on Saturday. “It is not unprecedented.”

Kai Eide, the U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan, issued a typically non-committal statement after meeting with the IEC.

“The next step must be to bring this electoral process to a conclusion in a legal and timely manner,” he said. He gave no hint as to what mechanism might be used to achieve such a result, however.

Ordinary Afghans just want an end to the long-drawn-out agony of the election process.

“I am done,” said Belal Ahmad, a resident of Lashkar Gah, capital of volatile Helmand province. “I voted in the first round, but now I do not care whether they hold this second round or not.”

Helmand, a southern province where the Taliban hold sway over much of the area, was one of the primary locations of “ghost polling centers” — approximately 1,500 polling sites that were supposed to be opened in insurgent-controlled areas. The Afghan security authorities were unable to guarantee the safety of voters, so tribal elders offered to hold the elections in their homes. In reality these stations saw almost no genuine voters — but they were provided with ballot papers, ballot boxes and all the accoutrements such as stamps, indelible ink and special hole-punchers, needed to manufacture the vote.

Peter Galbraith, former deputy to the U.N. Special Representative, has warned that these polling stations were the source of much of the fraud that characterized the August elections.

Jan Agha, who worked with the IEC in Helmand, told how it was done:

“I have two trucks and I provided transport for many of the polling stations in the first round,” he explained. “We ourselves stuffed the ballot boxes in those polling stations where nobody showed up. If somebody did come by, we would tell them, ‘sorry, we are out of ink’ or ‘the hole-punch doesn’t work.’ Those polling stations did not exist.”

Jan Agha is one of the few who hopes the elections will go forward despite Abdullah’s withdrawal. “I’ll make more money,” he laughed.

Last week the IEC announced that, contrary to U.N. recommendations, it would open even more polling centers this time around. Given this, as well as the absence of any substantive measures to curb fraud, people doubt that the second round, if it does go ahead, will be better than the first.

“As things stand, it is all but certain that there will not be an honest vote in Afghanistan on Saturday,” warned Galbraith in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
One election monitor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed.

“These elections will be a farce,” she said. “In the first round I saw everything you hope not to see in an election, and this time will be even worse.”

One source close to the IEC could not conceal his bitterness.

“It will be a unique election in the world, except in communist regimes,” he said. “There will be only one candidate who will receive 95 percent of the vote. There will be misuse of human and financial resources, and in the end we will have an illegitimate government.”

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Sunday, 01 November 2009 09:20 PM
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