Voter registration chaos ahead of Afghan poll

Many citizens thwarted in their attempts to register due to high demand

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:01

Mohammed Reza went to register this week for Afghanistan’s presidential election – but left angry and disenfranchised.

Queues, hundreds of people long, at his voting centre in western Kabul stopped him and many others from being processed, prompting a mini-riot as some attempted to force their way in.

“The police were beating them, and still they pushed to go in,” says Reza (58), a caretaker who adds that he tried and failed twice to register, then could not take any more time off work. “Male police were beating the men and the female police were beating the women.”

As Afghanistan prepares for today’s vote, in its first democratic transition of power, both its people and its western occupiers who are funding all but $2.5 million (€1.8 million) of the $129 million poll cost are watching nervously.

Much of the focus has been on the threat to the poll from fraud or violence. A police officer in eastern Afghanistan opened fire yesterday on two foreign journalists, killing Anja Niedringhaus, a veteran Associated Press photographer, and wounding Kathy Gannon, her reporter colleague.

Yet the election is also at risk from a third, poignant, phenomenon: a failure to deal with the enthusiasm of voters to take part in what has turned into a genuine contest for the future of a country seeking to escape decades of conflict.

“It’s so bad for us,” says law student Hamidullah (23), who adds he made five thwarted attempts to register in the same Kabul centre as Reza. “We feel upset because we couldn’t use our rights.”

Western powers, who have occupied Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001, are desperate for the election to go well and provide validation of the billions of dollars they have spent on reconstruction.

Election officials say they are confident this poll will be much better than the last in 2009, which was won by Hamid Karzai, who has governed since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

They point to the apparent determination of the national election commission – which withstood a Taliban assault on its headquarters last week – and the accreditation of more than 10,000 domestic observers and 250,000 candidate agents.

But in a country the size of France, where infrastructure and security are lacking in many areas, the reality is messier than the rough-edged but acceptable process portrayed in Kabul’s embassies.

More than a 10th of Afghanistan’s near-7,200 polling stations will not open for security reasons. It is probable that number will rise, despite the deployment of, according to the authorities, almost 200,000 soldiers and 150,000 police. The Taliban has threatened to repeat its 2009 tactic of chopping off people’s fingers if they bear the ink that is proof of voting.

The poll is a battle between three former senior government ministers: Zalmai Rassoul, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah.

Abdullah blames widespread fraud on his defeat to Karzai in 2009 and, along with Ghani, has warned of more possible ballot-rigging this time.

The scope for fraud is also still large, despite ballot paper security one diplomat describes as “world class”.

Population question
No one even knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, there are – the country has an estimated population of just above 30 million. The Afghan authorities’ data only covers the number of people registered since 2004, the year of the first presidential election after the western invasion – a figure that takes no account of people who have since died, or who are double-counted because they replaced lost cards.

“[The authorities] estimate that there were as many as 20 million valid voter-registration cards in circulation before the start of the top-up exercise,” says one western diplomat.

“That does not include the rumoured or surmised up to five million voter-registration cards that had been forged in Pakistan and Iran during the 2004 to 2005 cycle.”

Further fears of corruption centre on an apparently brisk trade in voting rights. Zakia Wardak, a provincial council candidate in the Wardak area west of Kabul, says she has received five offers for bundles of voter cards priced at between $2 and $5 per piece.

“One person called me and said: ‘Give me $30,000 and I will make you a winner,’” she says. “I said: ‘No thank you, $30,000 is a lot of money, and I can put it in a business and make more.’”

The greatest pressure of all on the election may come from the way it is organised. This is an analogue vote for a digital age: while results are due to be posted at – and tweeted from – individual polling stations on the night of the election, a provisional national result is not expected for at least two weeks, creating many possibilities for disputes.

If a second round is needed, the winner is unlikely to be announced before June or even July – potentially leaving Afghanistan without a president, as Karzai’s term ends on May 21st. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)