E-Day in Gardez

By Thomas Ruttig Frankly, when I went to bed on E-Day eve in Gardez, on Wednesday, I wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to leave the UNAMA compound the next day to watch polling sites in Paktia province. A lot of people looked very skeptical when I mentioned this idea. Gardez center was ...

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581882_090821_boredpollingworkers22.jpg
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -AUGUST 20 : Afghan election workers rest at a quiet polling station August 20, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghans voted Thursday to elect a president for the second time in history with election officials stating that turnout was healthy despite sporadic violence by the Taliban. The incumbent President Karzai is considered to be the frontrunner despite claims of corruption and what many consider an ineffectual government. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

By Thomas Ruttig

Frankly, when I went to bed on E-Day eve in Gardez, on Wednesday, I wasn't sure whether it was a good idea to leave the UNAMA compound the next day to watch polling sites in Paktia province. A lot of people looked very skeptical when I mentioned this idea. Gardez center was the maximum, almost everybody agreed. It was covered by a security box -- whatever that meant.

By Thomas Ruttig

Frankly, when I went to bed on E-Day eve in Gardez, on Wednesday, I wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to leave the UNAMA compound the next day to watch polling sites in Paktia province. A lot of people looked very skeptical when I mentioned this idea. Gardez center was the maximum, almost everybody agreed. It was covered by a security box — whatever that meant.

The operations center was not awake yet in the morning and there were no checkpoints along the road. The U.S. humvees I had seen positioned at the gates of the airfield the day before were gone. No clue what the situation really looked like. I just hoped that the Taliban had not planted an IED at the roadside over night.

But when I looked at the BBC website, I could feel reassured. There was an “election map” saying 234 (or so) out of Afghanistan’s 368 districts were “completely safe” according to research done by the station. If I am not completely mistaken (I have no internet while writing this), Kunduz and Northern Baghlan were marked as medium risk. Probably some armchair analyst…

Passing Gardez bazaar under these circumstances at around 6:30am, half an hour before polls opened, was a bit strange nevertheless. Just a few shopkeepers were opening the shutters. Business wasn’t very brisk all day. The odd taxi driving down the road was almost reassuring (vehicle transport had been banned by both sides and we had a special permit), the boy on his bicycle even more so. Finally, there were some police at Tera school at the north-western edge of Gardez — outside the “box.” Later we learned that we literally had left the first Taliban rocket barrage on Gardez behind us, which fortunately just hit the dasht (the desert).

(Read on)

Ten minutes to go to elections. A young guy with slick hair is nervously shooting around Tera school to get the six polling stations in this polling centre organized, laying out the material and sealing the boxes. Thank goodness, there were no voters queuing up already. (What a difference to the parliamentary elections I witnessed at the very place in 2005.)

So, it wasn’t really a problem that the site opened fifty minutes late at 7:50am. By then, only half a dozen card-carrying voters were irritatedly wandering the corridors of the school. Among them a very importantly behaving spingirai (white bearded elder) who without any hesitation parked his car which had a poster of Karzai stuck to the rear window in the schoolyard. (Election propaganda was banned within some 300 feet of an election site.) He was a representative of ‘this people,’ he explained.

The three — later reduced to two — female polling stations were put at the end of the long corridor, to protect the izzat (honor) of the women, as the site manager put it. The only problem: There were no women coming to cast their vote. (The same was reported from many districts in the region. And a colleague told me that the BBC had posted a webcam in a Kabul girls’ school all day that just filmed an empty room.) The only ballots in the boxes at Tera school were those of the waiting male staff. No female staff could be recruited.

After forty minutes, no more than 33 people had voted in the six stations. I decided to move to more exciting places.

Abdulhai Gardezi high school was definitely an example of a high turnout. Here, the corridors were crowded in front of the 15 male-only polling stations; the female site was a few hundred meters away at the girls’ school.

Voters were flocking outside the doors and the election staff in their white polyester waistcoats with the IEC emblem were extremely busy preventing them from breaking through to the ballot boxes. Afghans are not very good in standing in queues. Here, the figures were soon up in the hundreds with no sign of a lull.

