Go tell the world about our fake election
By Alex Strick van Linschoten So it finally happened. The election that we’ve been waiting for and looking forward to at least since last winter took place yesterday all over the country. I’ll refrain from writing anything about the rest of the country. There are plenty of places to get a good sense of what happened. Make ...
By Alex Strick van Linschoten
So it finally happened. The election that we’ve been waiting for and looking forward to at least since last winter took place yesterday all over the country. I’ll refrain from writing anything about the rest of the country. There are plenty of places to get a good sense of what happened. Make sure to check out www.aliveinafghanistan.org and the various people who’ve been tweeting news all day from the ground around the country. I’ll just be talking about the things in Kandahar that I saw and was able to confirm from here on the ground.
There weren’t so many foreign journalists down here and most are unlikely to publish detailed accounts of what happened and the things that they saw; NPR decided not to run a piece on the election down here, judging that “one piece from Kabul was enough.”
Things were a lot calmer than anyone would have hoped for, I’m glad to report. Not the mass waves of suicide bombers or IEDs lining the road. In fact the casualty count was quite low: Kandahar’s police chief told me at close of business yesterday that two children and one adult had been killed during the day and that two others had been injured. The man who died was probably the first casualty of the day, a military commander called Dost Mohammad and who was out running in a field when a rocket struck close by and he was hit by the shrapnel.
Pajhwok was reporting in the morning that at least six IEDs had been removed from the roads in Kandahar City. An Afghan National Army commander who spoke to us on condition of anonymity said that 16 or 17 rockets hit the city during the course of the elections. During the night there were not rockets or attacks it seems, apart from the story I just heard from a policeman here at the airport that five armed men managed to get onto KAF airfield last night. They were searching all night, apparently.
In Kandahar it seems the Afghan government’s imposition of a ban on any negative coverage of the election during voting hours wasn’t upheld much, if at all. I spoke to a photojournalist yesterday who said he was actually given a police escort to one of the sites where a rocket hit.
The rockets, starting at 6:30am local time, were probably responsible for some people deciding not to go out and vote, but I don’t think it had an overwhelming effect in this respect. Most people had decided either way a long time ago, and in any case — as I’ll come to later — apathy was particularly intense for this election.
My personal experience was a lot like what it’s usually like in Kandahar. There were some isolated incidents — a couple of rockets landed quite close to us near the end of the day — but on the whole it was quite easy relaxed day. Some police manning crossroads in town were a bit edgy and conducted searches of cars at gunpoint, but for the most part the police were somewhat laid back; at quite a few voting stations my colleagues and I were allowed in without body searches or ID checks.
I imagine this will be quite an important issue in the coming weeks, perhaps more so than allegations of fraud and vote-rigging. I visited almost a dozen voting stations in different parts of Kandahar City, including two female-only locations, and nowhere was there intense activity. We made sure to get to the big locations in the city center as well as smaller places in the west and east of town.
During the morning there were people on the streets walking around town to get to polling centers, but it was far from an enthusiastic turnout. Everyone I spoke to who was present at the previous elections in Kandahar noted the big difference in numbers of voters. “At this large station we had several thousand people waiting to vote at any one time — there were that many people,” one told me.
Near the end of the day we travelled to a selection of voting stations to take figures for how many people had voted in each location at the various voting booths. In the interests of full disclosure, here are the numbers I collected:
Mirwais Mina Girl’s School (3:05pm)
Zahir Shahi High School (3:15pm)
Shkarpur Darwaza Station (3:30pm)
Ahmad Shah Baba High School (3:50pm)
(missing 4 stations that we didn’t count)
PARTIAL TOTAL: 1,007
There are several things to note from these numbers. Firstly, turnout was EXTREMELY low. Zahir Shahi High School and Ahmad Shah Baba High School are arguably the two biggest voting stations in Kandahar City, where in previous elections large numbers of people were seen. Neither location saw more than 2,000 voters by the end of the day. Obviously, there is a possibility that some of these locations saw lots more voters after we left, but it is highly implausible, and in fact we were present at Ahmad Shah Baba high school at the 4pm cutoff time and there was no last-minute surge.
