- The Washington Times - Friday, August 28, 2009

The head of a U.S.-based organization that aided Afghanistan’s electoral commission lowered expectations Thursday for that country’s presidential vote, saying, “The outcome will not be something that we can all go out and celebrate.”

Bill Sweeney, president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an independent, nongovernmental group that works with election commissions around the world, also told editors and reporters of The Washington Times that democracy in Russia is “not going forward.”

“It is rather distressing to see the efforts of consolidation of power and voices, perhaps not being as able to be heard as in earlier times,” said Mr. Sweeney, who has observed elections in Russia. “I would like to think that democracy is always moving forward around the world, but some societies take a step back because political leadership there wants to and is able to.”

Mr. Sweeney, a former head of the technology company EDS, became president of IFES in June. The organization, which receives U.S. and some foreign funding, will release a “postelection analysis” of Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 elections, but not before the final results are made public.

Mr. Sweeney said the elections were marred by a lower turnout than in 2004 as well as 150 allegations of fraud lodged by opposition candidates. With about 17 percent of the votes counted, incumbent President Hamid Karzai has 42 percent, compared with 33 percent for former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, according to the Afghan Independent Election Commission. If no candidate gets 50 percent, a runoff is expected in October.

A credible election could help bring greater stability to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are surging to contain a spreading Taliban insurgency, but Mr. Sweeney said it was “too soon to say” whether the election was credible. Given the low turnout and the number of complaints, “The outcome will not be something that we can all go out and celebrate,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that we still have to do.”

Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said Thursday that “We’re all waiting for the results to trickle in, just like everybody else.”

Mr. Sweeney said that among the problems Afghanistan faces is that it still lacks a valid list of eligible voters. He said the United Nations had promised in 2004 to provide such a list but “the product wasn’t usable on election day.”

“The data’s lousy across the board,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Brenden Varma, a U.N. spokesman in New York, said that “the duty of maintaining a valid voter roster list did not fall to the U.N. but to the Afghan government who managed the elections.” He added, “The reason no precise list exists is because there had been no cleanup process to weed out possible duplications from the first elections or to eliminate names of people who may have died or would now not qualify.”

The greatest number of complaints and the lowest voter turnout was in Helmand province, in southwestern Afghanistan - a Taliban stronghold and scene of heavy fighting in recent months as thousands of U.S. Marines launched an offensive there ahead of the vote.

Afghan election authorities estimate that overall turnout in Helmand was 25 percent. Western officials, who spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of their work, said the total was closer to 10 percent and that nearly 20 percent of the votes cast may have been fraudulent. For example, in Helmand’s Garmser district, about 5,000 people voted, observers said. However, 20,000 ballots arrived to be tallied in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

Mr. Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun and would be expected to win most of the votes in Helmand, a Pashtun stronghold.

A dearth of monitors because of Taliban threats of violence appears to have allowed many irregularities to pass unchecked.

Mr. Sweeney said it might be necessary to re-evaluate the use of ink to stain the fingers of voters, given Taliban threats to cut off stained fingers and reports that they had done so to at least two voters. Other problems, he said, involved the inconsistent use of security personnel at various polling stations and the presence of election officials allied with the president.

Mr. Sweeney contrasted this to recent elections in Lebanon, which he said were successful because “security forces were deployed in a very, very smart way.”

“This is a tough election and if they go to a runoff in October that’s going to be a tough election because the conditions are elections in a war zone,” Mr. Sweeney said, speaking of Afghanistan. In terms of providing security, “when you’ve done an election in a war zone, the definition of enough is never enough.”

Jason Motlagh contributed to this report from Kabul.

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