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Ballot-stuffing witnessed amid troubled Afghanistan vote

As Afghans voted Saturday, a reporter in Wardak Province spoke to an election worker about how his team had set out to stuff ballot boxes. The widescale fraud in Wardak may speak to troubles in the broader Afghanistan vote.

By Anand GopalCorrespondent / September 18, 2010

Pro-government militiamen (l.) detained poll workers Saturday in Wardak Province, Afghanistan, amidst allegations of ballot-stuffing.

Anand Gopal/The Christian Science Monitor

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Saydabad, Afghanistan

When campaign aide Qais showed up at a polling center in the troubled province of Wardak Saturday morning, he found that guards would not allow him to enter. When he tried to peer through the windows, he found that workers had erected huge cardboard sheets to block the view.

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Inside, election workers were busy stuffing ballots on behalf of a candidate named Hajji Wahedullah Kalimzai. Although only about 20 men had come to vote thus far, hundreds of ballots were being marked in favor of Mr. Kalimzai.

It was a scene repeated throughout the province. The elections in Wardak were marred by widescale fraud, violence, and an extremely low turnout, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the new class of lawmakers that will represent the province.

“There were almost no elections in Wardak,” said Ghulam Hassan, a local elder. “The votes were stolen right in front of our eyes.”

The turn of events in Wardak likely represents a larger trend in a number of restive areas throughout Afghanistan, where Taliban threats limit the ability of election monitoring teams to visit many polling centers.

Pro-government militia force way into polling center

Instead, candidates rely on campaign aides, like Qais, to watch for irregularities. As election workers were stuffing ballots in a polling center in the Desht-e-Top area of Wardak, where Qais was barred from entering, pro-government militiamen who are part of a community policing initiative – or community guards, as the government prefers they be called – arrived at the scene.

With The Christian Science Monitor present, they forced their way into the polling center and detained the entire staff of eight on suspicion of ballot stuffing.

“Who are you working for?” the head militiaman screamed, pointing his weapon at them. The men, whose hands were tied behind their backs with scarves, hung their heads and professed their innocence.

But the militiamen discovered hundreds of sheets with the identification information for thousands of registered voters, which is normally only available to election workers in administrative centers.

“You might as well tell the truth now, because if you don’t, we have ways of making you talk,” the head militiaman said angrily. Finally, the cowed men divulged all – they were working for Kalimzai, a local powerbroker and candidate.

The militiamen took the detained workers away, but decided to leave one behind at the polling center in case anyone showed up to vote. No one did.

Later on, this election worker, who was in charge of the polling center, described in detail how his team had set out to stuff the ballots. “We were given $200 each by Kalimzai’s people to fill out the ballots for him,” he explained, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In the early morning, about 20 people braved the Taliban threats to come to cast a ballot. After nearly two hours, when it was clear that no one else would dare to show, the team dismantled the cardboard voting booths, used the large cardboard pieces to cover the windows, and then went about their work, filling out ballots and matching the corresponding data with their voter lists.

The man supposedly behind the attempted heist, Kalimzai, is the head of a major construction company. Like many of his rival candidates, associates and officials say he has become wealthy from contracts with the foreign forces.

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