There was, though, a bit of confusion as to whether voting had been extended for an hour or not. The school I was at started locking vote boxes and counting votes at 4pm. A man who came in and said that BBC had just announced a one hour extension was ignored and as far as I know no more votes were cast past the 4pm mark.
In all the stations that we visited, there were far more election staff than voters — with the exception of Zahir Shahi high school that we visited in the morning where there were several hundred voters lining up to vote. In Mirwais Mina Girls School, there were a lot of girls staffing the polling locations, but hardly any voters to be seen. In fact it seems that most of the vote numbers that we noted (above) were probably from election officials themselves.
So what do these numbers mean, and what can we deduce further from them? In Kandahar province as a whole, there were around 250 or 260 voting stations open. In the city there were around 50 open and receiving voters. Even if we assume that they were all as well-visited as Ahmad Shah Baba High School or Zahir Shahi High School (a preposterous assumption) then this is still a really low number.
If I take an average of the voting stations that I visited, we have perhaps 600 votes per voting center (which itself is illusionary since almost no women came out to vote and since hardly any of the centers I visited had 600 people vote there). There were an estimated 1,080,000 registered voters according to IEC officials yesterday and so Kandahar potentially saw 160,000 voters out on the streets. I think this is an almost completely optimistic figure, assuming more people were out on the streets than my eyes saw.
There still is little information on voting in the districts aside from some stories from Spin Boldak (see below), but anecdotal accounts suggest that hardly anyone voted in the districts as well. All this indicates a turnout of less than 15 percent, probably in reality somewhere approaching 7 or 8 percent.
One further point: since the last vaguely useful census of Afghanistan and the south was decades ago, it’s very difficult to get a sense of demographics and how many people are living where etc. But given the figure of 1,080,000 total registered voters, I’m amused to take a look at the Afghan government’s own Central Statistics Office document on population statistics for the period 2008-9. I don’t really buy the numbers they state in the booklet, but they state that Kandahar has 1,057,500 total residents (352,200 urban and 705,300 rural). Get your head around that one…
I’ll admit that I’m not as familiar with Afghanistan’s actual written voting and election law as I ought to be, but these are some things that I thought seemed pretty ‘off’. The first thing that I saw when I went to watch the governor, Torialai Weesa, cast the first vote of the day was the large number of Karzai ‘observers’ present. This was repeated at all the other centers I visited, and apparently it was quite uniform all over the country.
These young men were recruited to watch and report instances of voter fraud, but in reality these functioned as campaigners for the incumbent, handing out badges and baseball caps to those who came. I heard from a number of people during the day that there were 6,000 of these observers for Kandahar province alone, although one person warned me that there were fewer as some didn’t come out to take up their duties that day.
I noticed a fair number of FEFA observers, particularly around the end of the day, in Kandahar City. They were busy taking figures for how many voters were recorded as having voted in each station. I look forward to their report on voting irregularities.
Around noon, the news that the supposedly indelible ink could be washed off from fingers with domestic bleach started to hit the streets in Kandahar. This was good and bad. On the one hand, a lot of people who were scared of voting for fear that they would be identified by the Taliban by the ink-stain on their fingers suddenly realized that they could go and vote. I personally witnessed one group of people who were due to travel to Arghestan (a district of Kandahar) the next day for a funeral who had decided not to vote for this reason; when it became clear that the ink wasn’t permanent, they all got up and voted.
On the other hand, it meant that lots of people came out and voted twice or more. I personally witnessed this. I don’t think there was too much of this, though, and certainly not enough to sway the vote significantly in one or the other direction. I believe it was a problem in other parts of the country, too. If you’re wondering how people managed to get multiple voter cards, please refer to previous blog posts that I’ve made, as well as the numerous media accounts of corruption in the registration system, where officials of the election commission and various other power brokers work together to manipulate the system.
