Afghanistan election investigators face threats, bribes

Corruption pressures test the integrity of rag-tag provincial committees as they sift through Afghanistan election complaints.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan women walk under an election poster of a parliamentarian candidate, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sept. 22.

Seated around a room are an investigator, a legal scholar, and three judges. Their mission: Decide how to handle election complaints in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province, and therefore help determine the outcome of the Afghanistan-wide parliamentary elections that took place over the weekend.

So far, the group has disqualified three candidates, some backed by powerful people, because the candidates lied about resigning from their government jobs. Now they are digging into investigating fraud attempts during Saturday’s parliamentary elections, including accusations of police interference in the vote and poll workers lobbying for candidates.

A similar board sits in the 33 other Afghan provinces, and it is in these rooms that the battle to clean up the country’s latest election mess will be fought hardest. The secrecy of their deliberations means much rides on their integrity, along with a strong dash of bravery given the dangers of their work.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan election

“They are going to be under a lot of pressure. They will be more or less on their own for it,” says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. These provincial arbiters sit at “a level where you can dismiss complaints that shouldn’t be, or decide whether to receive complaints.”

What's riding on these complaints

Across all provinces, the Electoral Complains Commission (ECC) has now received more than 2,000 complaints since election day, and 1,700 pre-election complaints. This now exceeds the 3,072 complaints during last year’s troubled presidential election. Due to the danger of filing complaints, many more may never be filed.

Danger clearly exists also for the men and women who sit on the provincial ECCs – or PECCs – and whose decisions will make or break some candidates.

In some provinces, security for the PECC members barely extends beyond their compound.

The security factor

Most of Kapisa province, which abuts Kabul to the north, enjoys good security.

However, one of its seven districts, Alasay, saw no voting at all on Saturday. Poll workers showed up but the Taliban laid down a chain some distance away and told people not to cross it to vote, says provincial election commissioner Wakil Noor Mohammad Hanifi.

In another district, Nijrab, a suicide bomber attempted to target a polling center but was stopped by police, according to the province’s acting governor, Mohammad Sharif Akimzada. And in a third district, Tagab, “there was some shooting and violence, but the election took place,” he says.

How to verify a complaint, and handle the pressure

It’s in this partially-secure environment that the young investigator named Mohammad Mukhless ventures out to check up on a complaint.

The group can't just confront a person accused of interfering with a vote. So members of the provincial election committee interview witnesses provided in the complaint report, and Mr. Mukhless then sets off to take pictures and interview other locals. If the accusation checks out, “we call the witnesses and then the guy at the end confesses.”

The head of the PECC, an elderly man with a distinguished white beard, gets philosophical when asked about whether the group can be swayed by fear.

“First of all, we fear God. Second, we fear the law. And then we are not afraid of criminals,” says Sayed Mohsen Wadan. He points out that they disqualified three candidates who had already spent a lot of money on their campaigns and had powerful backers. “We are not scared, we are not afraid of these things.”

But international monitors express concern about how much pressure PECCs will be able to withstand, especially in less secure provinces. One concern this time is that the election commission will quarantine suspicious ballot boxes, and the candidates who lose votes as a result will lobby the PECCs hard to get their “legitimate” votes restored.

Who makes up the investigation committee?

The PECC staffers are temporary workers, hired just for elections. When the Kapisa group was asked about their previous jobs, one deflected the question with a smile saying, “There’s an expression, when you ask a jobless guy who he works for he will say I work with my uncle.”

Last year, decisions were made at headquarters in Kabul, away from the insecurity of the provinces, and a majority of the commissioners there were international members who could leave the country afterward.

This year, the PECCs render first judgment, but any of their decisions can be appealed to the headquarters in Kabul. And if a complaint is too dangerous to touch, the PECCs can forward it directly to Kabul.

The latter option is “by way of exception though,” says Johann Kriegler, one of the two international commissioners of the ECC. “I am quite a stickler for the two-tiered system.”

The reason: Having the 34 provinces handle complaints first distributes the work load and weeds out the more frivolous complaints early.

“If we are swamped, like quite frankly they were last year, the best people in the world can’t cope with that,” says Mr. Kriegler. The reliance on the PECCs “has disadvantages … you cannot ensure universal standards if you have got 34 bodies out there.”

The other worry from monitors about the current setup is that the PECCs have, so far, proved to be black boxes for information. This reporter called half a dozen PECCs before reaching one that would allow a press visit. And their decisions are only shared after the fact with the accused, the accuser, and the ECC in Kabul.

Where are the results?

The ECC has not been quick to release information about decisions, and its website still offers no English translation of the decisions made during the pre-election period.

The Kapisa PECC offered some rare data. Before voting day, the group received 15 complaints. Three resulted in disqualifying candidates, three resulted in fines (for things like illegal use of election posters), and nine were dismissed.

Since election day, the PECC received five complaints forms turned in at polling stations, and an additional 29 complaints directly from people. Six of those 29 complaints were judged to be “class A,” meaning they could impact the election results. These included intimidation by police and persuasion by poll workers.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan election

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