Was There Vote Rigging in Afghanistan's Election?

There are no results, no turnout statistics, and no victor from yesterday's presidential election in Afghanistan, but there are plenty of opinions. President Hamid Karzai is declaring victory. So is his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah. And a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani, is claiming vote theft. The only thing everyone—from President Barack Obama to Ghani—can agree on is that yesterday's Afghan presidential election was a success for the Afghan people. Even the Taliban, who threatened the lives and limbs of anyone who voted (and carried out some 76 attacks that killed nearly 30 people) are claiming a victory of sorts by having kept the voter turnout to a relatively low 40 to 50 percent, as opposed to the enthusiastic 70 percent in the presidential election five years ago.

With the ballot counting still underway—it might not be completed until Saturday—Karzai campaign manager Deen Mohammad says that, based on reports from more than 21,000 of the president's polling observers (an implausibly high number), the incumbent won more than 50 percent of the vote, scoring him an outright victory and allowing him to skip the runoff in early October. Abdullah's camp is spinning its own, perhaps fantastical, electoral scenario as well, claiming that the former foreign minister and ophthalmologist is blowing Karzai away 63 percent to 31 percent in the preliminary count. A senior official for the Independent Electoral Commission dismissed both men's claims, saying that not all votes had been counted and that even preliminary, unofficial results won't be released until next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ghani, Karzai's former finance minister—a cerebral anticorruption candidate likely to run a poor third—tells NEWSWEEK that both Karzai's and Abdullah's electoral machines may be engaged in vote rigging on a massive scale. "That's the allegation, and it's very widespread," he says. "The incumbent corrupt government is engaged in a massive fraud . . . In the north [where Abdullah's support was strongest] allegations have also been made about the abuse of official power to favor Abdullah in some provinces, such as voting boxes being removed to other locations and then stuffed."

Ghani further charges that the indelible ink used to stain voters' fingers—so that they can't vote twice—was not indelible and is easily washed off. He also cites credible allegations that some voting booths were closed by government authorities when they realized that people were not voting for the incumbent, and that ballot boxes are being stuffed with the names of nonexistent female voters, even in the suburbs of Kabul—where 150,000 women's ballots were reportedly stuffed into the box at one suburban polling station. Ghani says that he doesn't endorse the allegations himself; he's only reporting what he's heard. He has, however, lodged 111 complaints with the Electoral Complaints Commission in the past two days. "I'm not making any pronouncement on the validity of these complaints," he says. But they "need to be investigated to establish the truth."

Ghani's complaints may sound like the anguished cries of a sore loser, but they are not so farfetched. The International Crisis Group issued a paper last June pointing out that the voter-registration system—run by the government-appointed Independent Electoral Commission—is seriously flawed. The report said that in some provinces the number of voter cards that were issued exceed the province's entire population, let alone the number of eligible voters, opening the way for serious rigging. Nuristan province, for example, has 443,000 registered voters but only 130,000 inhabitants. In the Panjshir Valley, Abdullah's home, there are now 190,000 registered voters among a population whose top size is thought to be 137,000.

Just as surprising, in some conservative and relatively insecure Pashtun provinces in the east and south, where women play a very modest role outside the home, female registrations often outstrip those of men. In Logar province just south of Kabul, for example, there are 36,000 registered women and just 14,000 registered men. In Paktika and Khost provinces, 205,000 women registered compared with 167,000 males. In a practice called "proxy voting," used in 2004, men often gather as many voting cards as possible from female members of their family, as well as fictitious cards, and then cast multiple votes. "There are so many opportunities for fraud because of the way this election has been organized," says Candace Rondeaux, the senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "Seventeen million voter cards have been distributed around the country, but I don't think we can honestly say there are 17 million eligible voters out there." The International Republican Institute's observers say they have heard reports of voter cards being sold.

In the meantime, the Taliban are making their own unsubstantiated claims about the election. Their view is that their terror campaign seriously undermined the election's credibility by reducing the voter turnout to half of what it was in the last cycle. Mullah Sabir, a senior Taliban commander for Wardak, Logar, and Ghazni provinces just south of Kabul, sounded pleased, even excited, by the relatively low voter turnout in his area of operations yesterday. "What is the meaning of this election?" he asked rhetorically in a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK. "How can this election be called democratic when most voters stayed home, and it took place while foreign armies are occupying our land?" On Election Day, he says, he crisscrossed Ghazni province by motorbike and saw few if any voters outside the district towns and Ghazni's provincial capital. "People listened to Mullah Omar and didn't vote in this fraudulent election," he says. "In 2004 we were not strong enough to stop it, but now we are everywhere."

While he may be exaggerating the Taliban's success on Election Day, the low voter turnout in the south and east could eventually give the Taliban a victory of sorts. Many Pashtuns who were afraid to vote are bound to feel even more alienated than ever from the new government if it doesn't move quickly to improve their lives and local security. "We need to make sure that we have a process so that those who couldn't vote do not feel disenfranchised for the next five years, and that their voices and grievances will be heard and addressed," says Ghani.

Ghani is afraid the new government, which will probably be formed by Karzai, will simply offer the people of the war-torn east and south five more years of the same mismanagement by corrupt and abusive administrative officials he appoints. "In an area of insurgency where the stakes are so high, you want the most credible people to represent the government," he adds. "Instead, the government has sent the most despicable people to rule there."

That will be a major challenge for the new president and his team, bringing the many Afghans who have felt abused and neglected over the past five years back over to the government's side. If he fails, then the true winner of yesterday's election will not have been Karzai or Abdullah, but the Taliban.