Allegations of fraud are increasing following last weekend's parliamentary election in Afghanistan. The country's political process has been faltering over the past year, putting it at a crucial turning point.
Despite close controls, irregularities still occurred in voting procedures
Over four million Afghans voted on Saturday in their second parliamentary poll since the 2001 US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime. Afghan government officials have called the parliamentary elections "successful," despite Taliban threats and attacks aimed at disrupting the vote.
But the country's electoral watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission, said Wednesday it was dealing with over 3,700 complaints about irregularities both on polling day, as well as in the preelection process.
The electoral process in Afghanistan was already deeply discredited by the fraud-ridden presidential elections last year that returned President Hamid Karzai to a second five-year term. But since then, concrete measures have been taken to minimize systemic fraud as much as possible in this year's poll, said Glenn Cowan, co-founder of the observation NGO Democracy International.
"This year, each group of 600 ballots was bar coded," Cowan explained. "It's associated with its own results form, similarly bar coded. So ballots have to continue to be associated with a specific polling station."
Still, the country's new democracy is in pretty bad shape. Under Karzai, billions of foreign aid and investment capital flooding into the country engendered astronomic levels of corruption. But after voting at this year's election, Karzai delivered what many consider an over-optimistic - some even say delusional - view of the current state of democracy here.
Many women defied Taliban threats and cast their vote
After casting his vote in Kabul, the president said that by participating in the poll, Afghans would "take the country many steps forward into a better future."
Growing number of women voters
More than 2,500 candidates stood for the 249 seats in parliament's lower house, the Wolesi Jirga. According to preliminary counts, fewer people turned up at the polls this time than last year at the presidential elections. But at several polling stations around Kabul, some numbers appeared to be up - among women.
In relatively secure areas like the capital, they feel safer than in previous years and are willing to go and cast their votes, like 45-year-old voter Farya. She was one of the many women gathered to vote at a polling station on Kabul's outskirts.
"Some women haven't come here to vote. I'm upset about these things," Farya said. "We need education for these women and we need to educate the men to show them that their women have rights."
Process must continue
Overall, the decrease in voter turnout was due to two main factors: security threats in the country's restive regions, and voter disillusionment with government corruption in safer areas like Kabul.
Polling stations were well-guarded during the elections
Still, many Afghans are dedicated to being part of the democratic process. Businessman Shukurallah Atif said voting is more than just about the naming of a new parliament.
"The importance of the election is not only to vote for someone, but because we are supporting a process from which we benefit," Atif said.
When the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, Atif was a refugee in Pakistan. Today, he is the CEO of a Kabul-based construction company, employing 80 people. He said voter abstention is not what Afghanistan needs right now.
"That's not the solution," Atif said. "If we are not happy with the government, if we want to bring about changes, we have to involve ourselves in the political process."
Crucial weeks to come
The test of this election day was to get as many people out to vote in what is a volatile and dangerous security situation. While turnout was lower than in last year's election, the turnout was significant and this in itself is deemed a victory against Taliban intimidation. But the real test is in the weeks to come, when these ballots enter the hands of the country's thousands of vote counters. The counting stage presents the greatest opportunity for fraud, said Democracy International's Cowan.
"If it turns out to be a good election, if the count's right and the tabulation of the votes is correct and if the Afghan people accept it, it means it's a step forward to Afghanistan becoming a legitimate democracy," Cowan said. "If this election fails, it does call into question the ability of the whole body politic to act in a reasonable fashion. It'd be really unfortunate if this turned out to be a failed election."
Despite the growing number of complaints, the total failure of the poll would not be called unless there is strong evidence that the fraud was systemic. Observers are confident that all loopholes in the system have been closed since last year's election. Final results are expected in mid to late October.
Author: Don Duncan, Kabul / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge