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Britney Spears votes in Afghanistan

The Age (Austr.)
August 20, 2009
Paul McGeough
The scene is set for massive fraud in today's Afghan presidential poll, with as many as 3 million ghost voters secreted on the rolls.
The candidate with most to gain is incumbent President Hamid Karzai and it is in his Pashtun heartland, in the volatile south and east, where extreme rorting has been seen.
Conveniently, observers say, independent monitoring of polls in the regions will be minimal because of Taliban violence.
With the Taliban threatening to disrupt voting, Afghans head to the polls in a presidential election.
The Taliban struck with eight suicide bombs - eight on Tuesday, including a daring strike on a NATO convoy in Kabul - designed to make voters shun the country's more than 6000 polling stations.
A caution to campaign teams by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday - she urged a "credible, secure and inclusive election that all will judge legitimate" - is not expected to stay the hand of those who would steal the result.
In the parallel universe that is Afghan politics, the rival campaigns have positioned themselves to stuff ballot-boxes and buy votes on a grand scale.
Experts laugh at claims by Afghan officialdom that all 17 million names on the electoral roll are legitimate.
An election official confided to the Dutch analyst Martine van Bijlert, of the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network, that up to 3 million of the names were fake.
"It's ridiculous," one diplomat said. "You can see the process being put in place - with those numbers you don't need big tricks."
Nader Nadery, who heads a valiant effort to observe the poll with an army of 7000 locals alongside about 450 foreign observers, said: "I'm reluctant to say all the international requirements for a free and fair election will be met - it's just not possible in this environment."
Mr Nadery conceded that the security situation meant his teams would observe only 65 per cent of polling stations - and, in some provinces, only in the regional centre. "Our worry is that this blank, unobserved 35 per cent is enough to throw the outcome," he said.
Even the observer process is flawed. A group of foreign journalists this week was able to walk away from the offices of the Independent Election Commission, each with a blank observer's identity card that would give them - or a Taliban bomber or a box-stuffer - behind-the-scenes access at any polling station.
With opinion polls putting support for him in the mid-40s, Mr Karzai desperately needs an extra 5-plus per cent of the vote.
In Kabul, an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces, told reporters she could have bought 1000 cards when she investigated the black market. And, going undercover as a would-be buyer, an Afghan working for the BBC was offered thousands of cards at $US10 each.
Tribal elders have identified members of the Karzai campaign team as the purchasers of cards in whole village blocks in the south, home to much of the dominant Pashtun population.
Some elders have admitted their part in the process, selling cards for up to $US30 each or swapping them for mobile phone scratch cards.
In a harsh world it makes economic sense. If Taliban threats make people reluctant to vote, why not sell the cards to someone with a use for them?
British and US forces' efforts to clear the Taliban from the southern province of Helmand, came too late to help the democratic process. Villagers say they will not be voting and election booths will open only in the provincial centre, Lashkar Gah.
The greatest rorts took place in the registration of women - "Britney Jamilia Spears" is on the roll in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where voting is to take place in just three of 17 districts.
In conservative southern provinces where women have no public life, the female enrolment is simply not believable.
During registration, IEC staff went along with demands that males be allowed to register as many as 15 female voters, because of cultural sensitivity of women leaving their homes.
The upshot is absurd - in Khost, 72,958 women compared with just 38,500 men; in Paktia, 87,600 women to just 50,250 men; in Logar, 36,849 women to 14,325 men.
By comparison, in the liberal western city of Herat, where women are allowed a degree of independence, 55,483 women enrolled, compared with 104,946 men.
In an analysis of the process, Ms Van Bijlert quotes a former election official in Kandahar, explaining how he saw a community leader work the phones to his family, asking them to dream up lists of women's names to register as voters.
And she describes as credible reports that senior election officials have been offered up to $US20,000 to appoint compliant local staff.
At the 2005 parliamentary election, she says, a candidate lagging badly in the count was offered sufficient votes for him to win - if he paid $US5000.
Copyright 2009. The Age Company Ltd.
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