From the start of the day, it was noted that the voter cards were not being properly invalidated with the card-puncher. Again, this was a problem all over the country. At subsequent voting stations that I visited, staff had taken differing initiatives to correct this — some cut the corners off the cards, others cut a triangle in the bottom right corner, and so on.
From what I observed during the counting of votes, there seemed to be some confusion as to how this was meant to work. I was based at Ahmad Shah Baba High School and some of the voting rooms were counted very fast, others took much longer. The difference was of course in the numbers of votes that each room had taken, but also in individual styles — some people would check everything two or three times, and others would just do it once. Occasionally observers working for Karzai would come in and shout at some of the election people to do things differently, especially if they were taking a long time over the vote count. I imagine over Kandahar province as a whole there was a lot of variation in how the vote count went.
Women’s voting centers were interesting to visit. The first that I saw, Kaka Said Ahmad High School in the center of the city, had some women voting (perhaps several dozen) early in the morning. In one room that we entered, however, the two boxes were open and women were in the process of handling the vote papers. When we asked the head of the voting center what was going on (boxes were supposed to be locked and closed) she said that some women had come very early in the morning (before the official opening time) and asked, hands trembling out of fear, to vote quickly.
Later on in the morning an irregularity was noticed, though, since one box had 13 votes inside and the other had 14. They were in the process of dealing with this when I entered with my colleague and some journalists from the local Hewaad television station.
In another women’s voting station (Mirwais Meena Girls School), we were kept waiting outside the locked main gate for around ten minutes before finally being allowed in (a policeman outside gave us a hand opening the gate). When inside, there were hardly any voters (under a dozen in the whole building) but lots of election workers and other girls. Again, I’m not sure if this was an irregularity, but my guess is that women’s polling stations, especially ones in the districts, were easy places for fraud to occur.
I overheard several conversations between provincial candidates or their representatives and people working/observing at voting centers — they didn’t realize I speak Pashtu — during which sums of money were promised in exchange for votes to be cast in their favor. In this manner, at one station 1,000 votes were thus sold for $400.
I heard stories of this kind of trade in votes throughout the day, and in fact the ‘warm bazaar’ had been open for several months. Earlier in the year it was possible to buy voting cards for $1 a card (they were sold in booklets of 100 usually). By the time the day before the election arrived, they were being sold (in some instances) for $5-10 per card.
The Afghan friends I was travelling around with that day called one of the voting stations for which I gave numbers above (Shkarpur Darwaza) ahead of our arrival. “Don’t come! Don’t come!” our friends were requested. “We’re about to start stuffing the ballot boxes and we don’t need foreigners here messing up our work.” That was one of the election officials of the station talking on the phone. Needless to say, we went there and took note of how many voters they had on their lists.
Spin Boldak is an interesting case, although, since I didn’t manage to get down there myself and I haven’t yet heard from people who did, I suspect we’ll never get to the bottom of what happened there. In the months prior to the election, I heard numerous accounts of how General Razziq’s men — Razziq is a local border police commander, well-respected in southern Afghanistan — were preventing any non-Karzai supporters from campaigning in town. “If anyone puts up pictures of the opposition presidential candidates, like we did a few days ago with 1000 pictures of Ashraf Ghani, they’re all gone and taken down by the next day,” one campaigners told me.
So not really a free and fair environment. As the election day progressed, I started hearing reports that Razziq was influencing the voting. At 4pm when voting stopped, I received several credible reports that Razziq had sent his men round to every polling station in Spin Boldak and collected all the ballot boxes. He then reportedly took them to his house — ‘to keep them safe and secure’ — and prevented election observers from entering. The boxes were stuffed overnight, many claimed.
