Publish dateSaturday 31 October 2009 - 09:34
Story Code : 38159
Fraud Surrounds Women Voters in Afghan Election
Fraud Surrounds Women Voters in Afghan Election

KABUL - One man cast 35 votes for female relatives. Others lugged in sacks full of voting cards they said were from women. And in a village of just 250 people, 200 women supposedly voted in three hours.

In Afghanistan's recent presidential election in August, one of the ripest areas for fraud was women's voting. And the same is likely to be true again in the Nov. 7 runoff between President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

The stakes are high. The Obama administration, which pushed Karzai to accept the runoff vote, is hoping it will restore legitimacy to a government that has been undermined by blatant ballot-box stuffing and Karzai's long delay in accepting fraud rulings that forced the runoff.

Yet the problems of fraud related to women's voting cannot be changed in a few weeks. There's widespread acceptance of proxy voting by male relatives. Many women are reluctant to vote given threats of violence and polling centers swarming with men. And those who do cast ballots are usually uneducated and therefore more easily manipulated.

It's unclear how large an impact fraud involving women voters had on the results because Afghan election officials have not released the list of women's polling stations. But many observers have said that women's polling stations were more problematic than men's.

In August, men showed up with fistfuls of female voter cards and poll workers allowed them to cast multiple ballots without argument, according to a U.N. report. In some cases, men dragged in sacks full of cards supposedly for female relatives, Afghan monitors said.

Empty women's polling stations also provided reams of blank ballots to unscrupulous local officials.

"It allowed for women's votes to be manipulated. Block voting, proxy voting, or there were just no women at the polling stations and those ballots were used for fraudulent votes," said Theresa Delangis, part of a team working on election issues with the U.N. women's fund.

Afghanistan is no safer now than two months ago and there still aren't enough female poll workers. Election officials say they have plans to recruit more women, but the strategy does not appear any different from the one that failed this summer.

Afghanistan is still a deeply conservative Muslim society where a man might never see the face of his best friend's wife. Yet more than 3,500 of the country's female polling stations were staffed by men because they couldn't find enough women to fill the jobs, according to the Afghan Independent Election Commission.

Faced with male staff, many women just didn't show up to vote. Momina Yari, an election commissioner who has campaigned for better access for women at polling stations, said even if a woman wanted to vote, her family often wouldn't let her.

In cases where women staffers were available, the women's polling centers were often in the back of a building, meaning female voters had to walk past large groups of men to cast their ballots, Yari said.

Election officials say Taliban threats made it hard to attract female poll workers, and there also weren't enough women with the needed skills. The typical Afghan woman is illiterate, a handicap that makes it difficult for them to dependably staff a polling center, said Sharif Nasry, part of a team of gender specialists working with the election commission. On top of that, women's activists said Afghan officials didn't try hard enough to recruit women.

Because of the lack of staffing and insecurity in the south and east, at least 650 women's polling stations failed to open countrywide, according to Afghanistan's main independent monitoring group, the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan. In central Uruzgan province alone, only six out of 36 women's polling stations opened.

It created a situation in which women were actually slightly less represented in 2009 than in the last presidential vote in 2004, when Afghans had only recently emerged from the Taliban regime that banned women from most jobs and forced them to wear an all-covering burqa whenever leaving the house. Women accounted for 39 percent of the votes in August, down from 40 percent five years ago, and most observers say this year's tally was probably inflated by fraudulent ballots.

No major changes have been implemented for the runoff because the election commission's gender unit is still working on a report with proposals, Nasry said.

Afghan monitors have a host of issues they want addressed.

Besides the problems with workers and polling stations, the head of the Afghan monitoring group said they want some way to deal with the problems inherent in burqa voting. Women were often able to vote twice because their ink-stained fingers were hidden under burqas and workers were reluctant to check under the covering, said Nader Nadery, the group's head.

Since women can choose not to have a photo on their voting card, it was also easy for underage or unregistered women to vote with another's card, he said.

Nasry, of the election commission, said poll workers now will ask a woman's name when she comes to vote to make sure that she is using her own voting card, but he offered no other concrete proposals.

One plan involves cutting female staff down to three from five and eliminating female body searchers, said Zia Amarkhil, director of field operations for the election commission. Men will still be searched, he said, but the plan raises questions about whether security will be compromised or if it will enable more multiple voting by people who are not closely inspected.

The number of voting locations is actually set to increase in the runoff from the first-round vote. The election commission announced Thursday that it will open 6,322 voting sites, well above the 6,167 sites that opened in the first round. The decision flouts a U.N. recommendation that only 5,817 open in order to lessen the chance that closed or near-empty stations will be used for ballot-box stuffing — a major problem in the first round.

The election commission has said that security forces can assure the safety of the larger number of sites, but has not said how it plans to find the extra staff.
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