Central & South Asia
Security fears shutter Afghan polls
Hundreds of polling stations will be closed in dangerous districts, electoral body says.
Last Modified: 18 Aug 2010 17:47 GMT
Al Jazeera's Clayton Swisher reports on the deteriorating security situation

The Afghan government has decided not to open more than 900 polling stations during next month's parliamentary election, citing security concerns.

The closures will affect nearly 15 per cent of the country's 6,835 polling stations, and could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Many of the affected locations are in southern and eastern Afghanistan, according to the country's election commission, which announced the decision at a press conference on Wednesday.

"The main problem for these elections is security," Fazel Ahmed Manawi, the chairman of the commission, said.

"The backbone of any election is security; without it there cannot [be] proper voting."

Security challenges

The list of closures was reviewed over the weekend by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and General David Petraeus, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

More than 2,500 candidates are competing for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, on September 18.

insecurity in the south
Several attacks in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday highlighted the insecurity that is forcing polling stations to close. Kandahar: Eight civilians were killed in a bomb attack on a tribal chief's home in Spin Boldak, near the Pakistani border. Zabul: A provincial official and his wife were killed in a Taliban attack in Shahjoy district.

Staffan de Mistura, the senior United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, acknowledged last week that insecurity will affect the election.

"We all know that security challenges will be a significant obstacle and we must ensure that poor security in parts of the country is not used to manipulate the votes of the people," he said.

The concern is that this year's ballot will suffer many of the same problems that marred last year's presidential vote.

Observers last year complained about dozens of "ghost" polling stations, which were closed to voters because of security concerns but still reported results back to Kabul. Those results were overwhelmingly favourable to Karzai.

Election officials eventually discarded more than one million votes, but not until after allegations of fraud had marred the legitimacy of the election.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's chief rival, lobbied unsuccessfully to have a list of the "ghost" stations released to the public.

Many of those polling places were reportedly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the same areas affected by this year's closures.

The south has seen a surge of violence in recent months: Anti-government fighters have assassinated dozens of people in Kandahar, and roadside bombings are a routine occurrence.

Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's centre for research and policy studies, said that despite the decision to keep nearly 1,000 polling stations closed, poor security situation could still mean that many of the problems are repeated.

"Influential candidates, like candidates supported by warlords, might take advantage of this and fill [ballot] boxes," he said.

Another concern is that insecurity will prevent the Electoral Complaints Commission from working properly.

"When there is no security, if there are suspected cases of fraud, they will not be able to investigate," Mir said. 

Electoral reforms

The International Crisis Group last month urged the Afghan government to delay the vote until electoral reforms can be implemented.

Dozens of candidates with links to illegal armed groups will also be on the ballot.

A review process conducted this summer was supposed to disqualify them, but the Electoral Complaints Commission - the UN-backed body responsible for vetting candidates - declined to do so.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation, an Afghan NGO, said the process was ineffective and lacked credibility.

"Vetting is too important to be conducted in the opaque and haphazard fashion observed this election year," the group said in a statement.

Candidates have also complained that many voters have received more than one voting card, a common problem during last year's election. In Badghis province, some people received as many as five cards, according to the Kabul-based Pajhwok news agency.

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