Again, I have no way of confirming any of this, but I can certainly imagine it happening. Today just before stepping onto the plane I heard from a friend down in Spin Boldak that there weren’t necessarily extra votes cast but that all votes that weren’t for Karzai were invalidated (i.e. multiple candidates were selected or some such trick), thus giving Karzai a 100% taking down in Boldak.
These reports all seem pretty blatant and in the open to be wholly true, but given that so many people know about these events I imagine that Spin Boldak will be one of the most highly contested voting districts.
Local Kandahari Perspectives
The saddest thing about all that I described above was watching the faces of my friends — particularly Kandahar’s youth — as they found out what was going on. A great sense of disappointment darkened most of my conversations during the last few hours of polling and during the evening and next day.
People focused on some of the details, especially the non-indelible ink that had been promoted with such fanfare by the United Nations earlier that year. People frequently blamed “the foreigners” for mismanaging things and allowing so much fraud and deception to take place. Admittedly these days conspiracy theories about the invisible hand of ‘the foreigners’ are omnipresent in southern Afghanistan, but “the farce of this year’s election” (as one friend put it) struck a nerve among those people who did want to vote, who did want a change, who didn’t have a direct stake in anyone’s campaign.
I remember I sat at my desk in the evening waiting for some of the foreign institutions, embassies et cetera to make a comment worthy of the day. Instead, we got Kai Eide, the UN special representative, offering his ‘congratulations.’ Slowly more internationals started voicing their happiness at how the election had gone. Most seemed to take a deep breath that there weren’t more violent incidents around the country and that, at least in the public eye, the elections had passed more or less as planned. A pity that the wishes of ordinary Afghans for a free and fair election were not heard…
Most of my friends down in Kandahar voiced concern at how the voting was being managed, with campaigners and observers inside polling centers. The threat of violence was not the major factor in determining the low turnout, as I see it. Rather, apathy among voters meant that only a very small number came out to exercise their right.
There had been such a huge buildup to the elections, in both Afghan and foreign media, that perhaps the only reaction to the day was inevitable disappointment. Maybe the day could never have fulfilled all our expectations and hopes. There was a sense that the election could possibly have been a moment where a change or a shift could have changed the trajectory of Afghanistan — I remember watching Afghans around the time Obama was elected and wonder how many of them had hoped Afghanistan could also have its own Obama moment.
For many in Kandahar, and, I imagine, in the districts as well, the provincial council elections were also very important. From what friends of mine said to me yesterday, people seemed prepared to tolerate more ‘dirty business’ for the provincial council than for the presidential voting. The voting was more of an approximation, they said, and offered a chance to shift the power balance in the province a little.
Nevertheless, watching the low turnout but knowing that the next days would see the ‘Independent’ Electoral Commission announce large numbers of voters was enough to make the staunchest optimist just a little bit despondent.
Predictions and Conclusions
It’s too late for me to predict — as I was going to do — that Karzai will announce his victory; he already did. In the coming days a highly dubious turnout will be announced by Karzai and the IEC. When the final results come out, Karzai will have won, and will have captured over 50% of the votes. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah will go into overdrive for a while, but slowly deals will start to be made behind the scenes.
After several weeks of confusion, the foreign community will cave in (it pretty much already has done so) and validate the results. This will, in turn, lead to further disillusionment with the foreign community. To a certain extent, especially in Kandahar and the south, the damage is already done. Even if the internationals were to have a change of heart and get serious, they’re already being blamed for the failure of this election. But of course there won’t be any serious outcries by the major voices of the international effort because too much is riding on this election passing, and passing without incident.
So we’ll pick up the pieces and stumble onwards. The change that people had hoped for didn’t happen. It was denied them. And despite all the hope and expectation of some kind of shift, we’ll just continue forward down the same path we were going before, just now without something ahead of us to light the way forward.
Alex Strick van Linschoten is a journalist in Kandahar, and this post was originally published on his blog.
Alex Strick van Linschoten, Kandahar, August 20, 2009
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