Article — From the January 2011 issue

Disappearing Ink

Afghanistan’s sham democracy

There are many ways to cheat in an Afghan election. If you’d like to vote more than once, you can use bleach to scrub off the indelible ink they mark your finger with at the polling station. You’ll need another voter-registration card for them to clip, but those are available for $5 in the bazaar. (With 17.4 million cards issued to an estimated 12.5 million eligible voters, there are plenty of extras floating around.) There’s no centralized system to prevent you from getting multiple cards from different registration centers; nor are there voter rolls that would list you at any particular polling station. Fake cards are also printed by the thousands in Pakistan; your favorite candidate may have placed a bulk order and provided you with several cards.

Then there’s fraud that the poll workers themselves can commit either by ballot-stuffing or by falsifying the count in their reports to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kabul. These methods work best in insecure areas — most of the country — where it’s easier to pay off or intimidate election staff and the other candidates’ observers. It helps if you’re a warlord, or if you’ve made millions from development and military contracts — or both.

Finally, there is the computerized tally center in Kabul, where, at a keystroke, zeros can be added or taken off any total. In 2009, after the disastrous presidential election, two officials in the IT department of the IEC set fire to their computers and fled to Canada, where they claimed refugee status, presumably to cover up their part in manipulating the results. (They left the country on visas for an international conference on elections.)

On September 18, 2010, during the election of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the National Assembly, these mechanisms of fraud were on open display. Members of the Afghan parliament are elected to five-year terms, so this was the country’s first chance to replace the 249 MPs elected in 2005. It was also meant to be an opportunity to fix the mistakes of 2009’s presidential election, when Hamid Karzai bludgeoned his way to a second term. I went to the village of Balabagh, a three-hour drive east of Kabul in the mountains of Nangarhar province, to see what was taking place in the country’s less secure areas. In Sherzad, the next district to the west, the Taliban controlled everything except the voting center, which had to have its polling materials brought in by helicopter (the center came under attack on election day and never opened). In Balabagh, the polling center took rockets and machine-gun fire from the hills throughout the day, though no one was hurt. Turnout was low. On the road there, I stopped to ask three loitering young men where the polling center was. They told me to go a bit farther down the road. I asked whether they had gone to the center to vote. “What are we, crazy?” They laughed. “The Taliban have been shooting at it all day.”

The polling station in Balabagh was still open when I arrived, but it had been taken over by gunmen loyal to one of the candidates. I found a group of voters gathered around a pool in the courtyard, washing their fingers in the muddy water, rubbing off the ink with pumice-like bricks until their skin came up raw and pink and clean. “We’re not doing it to cheat,” said one old man. “We’re doing it because of the Taliban.” I asked if they would get their fingers cut off it they were caught. “Finger? They’ll cut off the whole arm.”

Other areas in the district were equally restive. At one voting center a candidate showed up with his armed bodyguards (he was angry that some of his supporters had been arrested with sheaves of fake voter cards), and a gunfight broke out. I stopped in at district headquarters to see Habib Safi, the local police commander, who assured me that he had control of the area. He and his deputy had a bottle of bleach on the table and they were rubbing the last traces of ink off their fingers. When I asked them what they were doing, they shrugged. “The elections are finished now,” said Safi.

Donor countries underwrote this election to the tune of $120 million; it was overseen by experts from around the globe; but in the end it was still the product of the unworkable political system put in place after the United States toppled the Taliban in 2001. Elections have become, like so much about this country, something the West would like to hold at arm’s length.

On the night before the election, Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, was interviewed by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet. (De Mistura’s statements to the media are relished within Kabul’s expat community for their unintentional distillation of the absurdity of the country. “It is a chicken-and-egg situation,” he said in July when a reporter asked whether Afghanistan was ready to govern itself. “But the chicken is saying, ‘We are ready to produce an egg.’ ”) Doucet asked de Mistura how, given the deteriorating security situation across the country, any sort of free and fair elections could be held.

“It’s the worst possible moment, let’s be frank,” replied de Mistura.

“Some would say it’s irresponsible to hold an election now,” Doucet continued.

De Mistura grinned. “It could be, and that’s why we should be admiring the Afghans for doing it.”

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