Afghanistan: Khost Locals Contest "Inflated Turnout" Claim

Candidate Abdullah Abdullah said turnout figures showed more voters than actually exist in the province.

Afghanistan: Khost Locals Contest "Inflated Turnout" Claim

Candidate Abdullah Abdullah said turnout figures showed more voters than actually exist in the province.

Allegations of massive ballot-stuffing in southeast Afghanistan’s Khost province have provoked a storm of anger, as local election officials insist a disputed high turnout figure was accurate. 

Abdullah Abdullah, one of two presidential candidates standing in a final run-off held on June 14, has dismissed the high turnout figure of seven million-plus nationwide, a number he says can only have been achieved by packing fraudulent votes for his rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Speaking at a press conference on June 18, Abdullah said he trusted neither the Independent Election Commission (IEC) nor the Electoral Complaints Commission, and demanded that the count be halted.

One of the claims Abdullah made struck a raw nerve in Khost province, where he said that the IEC counted more than 400,000 ballots cast, even though there were only 300,000 registered as eligible to vote there. In the first round, held on April 5, the IEC recorded a turnout of 113,000 in Khost.

Abdullah’s team argues that the turnout is incompatible with population data, citing 2012-13 figures from Afghanistan’s central statistics office showing Khost with a total of only 550,000 people, many of them clearly too young to vote. However, provincial officials have come back with a figure of over 1.3 million, provided by the rural development ministry.

Around 2,000 people including elders from all 12 districts in the province gathered in the administrative centre, also called Khost, on June 16 to condemn Abdullah's remarks and to demand that the votes be regarded as valid. They included Maulavi Mohammad Sarwar Zadran, head of a local council of former mujahedin fighters, who underlined the efforts that had been made to get out the vote.

"We went from house to house with religious scholars and tribal elders in Khost city and in the districts for the sake of this second round. We encouraged people to come out for the election,” Zadran said. “Everyone in Khost came out this time. Now a warlord undermines our people and their votes, and disrespects us."

Zadran warned that if the votes people had cast were placed in doubt or discarded as invalid, local tribes would block highways and hold demonstrations “from Khost to Kabul”.

Homayun Homayun, a member of parliament who was Ashraf Ghani's campaign manager in Khost, told a story to illustrate voters’ determination to take part.

"The young daughter of Jawaz Khan, a resident of Tanai district of Khost, died on election day. He kept his daughter's death secret until people from the village returned from the polling stations. He kept it secret because if people had known of it, they wouldn’t have gone to vote,” he said. “With this kind of sentiment, how could the vote in Khost fail to increase?"

In terms of hard facts, the head of the Electoral Complaints Commission in Khost, Khanzada Khan, said that well over half a million people in the province possessed the ID cards that entitled them to vote. He said 350,000 voting cards were distributed ahead of 2005 elections, 70,000 more in 2009 and 90,000 this year, giving a total of 510,000.

Rather than the turnout figure being inflated, many Khost residents were unable to vote because so many other people came to the polls, according to Khan.

"Nomads, national police and army members, displaced people labourers from neighbouring provinces, and students from other provinces studying at universities in Khost all cast their votes here. As a result, indigenous residents of Khost were deprived of an opportunity to vote because of a shortage of ballot papers," he said.

Ahmad Shafiq Wafa, head of the IEC in Khost, said the 697 polling stations across the province each took delivery of 600 ballot papers – giving a total close to 420,000 – but he said they ran out of them by the afternoon of election day.

"IEC headquarters in Kabul sent fewer ballot papers to Khost than there were voting cards in circulation. Hence, tens of thousands of people were unable to vote," he said.

A member of the Reforms and Convergence Team that campaigned for Abdullah, Fazel Rahman Oria, acknowledged that there were no accurate and current figures for Khost's total population, but said the calculations that there could not be 400,000 eligible voters was derived from the number of parliamentary and provincial council seats the province had been assigned, which are proportionate to a given territory’s population.

Oria said the complaint Abdullah had filed about Khost was actually intended to benefit people there, who he argued had been robbed by Ashraf Ghani supporters stuffing ballot boxes.

"The rights of people of Khost have been stolen. We consider ourselves obliged to defend the rights of Khost’s people. We make our claim based on the evidence that we have available," he said.

Abdullah's campaign chief in Khost, Ghazi Nawaz Tanai, insisted that his team respected the electorate but simply wanted fraudulent votes to be separated from valid ones.

Tanai took the opportunity to insist Abdullah was the right man to become Afghan president, hinted that Ashraf Ghani – formerly a World Bank official – had not stuck by the country through thick and thin.

"Abdullah can work well for national unity. He is one of the mujahedin; people of all ethnicities respect him; he’s a moderate; and most importantly, he never left Afghanistan whatever the circumstances,” he said. “Not only was Ashraf Ghani not there side by side with the Afghan people during the [1980s anti-Soviet] jihad, he is also unaware of the circumstances in Afghanistan."

Abdullah’s critics in Khost accuse him of receiving support from Iran and Pakistan, both states that might wish to counter the historical Pashtun ascendancy in Afghanistan.

Ethnicity came to the fore more sharply when the multiple candidates of the April 5 first round were whittled down to the two who contested the run-off. Abdullahh is half-Pashtun but is widely perceived as reflecting Tajik-led political and regional interests; whereas Ashraf Ghan is seen as a mainstream Pashtun figure from the south.

"Most people in Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtuns, broadly supported Ashraf Ghani, because Pashtuns are linguistically, religiously and culturally different from Iran,” Khost civil society activist Rafiullah Ziar told IWPR. “They’ve also had historical problems with Pakistan because of the Durand Line [British-drawn disputed border]. They regard Abdullah as the defender of those countries' interests."

Political analyst Naqibullah Yamin insisted that Ashraf Ghani picked up a lot of voter support because of the verbal attacks his rival’s team launched on him, and because ethnic differences were played up.

"There is no doubt that the Change and Continuity Team, particularly Ashraf Ghani himself, played a successful game in the second round by explaining their programmes, and that they won people's hearts."

Ahmad Shah is an IWPR reporter in Khost province.

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