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Piled on top of security, fraud concerns in Afghan elections: Snow

Qarganato, a windswept village high in the mountains of Bamiyan province. There was already a dusting of snow in early November and villagers say by April, when the presidential election is slated to take place, it may be impossible to reach polling stations due to heavy snow.

KHUSHTARA, Afghanistan — Amid concerns about potential fraud and security problems marring Afghanistan’s presidential election, the potential stumbling block residents of this mountain village and others like it face can’t be fixed with monitors or electronic voter cards: For them, it is likely to be a three-foot blanket of snow and no means of transportation to reach far-away polling stations.

Nearly two miles high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan province, Khushtara is typical of many of the far-flung high-altitude villages that dot Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous landscape.

During the last election, the nearest polling station was a three-hour round trip walk, one that would be nearly impossible in deep snow, villagers said.

“If the government can’t provide transportation, we will not be able to walk to the polling station,” said Sohrab, 52, a farmer in Khushtara, a collection of mud wall homes clinging to a narrow valley. The town is accessible during good winter conditions only by four-wheel drive vehicles that none of the locals can afford.

An official with the Afghan Independent Election Commission told Reuters Monday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested the election could be pushed back to account for weather, though he does not have the authority to do it and the date is constitutionally mandated.

The 2014 Afghan presidential election is crucial for several reasons. Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from running for a third term, is the only president the country has had since American troops knocked out the Taliban in 2001, so this ballot would mark the first transition of power since the war began. The 2009 presidential election was marred by ballot box stuffing and intimidation to such an extent that Karzai’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah — who got enough votes to force a runoff — bowed out of a possible second round of voting in disgust.

A relatively clean election and peaceful transition is seen as key to building confidence in the central government, which is widely criticized for ineffectiveness and rampant graft, and for strengthening the country’s fragile democracy. A fraudulent ballot would make it much more difficult politically for the United States and other Western nations to continue supporting the Kabul government and its armed forces after the withdrawal of international combat troops at the end of next year.

But even four months out, there are reports of problems that could undermine the credibility of the election. Much of the country is still so violent that electoral officials cannot travel safely in those regions. Furthermore, Reuters reported Monday that there are 19 million voter registration cards in circulation although Afghanistan has only 13 million eligible voters. The election commission lobbied for a new voter card system that would make fraud more difficult but could not get funding.

And then there’s the weather.

Complaints about the timing of the election, April 5, have been widespread in Afghanistan’s more mountainous provinces and are especially acute in Bamiyan, much of which lies above 8,000 feet in elevation and experiences harsh winters and snow cover that often lasts well into May. But concerns over allowing Karzai to stay in office an extra two months and a potential constitutional crisis trumped those of rural Afghans in the haggling over the election date.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission is calling on the central government to add more polling places in mountainous areas, so that poor villagers who cannot afford transportation or spending a full day walking to vote will have shorter distances to travel.

“If the committee does not increase the number of polling places, many people will not be able to participate in the voting,” said Ruhullah Frogh, head of the Human Rights Commission’s Bamiyan office last month.

Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, said the government is working to increase the number of polling stations in Afghanistan to ease travel for rural voters, though he said there are no plans to provide transportation.

“We will provide the opportunity for all Afghans to come and cast their vote,” he said.

That might not be enough for some voters, though.

In the village of Qarganato, a small collection of tarp-roofed shops, mud-brick homes and a gas station on the lonely, windswept highway to Bamiyan province’s Band-i Amir National Park, there was already snow on the ground on an early November day. Residents said they were angry at the government for discounting their concerns and effectively disenfranchising them with the early polling.

Abdullah Hamid, 60, who runs a small hotel and restaurant in Qarganato, said few people from his village or even more remote ones in the surrounding mountains will be able to vote so early in the year without transportation from their snowbound homes.

“The date they announced is impossible,” he said. “People want to vote, but the time is not right.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

 

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