Flaws undermine claims of Afghan vote ‘success’
By Bronwen Roberts
KABUL — Afghanistan’s polls were hailed abroad as a vote for democracy, but others were more guarded, highlighting flaws in a process paid for by Western countries keen to show progress from a bloody battlefield.
Western allies termed Thursday’s presidential and provincial council elections a success, praising Afghans who voted despite fears of a Taliban onslaught — which did not materialise, although there were scores of attacks.
But as relief over the absence of massive violence fades, attention turns to the problems, including low turnout, intimidation, claims of under-age voting and ballot stuffing — all of which could undermine the results.
The Elections Complaint Commission said Sunday 225 cases would be investigated, some of which might nullify votes.
“Of course there were some irregularities, that happens in the United States and all the countries of the world,” said US regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, who has been in Afghanistan since the eve of the election.
“But we were impressed by the success that took place because the Taliban, having said they would destroy these elections, failed to do so.”
The European Union’s observer mission was upbeat about what was the third election since the 2001 US-led invasion removed the extremist Taliban regime and set the nation on an internationally funded course to democracy.
Chief of the mission, former French general Philippe Morillon, would not be drawn on whether the vote was credible, but said it was generally fair, although not free in all areas, labelling it a “victory for the Afghan people”.
But US-based Human Rights Watch was scathing of such a positive assessment.
Researcher Rachel Reid said it would be hard to believe for the millions of Afghans who experienced “one of the highest numbers of violent incidents in one day since the fall of the Taliban.”
The government said 26 Afghan security forces personnel and civilians were killed on voting day.
Reid said the EU mission had not recognised the impact of high levels of violence and intimidation in volatile areas, where monitoring efforts were constrained by the insecurity.
“EU taxpayers have not paid millions of euros for this mission to send home discredited good news stories, but for the observers to carry out a rigorous and reliable assessment of the achievements and failings of this process,” Reid said.
The European mission had almost 100 international observers in 17 of 34 provinces, and visited 342 of nearly 6,200 polling stations.
Another observer mission, the US-based International Republican Institute, said the election was “a clear expression of commitment to democracy” by “millions of heroic people”.
But it also raised problems, including low turnout among women, the selling of registration cards and use of state resources to advantage certain candidates.
Its 29 international monitors were in polling stations in the usually calm cities of Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif.
In the south — the main Taliban battlefield where many irregularities are suspected — it only had Afghan observers in one province, Kandahar.
The National Democratic Institute, another US body, admitted insecurity prevented observer groups from operating in parts of the country on election day, especially the most dangerous areas of the south and southeast.
Afghan analyst Waheed Mujda said the election was a chance for Western countries to convince their public that costly efforts to install democracy is working, despite escalating casualties in the battle against the Taliban.
“Since Afghan elections are being funded by the international community from money collected from people’s tax, the donor countries have to provide information for their people about how things are going,” he said.
“The Afghan election is an opportunity for these countries to tell their people that democracy is actually working in Afghanistan and that people do go and vote — the turnout doesn’t matter,” he told a television debate.
NATO and a separate US-led force maintain 100,000 troops in the country in an effort to fight the Taliban, who have redoubled attacks. According to independent icasualties.org, 286 soldiers have died so far this year.
Newspaper columnist Abbas Daiyar said the election, the first organised by Afghans, should not be held up to Western standards that have evolved over centuries.
“For Afghan thinkers, this is an unbelievable success,” he wrote in the Daily Outlook Afghanistan newspaper. “The perfect democracy in America cannot be applied in Afghanistan within eight years.”