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World: Protesters shut Afghan election offices as political crisis brews

The last-minute jockeying over an election already delayed by three years has again exposed a depressing reality: that after five elections over 17 years, costing about $1 billion, Afghanistan still lacks the most basic consensus on how an election should be held and a credible body to oversee it.

The offices were shut in Balkh province in the north, Kandahar in the south, and Herat in the west, according to Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, a spokesman for the election commission.

The protesters, largely supporters of powerful regional figures who have intensely feuded with President Ashraf Ghani, locked the gates of the commission’s offices in all three provinces and pitched tents outside to hold sit-ins.

Gen. Akhtar Ibrahimi, the deputy minister of interior, said the government had instructed security forces to protect the election offices and “to use force if necessary.”

A spokesman for Ghani, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, said the government was supportive of proposals to make the election more transparent, but would not allow anyone to impede the process.

“Afghan security forces have the responsibility to protect the election process,” Murtazawi said.

Afghan political parties, who have previously fought bloody wars with one another, have united in recent months to demand a delay in the Oct. 20 vote until convincing measures to ensure fairness are put in place. The parties say that the number of registered voters, announced as more than 9 million by the country’s election commission, is unrealistically high and the result of fraud. They said that can only be corrected through biometric verification.

The government, and to an extent Western officials in Kabul, accuse the political parties of holding the election process hostage and of trying to negotiate influence because they cannot rally enough of their supporters to register.

Hassan Dehqanzada, a member of Jamiat party, said it had seen evidence that one person had registered to vote as many as five times. He was one of about 100 people — including at least seven armed men counted by a reporter — blocking access to the Balkh office.

“The voters need to go through biometric verification,” he said. “Otherwise, we will not allow a fraudulent election to take place.”

Many Afghans fear a repeat of the 2014 presidential election, which was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and months of disputes that threatened to tear the country apart. This time, the vote will take place as a resurgent Taliban has taken more territory, and about one-third of the polling stations will not open because of deteriorating security.

A larger concern is a lack of faith in mechanisms to resolve election disputes, which could worsen the country’s volatility.

Abdullah Ahmadzai, a former chief of Afghanistan’s election commission, said electoral reforms have often been used for short-term “political exploitations.”

“Following each election, commissioners and leadership of the election commission have been continuously replaced, making institutionalization of elections management even more difficult,” he said. “We have not had a single commission manage more than one election in Afghanistan. On the other hand, we have not witnessed a single case where candidates were held to account for encouraging fraud and intimidations.”

Afghanistan’s coalition government, born out of the disputed 2014 election, missed deadline after deadline on reforms, postponing parliamentary elections for three years.

They were scheduled for October after the government came under pressure from international donors, who see elections as the most basic litmus test for the democratic system they helped put in place. President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, flew in to deliver a stern message: holding the elections was of “the biggest importance for the U.S.”

Creation of small, local voter lists was a basic step that gave reformers some hope. Potential voters had to show up to a registration center and get their identity cards stamped with special stickers.

Political parties now say massive fraud took place in that voter registration, where identity cards were faked and verification stickers were misused.

Registration had gotten off to a demoralizingly slow start: With just over 6,000 people registering per day, the pace was so slow that it raised fears there would be too few voters to justify an election. Then, the number picked up at rapid pace, without any improvement in security around the country.

In the end, at least four provinces — Paktia, Nimruz, Nangrahar and Nuristan — saw more than 100 percent of their estimated eligible voters registering, according to Afghan Analysts Network. Some of the provinces with highest rates of voter registration were also some of the most violent.

Sayed Hafiz Hashimi, an election commissioner, called the claims of fraud a conspiracy to derail the process.

“If it had been fraud, the numbers would have been 20 million, not what we have now,” Hashimi said. “These are real numbers. I can’t reject a small percentage of possible fraud, or repeat registrations, but that is a small portion.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Mujib Mashal © 2018 The New York Times


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