Afghan Election: A Bad Case of Deja Vu

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Omar Sobhani / Reuters

An Afghan election worker counts ballot papers at a polling station in Kandahar on September 18, 2010.

The twin specters of violence and fraud cast a familiar pall when Afghans went to the polls Saturday to elect a new parliament. A spate of attacks against candidates and election workers in the run-up to the vote continued on election day as the Taliban delivered on its pledge to disrupt the proceedings. Scattered shootings and bombings killed at least 14 people around the country, while Afghan officials conceded that the threat of attacks were enough to shut down hundreds of polling centers or, at the very least, to scare off voters in remote areas. Reports of wholesale vote-buying and ballot-stuffing were rife. And though the levels of violence and foul play don't appear to be on the same scale of last year's massively flawed presidential ballot, a lower projected voter turnout and widespread irregularities could amount to another severe blow to the Kabul government's legitimacy — despite the best efforts of Afghan and foreign officials to describe the vote as a success.

Few would dispute that the timing of the election could not be worse. The Taliban-led insurgency remains entrenched in the southern and eastern provinces, and has gained ground in the north, which had been relatively stable, inflicting record casualties on US and international forces this year in the wake of a 30,000-strong troop surge. With the US looking to begin withdrawing forces next summer, there were hopes that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would prove the determined partner and move to aggressively root out corruption to restore public faith in his fledgling administration. Yet he has resisted anti-graft reforms and has been linked to a series of political and financial scandals that have further shaken the country in recent weeks. The lack of measurable progress, in turn, prompted some American officials to downgrade expectations for the country's second-ever parliamentary ballot, on grounds that a dubious outcome might accelerate already plummeting support for the nearly 9-year-old war.

Final results are not expected for several weeks, but preliminary estimates are not reassuring. According to the Afghan Independent Election Commission, just 40% of registered voters appear to have showed up at the polls, with about a million fewer votes cast overall than in 2009. Meanwhile, attacks were carried out in half of the country's 34 provinces. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak acknowledged when voting was over that Taliban intimidation may have been effective in keeping people away. The looming risks were reflected in the lopsided number of candidates running in urban centers — including about 660 in Kabul — where they could count on a greater degree of safety. In areas where lack of security impeded oversight, election authorities expressed concern over an infusion of millions of fake voter cards said to have originated from Pakistan, thousands of which were confiscated. In some cases, monitors themselves were found to have stuffed ballots in plain sight.

Complaints that the government had failed to adequately prepare for wholesale fraud were echoed by candidates and voters alike. Mahbouba Seraj, a candidate running in the eastern province of Nuristan, an insurgent stronghold, said people were "literally running away" with ballot boxes to stuff them at will. "It was absolutely disastrous. I have never in my life imagined this much fraud," she says. "The fact that the police and army were saying they were ready was a joke — all lies." In Kabul, where Afghan security forces had a heavier footprint, the day began ominously when a rocket-propelled grenade landed near the US embassy, but voting hours were for the most part calm. However, local candidate Haji Allah Gul Mujahid said hundreds of his supporters had waited for hours at a polling station in the east of the city for ill-prepared organizers to resolve a shortage of ballots and find secure storage boxes. At another city polling center, Khaliqdad, 29, a government employee, lamented the cheap quality of ink being used, adding that he'd seen a person using bleach to remove it from his finger before going to vote again. "There will be fraud this time, as in the past," he says. "But we don't have any other option but to vote."

With some 2,500 candidates contesting 249 seats in the lower house, it would appear that Afghanistan's democracy is down but not out. Indeed, for all its shortcomings, the Afghan parliament has proven to be an increasingly strident counterweight to President Karzai, rejecting some of his cabinet picks and proposals that would have enhanced executive power. Though alleged war criminals and shady businessmen are once again in the running, so are a host of newcomers, many of them young and educated, who insist the stakes are too high to be left to powerbrokers of old. To some voters, they represent a last chance to salvage a rotten government. "It's a must for everyone to vote," Alhaj Sayed Akbar Jafari, 50, the head of a Kabul mosque, said as he waited in line. "Our country's future depends very much on this election."

With reporting by Shah Barakzai