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Observers say Afghan elections marred

By Carlotta Gall
New York Times / August 23, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Reports of fraud and intimidation in Afghanistan’s presidential election continued to mount yesterday, with anecdotal but widespread accounts of ballot-box stuffing, a lack of impartiality among election workers and voters casting ballots for others.

A particular concern was the notably low turnout of women, who election observer organizations said were disproportionately affected by the violence and intimidation.

Election officials said that all the reports needed to be investigated, and that it was too early to draw broad conclusions about the overall validity of the vote.

The reports by election observers came as officials were still counting ballots from Afghanistan’s second nationwide election in the nearly eight years since an American-led invasion ousted the Taliban.

More than 30 candidates ran for president, and while preliminary results were not expected until Tuesday, the prospect of a run-off election appeared likely, with the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, facing a stiff challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

The reported problems also included voter intimidation, by the Taliban and also by some powerful candidates, in particular local candidates running for provincial council seats. Voter turnout appeared to be low, especially in the volatile south where the Taliban is strongest.

But women voters seemed to have faced disproportionate obstacles, election observer groups said.

Hundreds of polling stations for women did not even open in some areas where Taliban influence is high, but women also suffered discrimination and intimidation in some places in central and northern Afghanistan. Female candidates received threats and were largely ignored in news coverage of the elections, the observers said.

“The disproportionate effects of poor security conditions, widespread cultural opposition to women in public life and a number of attacks clearly aimed at deterring women’s activities all created significant obstacles,’’ the European Union observer mission said in its preliminary statement yesterday.

Women are already restricted by the conservative culture in many parts of rural Afghanistan, but the growing instability has further consolidated the opinions of many families and communities that it is not appropriate for women to be active outside the home, the statement said.

At least 650 women’s polling centers that were planned did not open on the day, according to Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan, known as FEFA, the largest Afghan observer organization.

In the southern province of Oruzgan, of 36 centers for women planned, only six opened, said Nader Naderi, director of FEFA. In certain polling centers in the south and southeast of the country almost no women voted, according to the National Democratic Institute, an American-financed group that promotes democracy abroad.

The insecurity also led to greater proxy voting, in which male family members vote for the women, further robbing women of their rights, observers said.

Afghan women have been granted equal rights under the new Constitution, and can run for office - and there is a quota system that provides a minimum 25 percent representation of women in provincial councils. Two women entered the presidential race this year, and 333 entered the provincial council elections, roughly 10 percent of the total field of council candidates. There was a slight increase nationwide of women’s participation as candidates, but in nearly half the provinces, women’s participation decreased, the European Union observation mission reported.

Female candidates complained that the insecurity made it impossible in some places to campaign. Assassinations of women working in government positions in provinces like Kandahar have undoubtedly deterred others from coming forward. Only three women entered the contest for four reserved female seats on Kandahar’s provincial council, and none of the three candidates were living in Kandahar during most of the campaign.

But it was not just the violence that hampered women in the election. Women received almost no coverage in news reporting, and topics concerning women’s rights were virtually never featured in news coverage of the electoral campaign, the European Union mission said.

A lack of female staff members forced the election commission to use men, which deterred women from voting in areas, the National Democratic Institute said. A lack of women in the Election Complaints Commission, and the location and attitude of some of its staff members, also made it difficult for some people, particularly women, to make use of the complaints process.

The passage of a new family law for the Shi’ite minority just before the election had also been widely criticized by human rights organizations and observers, since it had been suggested that Karzai signed it in return for political support from powerful conservatives.

In addition to the problems listed by FEFA, which had 7,000 observers out on election day, more than 4,000 of them women, the European Union observer mission also criticized the appointment of election officials, unbalanced news media coverage during the campaign, and irregularities in voter registration that increased the potential for fraud.

The National Democratic Institute also criticized the problem of multiple registration of voters and subsequent fraud, as well as the misuse of state resources in campaigning, and proxy voting.