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Big Men, Big Money, Big Voting Scam

A police officer mans a machine gun on a street corner a day ahead of parliamentary elections in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010.
AP Photo/Saurabh Das
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and the just published War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010). This piece first appeared on TomDispatch.

Afghanistan still awaits final results from the nationwide election held last month to fill the 249 seats of the lower house of parliament. Deciding which of the more than 2,500 candidates won takes time because the Electoral Complaints Commission that investigates voting irregularities, made up of five men handpicked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was swamped by more than 4,200 complaints.

Last year, when Karzai himself ran for reelection, he busied himself with backroom deals, while his supporters were caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes and having a good laugh.  Every Afghan knew that the president who had been foisted on them by foreigners in 2001 was stealing the election.  Yet the international community, led by the United States, proclaimed the process if not exactly "free and fair," at least "credible" -- which is to say: Hey, what's a little fraud among friends?

With that experience so fresh in memory, the current Electoral Complaints Commission went to work with unusual efficiency, resolving most complaints with unaccustomed speed. And last week the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, an oversight body also selected by President Karzai, announced that it would throw out as invalid almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast.  Until that moment Afghans, who aspire to democracy, had hoped for a more honest election than the charade that returned Karzai to power in 2009.  No such luck.  The partial results of this one look just as bad as the presidential vote, with roughly the same percentage of ballots invalidated.

While dumping fraudulent votes may give the appearance of rigorous oversight, the numbers raise a new mystery: where did those votes come from?  In the two days following the election last month, the running total of votes cast rose from 3.6 million to 4.4 million.  Now, it has suddenly jumped again to 5.6 million -- of which 1.3 million ballots have been discarded, leaving a total of 4.3 million valid votes. Election-watcher Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described the attitude of the Independent Election Commission this way: "If you want to know where the additional votes came from: they were added fraudulently, now they have been removed, and that is really all you need to know."
Perhaps noting that the fraud factor was holding steady, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission declared that a level of fraud with more than one in five votes considered phony is "normal" in an election.

Thus do official bodies in Afghanistan's widely advertised new democracy -- the one for which our troops are fighting -- smooth over all irregularities and make short work of making do, of overseeing elections as usual: not free, not fair, just good enough for Afghans.

But are they?

Without waiting for final results, what passes for "the international community" has already pronounced the elections a "success," but an email from a parliamentary candidate, a woman I know named Mahbouba Seraj, tells a different story:

"I honestly don't know from where to start. My frustration, disappointment, and anger are so great I am afraid they might get the better of me.  I was involved in the first presidential election of Afghanistan in 2004 and the first parliamentary election in 2005, but oh how different those elections were.  I won't say they were better because they too were captured by the War Lords, Commanders, and criminals -- just like this election -- but the level of fraud and corruption was nothing compared to this.  Those men used force and got elected by their rifles and machine guns, but this election was… unbelievable.  I have no other word to use."

Many "unbelievable" stories litter this election, but Seraj's tale is especially instructive because, in the end, it is all too believable.  In fact, it's a pretty simple story of courageous idealism confounded by big men with money.