KABUL: There are still days to go and no one has cast a ballot yet. But leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election are warning that fraud will play a big role in the vote, raising fears of bitter antagonism following Saturday’s crucial poll.
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the frontrunners in the race to replace Hamid Karzai as Afghan president, has reiterated his concerns about “industrial-scale fraud” in the vote. His rival, the former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, recently told the Guardian his team was trying to pre-empt the kind of fraud that riddled the 2009 voting, adding: “People will not be deprived of their right to good governance.”
Large-scale cheating has marred every Afghan election since the Taliban’s fall. Prospects of a repeat performance have loomed over the 5 April poll long before the candidates launched their campaigns.
Only a quarter of Afghans expect the vote to be clean, a recent survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (Fefa) found. Election organisers, monitors and diplomats all agree that ballot-stuffing, vote buying, intimidation and impersonation are likely to be a problem again.
However, many fear that candidates are focusing on fraud in an unscrupulous attempt to set the ground for complaints if they lose, and risk discouraging voters and discrediting the entire election process along the way.
“Some of the candidates are issuing statements in their public rallies that my only rival is corruption. That means he thinks he has won already, and the election is days away,” said Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission.
“We hear on the news that if there is corruption people will rise up – it’s scaring people with the threat of potential agitation.
“This mistrust is not going to help, instead they should tell their followers: ‘Stay away from fraud and don’t let others commit fraud, be vigilant, open your eyes, come out in large numbers for voting.’”
Afghanistan’s election is a watershed moment — the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the first to herald the country’s peaceful democratic transfer of power. Huge questions remain over just how peaceful it will be following a volley of Taliban attacks on soft targets in Kabul.
In the five years since 2009, when more than 1 million votes were disqualified, a raft of measures have been introduced to make cheating harder. The result, many hope, will be an election tainted but not entirely discredited by cheating.
“Most of the candidates have confided that they don’t expect an absolutely fraud-free election, what they want to know is that the results reflect the will of the people,” said Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN in Afghanistan. “So the question will focus on how extensive is that fraud, whether it impacts the result and is it capable of being excised. That is what we need to reassure them, but we want to have an election that is manifestly better than the last election, which means less fraud.”
One power-broker interviewed by the Guardian admitted he had stockpiled voter registration cards needed to cast a ballot; another promised to bring his district to the polls in return for tens of thousands of dollars.
Elections chief Nuristani has reported one candidate for abusing government resources on the campaign trail and fined another for the same thing. Yet neither these problems nor a campaign of Taliban violence have diminished enthusiasm, with would-be voters queuing for hours in the freezing pre-dawn dark to secure the voter registration cards they need to cast a ballot.
The same poll that found most Afghans expect fraud also found that four in five plan to vote anyway, said Fefa chairman Ahmad Nader Nadery, because after more than three decades of fighting they prefer a flawed election to the alternatives. “They have seen that those who were fighting with each other are now trying to participate in the elections and not use their guns,” he said.
“They do understand there is a level of fraud, but they are very much of the view that if the election is not there, the same brutality and violence to fight for power will return.”
He said the organisation was “cautiously impressed” by efforts to rein in the rampant ballot-box stuffing that was the most serious problem in 2009 — when incumbent Hamid Karzai lost about a third of his votes to fraud reviews — and is also seen as the biggest threat this year.
There is a strict barcode-labelling system tracing the ballots from the individual polling station, each of which only get 600 voting papers. If the station is closed by violence but someone tries to use the votes elsewhere, as happened five years ago, they can be identified and discarded.
Votes will be tallied on site and copies of the results sheet posted outside the ballot station, in the ballot box and sent to Kabul. Vote-counting will be done twice by two separate teams; where results differ they will be rechecked.
More than 22,000 monitors from the different campaign teams have registered to watch the voting at more than 6,000 polling centres around the country, as well as more than 1,500 independent observers. Both numbers are expected to rise rapidly before voting day.
All three men believed to have a serious chance of becoming Afghanistan’s next president mistrust each other, although the greatest public suspicion has fallen on the campaign of Zalmai Rassoul, whose campaign was the one reported to Karzai for abuse of government resources.