(David Guttenfelder ~ Associated Press)
A suspiciously high number of women -- far more than men -- have been registered to vote in culturally conservative provinces where President Hamid Karzai expects to do well, a leading election monitor said this week. An adviser to the top U.S. commander said the black market for voter registration cards is flourishing and that she could have personally bought 1,000.
Monitors said they would tolerate a limited amount of fraud in the Aug. 20 balloting.
"If the level of corruption or violation is under 10 percent, it will be acceptable for me," said Jandad Spinghar, the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group.
"My personal feeling is we cannot expect that our election will be according to the standard that you have in the United States or Germany or France, but at least we should have a voting process according to the level of a country in the Third World."
But serious questions over the fairness of the election raise the possibility that losing candidates and their supporters will not accept the results. That could lead to a period of political turmoil in a country where the central government is struggling to exert control in many regions.
Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt the election and warned Afghans to stay away from the polls. With one week to go before the ballot, Karzai declared that Afghan government forces would observe an election day cease-fire and called on militants not to "create problems for people who vote."
17 million registered
Among the questionable election figures is the number of Afghans the country's election commission says have registered: more than 17 million. The campaign of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah -- Karzai's top challenger -- alleges that there are more registered than eligible voters.
The CIA estimates the population of Afghanistan at 33.6 million, and says that half the population is under age 18. No one can be sure, however, because the country hasn't conducted a census since 1979.
The number of women who were registered over the last year in Paktia, Khost and Logar provinces is also raising eyebrows, said Spinghar. Afghan males there registered multiple women from their families -- as many as 10 or 15 in some cases -- and claimed that because of cultural sensitivities the women could not register in person, he said. It's not clear those women exist.
The dominant ethnic group in all three conservative provinces is the Pashtun tribe. Karzai, the leading candidate in a crowded field of three dozen contenders hoping to win a five-year term, is a Pashtun.
Figures from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission show that 72,958 women registered in Khost compared with 38,500 men; 87,600 women registered in Paktia compared with 50,250 men; and 36,849 women registered in Logar but 14,342 men.
"The number of women is so high compared with the men," Spinghar said. "We cannot expect so many women to have registered."
The figures are far different in other areas. In Herat, a more liberal province where women move about more freely, 55,483 women registered compared with 104,946 men, commission figures show. In Kunduz, another northern, more liberal province, 45,572 women registered compared with 109,650 men.
The European Union Election Observation Mission, which will send out 120 monitors, said it's concerned that male heads of household may try to vote for all the females in their families -- a practice forbidden by election rules.
"It's something that we're looking at in the south and the southeast of the country," the mission's deputy chief, Dimitra Ioannou, said Thursday. "We are concerned about this because the number of registered voters in that region is quite high."
Spinghar said his monitors also reported multiple cases of underage Afghans registering and receiving voting cards.
The top U.N. official in the country, Kai Eide, said last weekend that fraud prevention measures are much better than they were in 2004, when Afghanistan held its first direct presidential election. As in the previous election, each voter will be required to dip his or her finger in indelible ink, a measure intended to prevent people from voting multiple times.
In 2004, however, there were complaints that some election staff used regular ink -- which was easy to wash off. Other allegations included ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation.
Eide said he does not expect a completely fair election.
"Will there be irregularities? Yes, I fear there will," he said. "But I hope with the measures that have been undertaken we will be able to keep it to a level that will not affect the credibility of the elections."
Spinghar said enforcement of the one-vote ink rule will depend on the impartiality of the election staff.
"We have enough observers, but in places where there are no observers or the IEC (Independent Election Commission) is not able to control the impartiality of their staff, we cannot guarantee a good vote," he said.
A former journalist who has lived in Afghanistan since 2001 and is now an adviser to U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said she personally bought 10 voter registration cards on the black market.
"I could have bought a thousand if I had wanted to. And I could take those or somebody could take those into a polling place, you know, one of the more remote ones, and just fill out ballots in the names of those people whose cards you have," Sarah Chayes said on MSNBC last month.
Spinghar hopes to have 8,000 election observers in the field, but he said he can't guarantee all will go out because of weak security. Thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces are working to secure remote voting sites. Election officials have said militant violence in the south will prevent some 700 of the country's 7,000 polling centers from opening.