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 , Correspondent

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

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.

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“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.

But locals, election workers, and some government officials say that the fraud in Wardak doesn’t end there. The militiamen who detained the election workers here are connected to a rival candidate, Hajji Akhtar Muhammad Taheri, known by locals simply as Hajji Akhtaro.

Mr. Akhtaro has himself been widely accused of a massive vote-stealing scheme in recent days, a charge he denies. “People who tell you that I am doing fraud are intentionally trying to make problems,” he says.

Akhtaro is also well-connected to the foreign forces, having risen to prominence by running a logistics company that brings supplies to troops from Bagram Air Base to smaller outposts. The militia he is tied to is known as the Afghan Public Protection Force, an American-backed initiative meant to create a community police force as a bulwark against the Taliban.

But the force has come under the sway of local powerbrokers, residents say, and in these elections have been closely connected to certain candidates like Akhtaro.

A number of government officials in Chak and Saydabad districts insist that Akhtaro’s men, with the help of this militia, stuffed thousands of ballots the night before the elections. A campaign aide for Roshanak Wardak, currently a member of Parliament and running for reelection, claims to have witnessed the incident and as a consequence was detained by the militia.

When the Monitor visited Sheikhabad, a town in Wardak’s Saydabad district, the polling center was closed six hours ahead of schedule. Local residents and poll workers said that the center had closed because Akhtaro’s supporters and those of a rival candidate, Hajji Musa Hotak, had been trying to stuff ballots for their respective candidates at the same time, leading to a brawl.

Polling centers open but empty

A number of other polling centers in the area were open but empty, save for a few policemen milling around. Police officers reported that only a few dozen had come to vote in each site, but the ballot boxes were filled to the brim. By 11 a.m., four hours into the polling day, almost all of the polling centers in the southern half of Wardak were closed, according to local reports.

In the capital, Maydan Shahr, almost all of the voters were ethnic Hazaras that were brought in groups from Kabul – almost no Pashtuns voted, despite Wardak being majority Pashtun. (Some local reports say that voting did take place in the Hazara parts of Wardak, however.)

Some government officials, however, said that turnout had been high. “Many people have voted, and almost all of the polling centers are open,” said Haleem Fedayee, Wardak governor in the morning. “It looks as if about 90 percent of the people will vote today.”

The Electoral Complaints Commission, an Afghan body, will in the coming months be tasked with assessing the level of fraud. The commission has the right to disqualify ballots it finds are fraudulent – which in last year’s presidential elections amounted to nearly a quarter of all votes. The process of determining fraud took months.

This year’s process will likely be even more complicated, given the number of candidates and the fact in some places, many of them are suspected of fraud. In Wardak, each of the four major candidates, three of whom have been described in this story – Kalimzai, Akhtaro, and Hotak – are thought to be involved in vote stealing, according to a number of Afghan authorities, locals, and a Western official who focuses on Wardak Province.

While the polls have gone well in some provinces, in Wardak they have bred resentment. “These elections are a shame. They are an embarrassment,” says Roshanak Wardak, who is one of the few prominent candidates who has not been accused of impropriety. She was forced to stay in her home Saturday in Saydabad, after receiving threats that she believes came from other candidates.

“Those who have money can do whatever they want,” she says. “They have destroyed these elections.”

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