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Afghanistan

Watching For Violence, Fraud In Afghan Vote

Amid fears of violence and the potential for election fraud, Afghans are preparing to vote in Thursday's presidential and provincial council elections. A relatively tiny group of foreign observers will try to help monitor the vote, along with thousands of Afghans.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission says it has accredited more than 440 foreigners to observe the voting at polling stations. But with more than 26,000 polling stations being set up around the country, the foreign presence is slight.

The challenges of monitoring the vote in a country still under siege by insurgents is daunting, observers say. The Taliban controls many rural areas in the south of the country, and has threatened to attack polling stations.

"The security challenges are very significant," says Eric Bjornlund of Democracy International, an election monitoring group based in Bethesda, Md., that has 62 observers in Afghanistan.

Afghan women line up to learn how to vote in the country's presidential and provincial election. Election officials are concerned that men will try to vote on behalf of women in their households. Hamed Zalmy/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Hamed Zalmy/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan women line up to learn how to vote in the country's presidential and provincial election. Election officials are concerned that men will try to vote on behalf of women in their households.

Hamed Zalmy/AFP/Getty Images

'The Most Difficult Election'

"Probably this is the most difficult election that we or groups like us have tried to observe," says Bjornlund, the group's senior technical adviser.

A suicide car bomb killed at least seven people and wounded more than 50 in Kabul on Tuesday, and there were other violent incidents in eastern and southern provinces.

The New York Times reports that Taliban leaders have threatened to cut off any finger that is stained with the indelible ink that is used to identify people who have cast their ballots.

Potential fraud is also an issue. Voter registration cards are reportedly selling on the black market, and voter registration numbers — more than 17 million registered — may exceed the number of people who are actually eligible.

Jandad Spinghar, director of a leading Afghan election watchdog organization, the Free and Fair Election Foundation, said that in some districts, the number of women who are registered far exceeds the number of registered men. Some men are believed to have registered on behalf of women who are claimed to be in their households, when there is no evidence that these women exist.

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The vote Thursday will be Afghanistan's second presidential election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban regime. President Hamid Karzai is seeking re-election and facing a challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, among nearly 40 other candidates.

Watching For Voter Intimidation, Fraud

International monitors say they can offer an outsider's view that will help Afghans and the international community determine how much confidence to put in the election results. They will be joined by about 2,500 monitors from domestic Afghan watchdog groups.

"We'll seek to have as many observers watch the opening of polling places as possible," says Scott Mastic, the International Republican Institute's deputy director for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The IRI, which is loosely affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party, has a group of 30 observers in Afghanistan.

When balloting gets under way Thursday, Mastic says the monitors will move from one polling place to the next, observing the vote and interviewing voters and officials. At the end of the day, they'll watch polls close and observe the counting of the ballots.

Mastic says his observers bring a lot of experience to the job. Among them, they have monitored more than 100 elections in various parts of the world, and a number of them monitored the last Afghan parliamentary elections in 2005, he says.

Bjornlund says the monitoring groups send some staffers into the country well in advance, so they can watch the campaigns unfold.

"We try to pay attention to the context in which the campaign is taking place," he says. "Is the media coverage fair? Are there signs of voter intimidation?"

Bjornlund's group, like the IRI and several others, is funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Most observers get their expenses paid, but no salary.

Observers Committed To The Process

Still, says Bjornlund, it's not hard to find good candidates. Many come from foreign policy think tanks or universities, and are eager to see the election process for themselves.

Former Wisconsin congressman Jim Moody is leading the Democracy International delegation. He says he has monitored elections before in Bulgaria, Ukraine and Pakistan, among other places, and he knows what he'll be looking for.

"One of the signs," Moody says, "is people lining up respectfully and peacefully to wait their turn. Transparent ballot boxes, so everybody can see what's going in."

Things that make him suspicious are "unruliness and lack of respect for the process. If people don't believe in [the integrity of the election], they'll show it," Moody says.

Although election monitors will be relatively few and far between, the Afghan Independent Election Commission says there will still be a lot of eyes on the balloting.

The commission has accredited more than 158,000 candidate agents, who will observe on behalf of the more than 2,500 provincial council candidates. Some 38,000 agents will also watch the process on behalf of various presidential candidates.