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Election officials deliver Afghan runoff ballots

Last Updated: Thursday, October 22, 2009 - 19:19

Kabul: Election authorities in Afghanistan began delivering ballots with UN assistance across Afghanistan on Thursday, as hurried preparations for the November 7 runoff in the insurgency-plagued nation`s Presidential Election got under way.
International election monitors called on authorities to avert the widespread fraud that marred the first round of voting in August. Scores of election staff accused of misconduct have been axed, and new personnel need to be hired.

President Hamid Karzai will face former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in the runoff. Abdullah announced on Wednesday that he was ready to take part, one day after Karzai bowed to intense US pressure and acknowledged he fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for victory in the August 20 election. UN-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai`s votes because of fraud.

In Washington, US officials said a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah to avoid a runoff was still possible, although it would be up to the Afghans.

Organising the ballot in a little more than two weeks poses a huge challenge. The preparations come amid a growing Taliban insurgency and ahead of mountainous Afghanistan`s winter snows, which begin in much of the country around the middle of November.

UN planes were providing logistic support to the country`s Independent Election Commission, or IEC, flying ballots and voting kits and to provincial capitals, from where they will be delivered by electoral officials to thousands of polling stations by truck, helicopter and donkey, UN spokesman Dan McNorton said.

The IEC, the body that runs the elections, is dominated by Karzai supporters. It is under huge pressure to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud that marred the first voting, which discredited the government and threatened to undermine public support for the war in the United States and European countries that provide most of the 100,000 NATO-led troops serving in Afghanistan.

The Washington, DC-based International Republican Institute said that insecurity, ballot-box stuffing and the misuse of state resources for campaigning must be addressed in order for the poll to be credible. The US desperately wants a government that is legitimate in the eyes of Afghans and the international community.

Another major US-based monitor, the National Democratic Institute, said more Afghan police and army troops would be needed this time around. The group said that to eliminate so-called "ghost" polling stations, no ballots should be sent to polling centres that are not secured by Afghan security forces and adequately staffed by the IEC.

It also said "polling centres that experienced fraud during the August 20 election should receive targeted IEC scrutiny on election day and during the counting process."

In an effort to tamp down cheating, officials will cut about 7,000 of the 24,000 polling stations which they set up for the August ballot. Some of those stations were in areas too dangerous to protect. Others never opened, enabling corrupt officials to stuff the ballot boxes with impunity. About 200 of the 2,950 district election coordinators will be replaced following complaints of misconduct levelled by candidates or observers, the UN said.

Finding replacements for coordinators and poll workers implicated in fraud will be difficult, especially in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is illiterate. The government had to scramble this summer to recruit enough election officials and poll workers, especially at voting stations reserved for women.

It`s unclear if they would be able to fill open posts with better-qualified people.

Karzai is widely seen as the front-runner in the November 7 race. But Abdullah could pose a challenge if he was able to quickly build a wider coalition.

Lawmaker and former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, who came in third in the first round, said he had not made up his mind who he would support — if anyone. He said he would meet with his supporters next week to decide, but the choice was between "the worst, and worse than the worst."

Also on Thursday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said he hopes the runoff will result in a "level of legitimacy" in Afghanistan.

Bureau Report

First Published: Thursday, October 22, 2009 - 19:19

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