Afghan independent observers and candidates’ agents were abundantly present, and the very young Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) guy in particular was really good. In contrast, some of the candidates’ agents had barely a clue what they were there for and sometimes even didn’t know the name of the candidate they represented. “I’ve just been given a card,” one explained.

One of the first things I saw there, however, was a small boy casting his vote. When I asked him how old he was, he replied in a cool manner: “Fifteen.” He looked thirteen, at best. The voting age is eighteen. No one really bothered to ask voters for their tazkira, the personal ID, to check their age.

The ink, however — that had become an issue in 2004 — was mercilessly applied despite the threat of the Taliban to cut off marked fingers. Shabnama, or night letters, to this avail had been posted in all four provinces of the southeast in the previous nights. “Don’t mark the finger of my right hand,” one voter pleaded. “I am a driver and it is better the Taliban cut of a finger of my left hand if they stop me.”

Most of the election staff was rather young, between 20 and 30 years old, with the odd spingirai in between. They did a remarkably good job, even if there were some commotions due to the hot blood of everybody involved. These people are a basis on which you could build — provided they are kept, made permanent state employees with a salary (which makes them less vulnerable to be bought) in sustainable election institutions. That necessitates, of course, that the international community provide most of the funding — what it had not done between the 2004/05 elections and now.

Apart from some underage voting and mainly Karzai agents — but also a few of Dr. Abdullah — displaying buttons of their idol, there were no major breaks of the rules. Also, I did not observe any open intimidation of voters by the supporters of the leading contenders although the presence of some elders and the performance of a very few broad-shoulders pakol or police uniform-wearing bullies might have impressed some.

Young voters in particular seemed to be self-confident and had no fear to raise complaints if they felt procedures were violated — although few wanted to file a written complaint. Many Afghans shy away from openly accusing someone personally.

From here, we drove to Bala Deh, a village four miles outside Gardez to the East, behind the Bala Hissar, the fort of Gardez. Voting was slow there, with 130 men and 43 women registered in the list and not many turning up in our presence. In almost half an hour, no one came.

The manager of the site, the local schoolmaster whose eighteen year old daughter belonged to the female election staff (the first one we saw; the second female station had only male staff), had time for a brief assessment. “There is much less interest than in the first elections in 2004/05,” he said sadly. Part of it, he said, was linked to Taliban intimidation. Also in Bala Deh, they had posted shabname some nights before.

Bala Deh was the first indication that there was a good voter turnout in the very center of Gardez only. Already at the town’s periphery, it became much lower. Reports from Khost province indicated the same, combined with extremely low women’s turnout. This proves that the reported over-average women registration during the late 2008/early 2009 voters’ registration process in many of the Pashtun insurgency-affected provinces must have been fraudulent.

Also in Gardez center voting dropped for a while, after a suicide bomber blew himself up just 650 feet from the site around 10am, fortunately just killing himself. Another one was reported to have been shot by police before he could do the same.

To avoid that place, we looked at the female-only polling center in the same street. Only five women trickled in during our presence in the late morning, three kuchi women and two in burqas, offloaded from a landcruiser by their husband or father. In the evening, local candidates’ agents of Karzai said that he received 570 votes there that represented 90 percent, i.e. a turnout of some 630.

EU observers, however, reported 463 altogether. Even that appears pretty high to me. It would mean that more than fifty women must have crossed the small gate of the compound every hour, almost one per minute. That was definitely not the case while I was there, although the EU observers said they saw larger families coming in. I still do not find that convincing. It is possible that some voters (or even staff) were using voters’ cards from the well-reported female over-registration to add ghost voters. Even an added ten or twenty percent could make a difference.

Back to Tera School, where before lunch the voters’ numbers registered in the six polling stations in one case even had crossed the 100-threshold but still were not really impressive. Furthermore, lunchtime and the heat slowed down the influx.

When I came back for a third time just before closing time at 4pm, the numbers had almost doubled and the women’s figure had jumped from thirteen to 38. This also looks a bit suspicious to me because in the afternoon the turnout nowhere was really better than in the morning. (On the other hand, it cannot be excluded that due to the threats voters really let the morning pass first before deciding to go and vote.) One of the female stations here also was the first one that later finished counting (no rocket science with sixteen votes cass), giving Hamid Karzai a clear-cut victory with no votes for any of his challengers.

