In Afghanistan runoff, more polling stations may mean more fraud

With less than half as many election workers in Afghanistan's second round of voting, it may be even easier for "ghost" stations to submit fake votes.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Zekria Barakzai, an official of the Afghan Independent Election Commission, shows a copy of the upcoming presidential election paper ballot during a press conference at the main election office in Kabul on Thursday.

Despite having fewer poll workers and a declining security situation, Afghanistan's election commission announced Thursday it would increase the number of polling centers for the presidential runoff.

While some analysts suspect the goal is to achieve high-enough turnout for a credible result, the ambitious plan heightens concerns that fraud will once again mar the election.

The first round of voting, on Aug. 20, saw between 6,167 and 6,306 centers open. For the Nov. 7 runoff the Independent Election Commission says it will open 6,322. The decision comes as a surprise since a number of "ghost" polling centers were never opened to the public or to monitors, yet sent fraudulent voter tallies back to Kabul.

More voters vs. one fewer candidate

President Hamid Karzai's runoff rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has unsuccessfully called on the IEC to provide a list of ghost stations and remove them from the ranks of runoff centers. Dr. Abdullah has also called for top IEC officials and several cabinet ministers to be sacked, to ensure a fair and clean second round. He has hinted he may otherwise boycott the election – a move that would further depress turnout.

When it comes to the credibility of the result, the decision may indicate that the IEC is more concerned about turnout than Abdullah quitting or fraud reoccurring.

"They hope [that] by opening more sites they will increase turnout," says Haroun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. "They are not looking much at Dr. Abdullah, because if he ultimately boycotts but there's a high turnout, then the election will have credibility. But even if Abdullah doesn't boycott, but President Karzai wins with a low turnout, it will not be a credible result."

Leg-up for Karzai?

The move will likely make Karzai happy and further alienate Abdullah, says Mr. Mir. Karzai appointed the leadership of the IEC, and some its own workers were judged by an independent complaints panel to have helped Karzai during the election.

Peter Galbraith, an American who was fired from the panel after complaining that it had covered up fraud, slammed the IEC in an opinion piece in the New York Times this week. "The United Nations must stop pretending that the commission is anything other than a pro-Karzai institution," he wrote.

Some view the IEC decision in stark terms: "This is to enable them to fill up the boxes with fake ballots as much as they want," says Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper.

Organizing a runoff in less than three weeks had already posed a daunting logistical and security challenge. The IEC decision makes a fair election more improbable and is designed to push Abdullah to boycott, he says. It will require more poll workers, election monitors, and troops to maintain security – "all things that are quire impossible," he says.

There will, in fact, be fewer poll workers: 60,000, compared to 165,000 in the first round.

IEC defends decision

IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor, however, lists several reasons why the number of workers will "certainly" be enough.

First, polling centers contain within them a handful of polling stations, which are large rooms filled with voting booths, ballots, poll workers, and monitors. While the number of centers will increase, the total number of polling stations will decrease. Mr. Noor says the exact numbers of stations have not yet been decided.

Additionally, the number of districts without any polling centers will rise from eight to 11, out of a total 380. And the number of poll workers at each station will drop from five to two. Workers will have much less work to do, says Noor, since there will be no provincial council elections to also administer and the number of candidates on the presidential ballot has shrunk from dozens to two.

As for security, Noor says: "The security institutions promised they could provide a good security environment for that number," referring to the 6,322 centers. Those institutions include Afghan and international forces.

The Taliban, however, pulled off hundreds of attacks across Afghanistan on Aug. 20 – with fewer centers as targets and more time for NATO and Afghan forces to prepare. And the security environment has not showed signs of improvement, as highlighted by a deadly attack on UN workers in the heart of Kabul Wednesday.

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