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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.

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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.

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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.”