From here, we went up towards the Tera Pass which, at 7,500 feet above sea level, is the watershed between Paktia and Logar. Not far below the pass, fourteen miles from Gardez there was the most distant polling station we were able to visit, a tent next to road at Tandar village. It was idyllic: clear blue sky, camels grazing, purple Afghan lavender in blossom at the hill-slopes. It felt like peace. In the tent, twelve bored young staff members and no voters. Fewer than 25 votes cast. Taliban intimidation, they said. Shabnama in the previous nights.

During the afternoon, we visited some more outlying polling sites at Daulatzai and at a kuchi polling station not far from the Afghan National Army base, called Ramazan Kuchi tent. Everywhere the same picture: low turnout, more polling staff then voters present, no female staff or voters. Daulatzai school had been burned a few a days ago, small-arms fire was heard around the area in the morning and some rockets smashed into fruit tree gardens.

For the counting at 4pm, we first went back to Tera school and then to Gardezi High School. Again, procedures mainly were properly implemented although sometimes it was a bit messy. Critically, the observers were put behind red-and-white tape and could not really see what box was ticked while the counter (an IEC staff-member) shouted out the name. Only controversial ballots were presented. But no one protested.

The first results of the counting might have set a trend. Karzai won an absolute majority in two thirds of the Gardezi High School’s 15 polling stations. Dr. Abdullah trailed with between half and a fourth of the votes of the incumbent although the considerable Tajik minority in town is thought to support him. It can be expected that Karzai will have done even better in the Pashtun-only periphery. Even without ballot-stuffing. Next came Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani who won almost equal numbers of votes. Former Khalqi Defence Minister Shahnawaz Tanai who was believed to have followers in Khost received votes in almost each station, although in the very low two-digit range.

All in all, the security situation in Gardez turned out to better than expected — despite the suicide bomber. We had feared there might be a series of really big explosions in the morning. But maybe even the relatively modest incidents like small-arms fire, in combination with the threats and the anti-election propaganda beforehand was enough to scare people off.

Apparently, the Taliban were satisfied with their pre-election intimidation campaign, which clearly worked. But it also became obvious that they found it difficult to penetrate the security rings established around the major population centers. The rockets they fired were far from accurate and the suicide attack — sorry — was carried out very poorly. If the attackers had managed to get six hundred feet further, they would have caused a major bloodbath at the Gardezi high school which, at that time, was still buzzing with voters.

The picture coming in from the districts, however, was much more serious. But all the reports are anecdotal only since no single observer organization was able to cover the whole Southeast territory, including FEFA. They come from Afghan individuals, observers, candidates and election staff, journalists and some from people in organizations that are not allowed to speak. That’s why, the following information is not attributed — but it is compiled in best faith.

  • Heavy attacks on Lajja Mangal, Sabari and Musakhel district centers
  • Taliban checking voters’ fingers for election ink in Zurmat
  • An IED in front of the house of an election District Field Coordinator in Janikhel
  • Fighting in Yusufkhel, Nika, Ziruk, Barmal (Paktika) and Nader Shah Kot (Khost)
  • Rockets fired at Chamkani, Gurbuz and Urgun
  • Shooting in Qalandar
  • A polling site in Lakan, at the outskirts of Khost town, blown up in the morning.
  • ANA convoys with election material attacked, IEDs
  • Closed polling centres in Janikhel, Waza Dzadran and Seyyed Karam, in the most secure province, Paktia. The same in Dwamanda, Tani and even in Khost center.
  • Ballot stuffing in Dand-e Pattan and Ahmadkhel.

Worryingly, there is a considerable gap between information mainly on voter turnout given by governors, some IEC field staff, the IEC in Kabul as well as international sources and what some of these reports indicate. For instance, in Paktika where internationals and the governor do not dare to leave their compounds, even in the “capital” Sharana, and where there had been a massive and successful Taliban intimidation campaign, nevertheless a ‘robust’ turnout was reported. At the same time, Afghans present in some polling stations barely saw anyone voting.

Worryingly, the spin has already reached the media in the Western countries.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was initially posted. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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