In Afghanistan election, a key test for fighting corruption

How election officials handle reports of fraud following Saturday's parliamentary Afghanistan election will go a long way in determining Afghans' respect for government and the rule of law.

Saurabh Das/AP
A Pashtun man looks up his desired candidate in the ballot paper as he waits in line to vote during the parliamentary elections in Kabul on Saturday.

As Afghans headed to the polls Saturday, some new safeguards against fraud had been put in place, but major challenges to the integrity of the vote remain.

Corruption and insecurity across the country empower government officials, armed strongmen, and candidates to bully and bribe election workers. And the commission assigned to handle any complaints has been weakened since last year’s fraud-marred presidential election.

The danger that this election could be dominated by reports of fraud looms large over the international coalition’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and to convince the population to resolve their divisions through democratic means. But whether dirty tricks weaken respect for the government and the rule of law in the long run will depend partly on how credibly reports of fraud are handled.

“I think the vote itself is not going to be very clean,” says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. “It’s going to be very hard, but if you can deal with this mess in a way that will convince Afghan voters that fairness was restored that would be very important.”

In previous elections, election officials and some in the international community attempted to gloss over the problems – with bad results.

“What you lose every time is, you lose [not just] the credibility of the vote but also those who are elected by the vote, those who count the vote, those who back it,” says Ms. Van Bijlert.

Indeed, there are already signs among ordinary Afghans that they are losing faith in the process.

“It’s going to be a waste of time,” says Zabiullah Sakhizada, a driver in Kabul who says he isn’t voting this time. “The last election between Abdullah Abdullah and President Karzai made me think I am done with it…. It was proved that Karzai did fraud, but still he won.”

Some improvements have been made to the election system this time around.

Last time, much of the manipulation was found to have been committed at all levels of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body running the elections. In response, the IEC chief was replaced with someone who has won respect among international experts.

Some 6,000 election workers were not rehired. And in an effort to break up any corrupt deals struck with the new batch, the IEC shuffled its top on-the-ground officials to new regions just weeks before the polling.

The measure isn’t foolproof: They could also be bribed and intimidated in their new postings. But at least many are now working outside their home regions, with little time to get snarled in local politics.

The IEC also improved the security of ballots by bar-coding them and outlawing the sharing of excess ballots at one polling station with a station next door. And the organization announced early which polling centers would be closed due to insecurity – an ambiguity that led to “ghost” stations that never opened but posted results.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. I think they’ve got a system in place that, if it’s executed as it’s designed, will be a reasonably good election. So the question is how close to the way the system is designed is it executed?” says Glenn Cowan, an election monitor with Democracy International.

But major problems have not been rectified.

The country still has no reliable voter registration roll. That weakens efforts to clamp down on multiple voting.

Reports are circulating that fake registration cards are being printed. But there’s already a glut of real cards. The IEC has distributed voter cards to 17.4 million people, but estimates that there are fewer than 12.6 million eligible voters.

And the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the body charged with adjudicating complaints and investigating irregularities, came under intense political pressure from Karzai.

The ECC worries experts. Karzai appointed the members, a majority of whom are Afghan.

One of the two international members, Johann Kriegler, tried to dial back expectations about the ECC at a press conference heading into voting day, saying the group is “not Superman.”

The other international member, Safwat Sidqi, says in a Monitor interview that, depending on the volume of complaints, “we should be finished maybe from two weeks to three weeks” from election day. That suggests the group expects to move faster or work less than their predecessors, who spent two months finalizing key rulings after the presidential election.

Transparency has been a problem. On Wednesday, they reported receiving a total of 1,089 complaints but have dealt with only 558 so far. The remainder will be decided before Saturday, they say, but as of Friday night, many decisions remain unannounced.

Asked about the lack of information on decisions, Mr. Sidqi said: “To tell you the truth, it has something to do with the culture. Any government bodies are reluctant to reveal their decisions, though it is obliged by law.” Additionally, he says, sometimes there is a reluctance to risk the lives of those who came forward to complain.

For monitoring groups, the level of action on complaints is worrying.

“We are disappointed, because we saw very little action from the ECC during the campaigns. Few candidates were sanctioned for electoral offenses, and the candidates the commission did sanction were not the most serious offenders,” said Jandad Spinghar, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan in a press release.

The ECC’s Sidqi responded that sometimes they lacked concrete evidence against violators, so “we took other measures letting them know that they might be under investigation."

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