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Afghan province offers a window onto disputed presidential vote

Election observer Ali Stanekzai, right, visits the local campaign office of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Pul-i-Alam, Afghanistan, on Aug. 4, 2014, to discuss allegations of fraud with local campaign officials and supporters.

PUL-I-ALAM, AFGHANISTAN — In an empty one-room office, a provincial manager for presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah slumped on a worn sofa, fuming in frustration. Flipping through a pocket notebook, he rattled off names of polling stations and descriptions of missing ballots, impossibly high voter turnouts and other alleged irregularities at each one.

"In this station, we found only five ballot boxes instead of nine, and nobody would tell us what had happened to them," Mohammed Qasem said Tuesday. "In this station, an elder came and cast ballots for 50 people, and the officials let him do it. In this district, there were 2,150 votes cast in the first round and 19,000 in the second. How is that physically possible? There is only one answer, and that is fraud."

A few blocks away in this small-town capital of Logar province, the campaign manager for Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah's rival, took phone calls nonstop in a bustling three-story headquarters. He exuded the assurance of victory, dismissing Qasem's complaints as sour grapes and offering a radically different version of the contested June 14 runoff poll.

"More people came out for the second round because the weather was better, security was better and they were more enthusiastic," Akbar Stanekzai asserted. "We reached out to mullahs and elders and asked the Taliban to cooperate on election day. The game is over, and we won fairly. The other side is just making excuses because they lost."

Forty miles north in Kabul, the Afghan capital, however, the battle was still in full swing this week. A U.N.-supervised audit of all 8.1 million ballots from June, suspended three times by disputes, finally got underway Monday. But the process soon bogged down in shouting matches, even fistfights, as observers from both campaigns argued endlessly over the criteria for saving or discarding a vote.

Abdullah's observers tried to disqualify as many votes as possible; Ghani's tried to save them. Both candidates have now agreed to accept the results, and a winner is expected to be declared by the end of the month.

The post-election scene in Logar, a lush agricultural province of about 1.3 million, offers a window onto key problems with the nationwide contest: the degree of antagonism between the rival camps, the sharply divergent portraits they paint of the same voting processes, and the astonishing jump in voter turnout between April, when the initial vote took place, and June.

In the first round, according to the Independent Election Commission, about 34,000 people in Logar cast votes; in June, the figure almost tripled to 95,000. In the first round, with eight candidates on the ballot, Ghani won with 20,953 votes, and Abdullah came in second with 6,169. In the two-way runoff 10 weeks later, Ghani won with a whopping 85,567 votes to Abdullah's 8,722.

Similar dramatic increases in voting, all favoring Ghani, were recorded in many other provinces, and the official national turnout rose from 6.5 million to 8.1 million. Abdullah, who beat Ghani in the first round by 45 to 31 percent but did not obtain enough votes to win, lost in the runoff by 43 to 56 percent. He protested that the election had been marred by "industrial strength fraud," and both candidates, under pressure from Washington and the United Nations, agreed last month to a full recount.

To Abdullah's team here, the stunning upset was the product of hundreds of small acts of fraud and intimidation, some of which they recounted in specific detail. In Hasorak district, where the four ballot boxes went missing, a shopkeeper who served as an election observer for Abdullah swore the boxes had been spirited away to the homes of local election workers and Ghani supporters, whom he named.

"They were all taken the night before," Ali Stanekzai said. "There are only 450 houses in the village . . . but the officials said 7,000 people voted. Of course the boxes were stuffed."

Mahmad Jan Abit, a retired police colonel and election observer for Abdullah, said he thought the first round was run fairly but that "everything changed" in the runoff. "Things were very opaque, very irregular," he said. For example, he said, women were bused from polling station to polling station without having their fingers dipped in ink after voting as the law required.

"Of course we protested, but our observers were threatened and not allowed to do their jobs," Abit said. "We do admit that most of the votes went to Dr. Ghani, but he could have won cleanly. It was people voting over and over and boxes being stuffed that we can't accept."

Ghani campaign officials, however, insisted there was nothing suspicious about the surge in votes for their candidate, a native of Logar who went on to work at the World Bank. Between April and June, they said the campaign went door to door, assuaged elders' suspicions about one of Ghani's running mates, a former warlord, and persuaded local Taliban fighters not to cause trouble.

"Of course we voted for him. This is his home, and he is a well-educated person. The others are all thieves," said the owner of a gas station in the Mohammad Agha district, whose windows were plastered with posters of Ghani in a tribal turban. A police officer nearby said there was no violence at the polls because members of the local Taliban get along with Ghani, a fellow ethnic Pashtun. "Everything was calm, and men and women alike felt free to vote," he said.

Senior officials in Logar backed up the Ghani campaign's assertions that the election was fair. Gov. Niaz Mohammad Amiri insisted there had been no official bias or interference. He said he disliked the ethnic divisions that had surfaced in the second round, but as for fraud, "I assure you it was zero, or at least the lowest in the country.

Stanekzai, the Ghani campaign manager, seemed unconcerned that the recount might undo Ghani's victory, noting that he is officially ahead by 1.5 million votes. But U.N. officials are taking the vote audit with extreme seriousness and have vowed to determine exactly how much fraud took place.

That may be easier said than done. The Afghan government is under enormous pressure to speed up the audit so a winner can be declared and installed as president by the end of August. But even with two shifts of auditing, dozens of ballot boxes continue to use up hours of scrutiny and debate each day.

Among them are numerous boxes from Logar, including the station in Hasorak where the four missing boxes eventually turned up, but many check marks for Ghani looked unusually similar. In the end, despite strenuous objections from Ghani observers, at least one of those boxes was set aside for higher review.
 

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