WARDAK, Afghanistan — Maidan Shar, the sleepy capital of Wardak province, is only 35 kilometers southwest of Kabul, but the craggy hills and marble quarries give it the feel of a frontier town. Complaints of ballot box stuffing were rife here during previous elections, and there are mounting concerns among locals that Saturday’s presidential election will be no different.
At the local campaign headquarters for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, five men sit in a threadbare room drinking tea and smoking cheap Korean cigarettes. One of them, Haji Saleh Mohammad, recalls how a presidential candidate he declines to name asked for help with the votes this year. “He offered me a Land Cruiser,” says Mohammad. “But I told him I prefer to walk.” The men laugh.
Later in the driveway, away from others, a second elder describes a phone call he says he received recently from a prominent local commander who goes by the nom de guerre Khamar, or Dragon. The commander called with an offer to stuff ballot boxes in the lawless district of Nerkh, the man says. “We can take care of at least 32 boxes, 600 votes per box,” said Dragon, according to the tribal elder’s account. “I told Dragon that I needed proof that he could actually deliver. Stuff the ballots, I mean.” This angered Dragon, who reminded the elder that this was a limited-time offer, the man says. If he didn’t want the assistance, there would be plenty of other campaigns that would.
Dragon seems to have been right: The black market for votes appears to be brisk as Afghanistan nears election day. This could be interpreted as a positive sign; it means some powerful Afghans are willing to make a financial investment in their government, rather than waging war against it. But it also suggests that the fraud that plagued the previous election, pushing the country to the brink of a political crisis, could be repeated.
After the 2009 vote, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the country’s electoral watchdog, disqualified as many as a million ballots cast in President Hamid Karzai’s favor. Karzai is constitutionally banned from running again, and this election lacks a clear front-runner. According to polls, three candidates have emerged who seem to have a shot: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul. But many predict that Rassoul, who is rumored to have Karzai’s blessing, will win.
Since the last election, the IEC has introduced anti-fraud measures such as barcodes and other tracking systems. And yet, for some in Afghanistan, the fact that this election is primarily an Afghan-run affair means it is already doomed. In previous elections, fraud occurred in spite of heavy international scrutiny, says Mohammad Hajidat Janan, a provincial council member in Wardak. Western interest in this election has decreased dramatically, “so of course I expect fraud,” Janan says. “Whoever wins will owe his victory to fraud. He will not be a man representing the will of the people.”
Nicholas Haysom, deputy envoy for the United Nations in Afghanistan, says the international community — which is footing the $126 million bill for the election — will be reluctant to continue funding Afghanistan if the elections turn out to be fraudulent. And without such international support, Haysom says, "the country will simply implode."
Who can find a country without complaints about the election?
Independent Election Commission chair
Near Maidan Shar’s main bazaar, a pastel orange stucco building with pink trimming stands out against the tan landscape. Since the campaign season began in early February, the building, a hotel with a thousand plus capacity, has been rented by various presidential campaigns trying to woo voters. Today, though, it hosts the IEC, the country’s electoral watchdog. Its provincial chief, Norullah Paighman, greets us, and explains the day’s program: women’s participation in the election. “Over 40 percent of women in Wardak have registered to vote,” says his colleague, Fawzia Sarwari.
Paighman is optimistic about the April 5 vote. “It will be a success,” he says. “The interest of the public has increased, and our enemy has been weakened!”
Behind him are row upon row of women, as many as 300 in total, waiting patiently for their training session to begin. One of them, who gives her name as Kajala, explains that this is her second time in this hotel. “Last time we came, they gave us 500 Afghanis,” she says. In other words, electionofficials had paid her the equivalent of $10 to show up. She said she didn’t know why she came last time or what event she’s about to attend today. By now Sarwari has descended upon Kajala, telling her not to answer questions.
“Do you know there is an election happening?” “No, I don’t know,” she replies, avoiding Sarwari, who is now glowering. When asked if she has a voting card, Kajala announces, “Yes, yes I do.” She sounds relieved to be able to say yes. Soldiers who have been watching the exchange begin cutting into the conversation.
In his office nearby, Wardak Governor Wakeel Abdul Majid offers a decidedly optimistic take on the presidential election. Perched on a tasseled sofa, surrounded by his collection of Karzai portraits, he declares that the election will be “free and fair,” a phrase long abandoned by the international community, which has downgraded its ambitions to “credible,” or “acceptable.” The UN defines success this time around as “broad acceptance by Afghans of the result,” and has stayed clear of the term “free and fair.”
"Free and fair, just like the previous two presidential elections," says Abdul Majid, proudly pointing out that he had campaigned for President Karzai on both occasions, including the 2009 election.
In preparation for the upcoming election, the governor opened a special investigation unit to catch perpetrators of electoral fraud in his own province of Wardak. But it hasn’t had much work because, he says, “no one is involved in fraud.”
Back in Kabul, IEC Chairman Yousuf Nuristani urges the world to be patient. “Democracies need years to mature,” he says. It will take years for Western-style democracy to take root and become tradition, he argues. “With a few more elections, hopefully we’ll get there.”
He continues: “We are still at war. Insurgents are active. There are daily explosions, and the government is weak.” An inchoate democracy, he urges, needs cultivating, not excoriating. Besides, he implores, “Who can find a country without complaints about the election?”
No one in Afghanistan who is voting is doing it to exercise democracy.
Some Afghans say they're resigned to a system that is rigged. Haji Sahib Ghulam Mohammad, another tribal elder from Wardak, says fraud will be inevitable.
Candidates will protest and launch complaints, but in the end the one backed by the presidential palace will be crowned victor. As is the consensus in Kabul, Haji Mohammad says he, too, believes Zalmai Rassoul will win, serving as a kind of Dmitri Medvedev to Karzai’s Vladimir Putin.
In Haji Mohammad’s district of Jalrez, voters arrived at the polling station on parliamentary election day in 2010, only to learn that ballot boxes had been filled the day before. Of 225 boxes, 72 had been stolen, he recalls. Many were found in the governor’s palace, he says.
“No one in Afghanistan who is voting is doing it to exercise democracy. Democracy,” he says, using the English word, “there is no democracy in Afghanistan.”
In parting, Haji Mohammad offers the phone number of a man who is believed to be shopping around 5,000 votes. A man with a gruff voice answers the phone, and, speaking tersely, says he can only discuss the matter in person. He agrees to meet the next day.
The man says he is the son of a prominent tribal elder from Maidan Shar, in charge of coordinating voting in his village of Kharote. (He declined to give his name.) Thousands of families who answer to his father were ordered to vote for a particular candidate in the previous presidential and parliamentary election, he says, and this time would be no different. In the tight-knit community, he says, going against those orders would be unthinkable. How will he get out the vote? Simple, he says. “I myself will personally pull them out of their houses to vote on election day.”