Evidence of fraud and poor security conditions are raising concerns that next fall's presidential elections could be compromised.
With Afghans scheduled to go to the polls in less than a year, the country's Independent Elections Commission (IEC) is in the midst of a massive voter registration drive that will continue until early February. Election officials are watching registration numbers closely because low registration could delay or derail the presidential polls.
The IEC is reporting high turnouts across the country since the drive began in October, despite insurgent threats to kill anyone who registers. Many parts of the south and east are under insurgent control.
But evidence is emerging that the registration numbers are inflated by illegal practices, such as registration of lists of "phantom voters" and those under legal voting age. Lawmakers and an elections watchdog allege that such violations are widespread and could undermine the vote's fairness.
The allegations come at a time when the incoming Obama administration has pledged to increase America's focus on Afghanistan. In addition to sending in thousands of additional troops in 2009, officials cite strengthening the fledgling democracy and building strong governance as key policy goals in the coming years.
A questionable or fraudulent election could weaken the Afghan government and its allies as well as strengthen the Taliban's hand. "This would undermine the legitimacy of whoever is elected president next year," says Habibullah Rafeh, policy analyst with the Afghan Academy of Sciences.
Allegations of fraud are backed by evidence of irregularities in various provinces. In northern Baghlan Province, for instance, some students below the legal voting age claim that election officials issued them registration cards. "A lot of us took cards, even though we were underage," says area resident Habibullah Sherzai. Another resident, Kabiri, says, "I know many youths who got registration cards. Some of my friends even have two cards."
In southeastern Paktia Province, election officials claim that almost twice as many women have registered than men – despite extreme conservativism that largely prevents women from venturing outside. Some residents in the provincial capital, Gardez, claim that, in certain cases, one person registered on behalf of others, a violation.
"In Naswan High School, some people took bribes from the provincial council to register lists of women voters," says Mahera Ahmadzai, who heads Paktia's Women's Shura. She alleges that some of the women on these lists do not exist. Other Gardez residents claim that men are registering on behalf of multiple women and that underage girls are registering. Such registrations could be used by one individual to cast multiple votes.
IEC Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Zekra Barakzai says his organization has received similar reports from Paktia and elsewhere. "We are taking these incidents very seriously, and we are sending people to investigate," he says.
According to the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an Afghan-based NGO that observed the process, multiple registrations of a single person were seen in at least 40 percent of all centers during the most recently completed phase of the drive. In one case, investigators found that some 500 registration cards were issued to one person in Badghis Province.
Investigators also found men staffing female registration centers and election officials who were members of political parties.
Poor security also obstructs the process. According to interviews with local tribal elders and provincial officials, insurgents effectively control six of Wardak's eight districts. "There are districts that I am 100 percent sure no government worker can go to," says Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament from Wardak Province. "But you are telling me that still so many people registered? I don't believe it."
The IEC claims that of the province's 90 registration centers, 82 remained open during registration. But residents say that in the Pashtun districts, many centers never opened. "I went to staff the registration office just once," says one election worker from the Syed Abad district of Wardak, who declined to be named for security reasons. "The rest of the time I stayed in my village, which is controlled by the Taliban."
Provincial officials say that election teams rarely, if ever, ventured outside district capitals. "Nobody came to our village. Almost no one has new registration cards," says a member of the Shura Council of Chakh district.
As a result, the two Hezara-dominated districts of Wardak comprise the bulk of new voters. The IEC does not release registration numbers on a district-by-district or ethnicity basis, but IEC spokesman Mr. Barakzai says that "the registration numbers in Pashtun districts are very low."
Although some people who didn't register this year may still hold valid registration cards from the previous presidential election, the factors that kept Pashtuns from registering could keep those who have cards from voting. If the results of Wardak and elsewhere are reproduced in Pashtun regions, there could be an ethnic imbalance, says Mr. Rafeh, the policy analyst.
Security concerns also threaten the elections. "If this [security] situation continues, elections will be postponed or canceled," Rafeh says. Insurgents have kidnapped or killed a number of election workers in recent months. In some areas, they have posted threats to anyone who registers to vote.
According to the Constitution, elections must take place in the spring of 2009. But IEC officials have tentatively scheduled polls for the fall. "If ... security ... doesn't allow elections, a state of emergency can be declared and the elections can be postponed even further," adds Mr. Barakzai.
"This is not the type of election we want," Roshanak Wardak, a member of parliament, says. "If you can't guarantee our security, don't expect us to come out and vote."