Concerns are growing that the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan were marred by corruption and voter intimidation. Observers are calling on the government to allow an independent probe into those allegations.
Somsri Hananuntasuk, the executive director of ANFREL, is scathing in her criticism of the elections
Votes are being counted from Saturday's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan amid allegations of fraud and voting irregularities. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) is an NGO dedicated to defending human rights and supporting democracy in Asian countries. Deutsche Welle spoke with its executive director, Somsri Hananuntasu, who led a team of international observers during the election.
DW: What problems did your observers come across during election day?
Somsri Hananuntasu: According to the information provided by the Independent Electoral Commission chairman, 304 schools [polling stations] were closed and there is no information about some 157. These add to the more than 900 polling stations which were shut before the election for security reasons. Accordingly, we find that a large number of voters could not exercise their right to vote. Several women told us they would not go to vote because they were afraid to “lose their fingers”. There have also been several [reports] where only the voters of a certain candidate were allowed to vote in another town.
We can't ignore that hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps in Pakistan were unable to vote. In the case of the prisons, we visited Kabul's main detention center and we found out that only 300 out of 5,000 inmates could exercize the right the vote.
Moreover, we witnessed a disproportionate presence of commissioners of the various candidates. At some poll stations we even detected more party delegates than voters.
Why were the number of election observers this year lower than in the previous presidential election?
The Afghan Electoral Commission said that there were 1,090 international observers and 3,923 local officials. Unlike in previous elections, the foreign contingent this time is divided primarily among NGOs.
The EU chose not to send observers this year, I guess because of security reasons. I believe that a Westerner is always a bigger target than an Asian observer. In our case we tried not to have Japanese [observers] as their government has a reputation of paying ransoms... the bulk of our delegation were Muslims.
The security conditions were very dire. Our drivers were carrying guns, and even grenades and they were ready to take action in case our vehicle was ambushed. We said that we didn't want to work under these conditions but the government answered that we had to. I think that the European Union may have wanted to skip any risks by not sending any envoys.
In this regard I must say that, despite the small number of foreign observers, Afghanistan is above China, Vietnam, Laos and Singapore because none of these countries allow access to foreign supervisors.
Can any reliable election be conducted without a proper census?
That's the first problem we face and also the most fundamental. In the absence of an updated census, the last one is 40 years old, it is impossible to count the total number of voters. We also came across this problem in Bangladesh. It requires a heavy investment but it's critical for the country. We can't forget the millions of Afghans in refugee camps which, of course, should also be counted.
Many voters only registered to vote in return for the promise of jobs or money
The 11.4 million voters who are eligible to participate in elections are those who had already registered to get a voter card. Nonetheless, the adult population in the country is estimated around 17 million. Some signed up because they were promised money, a job…depending on who they were voting for. Besides, there are plenty of people who registered more than once. We even came across a member of the FEFA [Free&Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan] who admitted that she had collected six voter registration cards.
Have Afghanistan's IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) and the ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) been reliable partners in the election process?
Surprisingly, the president of the IEC is appointed by the president himself. The independence of the IEC and the ECC is marred by several cases of corruption, nepotism and fear. The latter is especially evident at a provincial level, where officials are often constrained by local candidates.
Did your organisation come across complaints during the election campaign of some candidates making use of government infrastructure?
It's true due to the fact that there is no law regulating the budget for the campaign and control over the use of government infrastructure. In many areas we observed that both government vehicles and buildings had been used by different candidates for their own campaigning purposes.
The government claims that participation this year is 2 percent higher than the previous election. Should this be taken as positive step forwards?
The figures given by the Independent Electoral Commission are still quite controversial and we still have no clear clues to know whether participation has increased or decreased. According to official estimates 40 percent of the 11.4 million voters exercised their right to vote. During last year's presidential election, over a million votes were cancelled. If we are to face a similar scenario this time, the government will find itself in a situation where it would be very difficult to legitimize the election.
The counting of the ballots is also surrounded by a lot of controversy. Why is this?
Observers say there have been numerous irregularities in the ballot counting
It's far from being fair and accurate. It is not done on a tabulation sheet. Officials sit on the floor with their ballots and count them separately. Afterwards, each one gives a final figure that needs to be trusted. This is a very serious issue as it is much cheaper to bribe one of these officials than to buy each individual vote.
After a whole month monitoring the election process, what would be your brief assessment of the Afghan parliamentary elections this year?
While the development of the whole election process is already an achievement in itself, in my opinion these elections were neither free nor fair. There have been numerous irregularities and I think that the elected candidates won't be the legal representatives of the Afghan people.
Interview: Karlos Zurutuza, Kabul
Editor: Rob Mudge