Kabul: Afghan election observers urged President Hamid Karzai`s government on Monday to allow an independent investigation into reports of widespread fraud during last weekend`s parliamentary elections, including intimidation of voters and interference by powerful warlords.
Also Monday, Britain`s military handed the U.S. responsibility for a dangerous district in southern Afghanistan that has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting by British troops for the past four years.
Despite Taliban rocket strikes and bombings, Afghans voted on Saturday for a new parliament, the first election since a fraud-tainted presidential ballot last year that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the embattled government.
The independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the observer group that deployed about 7,000 observers to monitor the elections, has voiced "serious concerns" about the quality of the elections. It said in its preliminary report published Monday that the parliamentary vote was marred by ballot-staffing, proxy voting, underage voting, the use of fake voter identification cards and repeated voting.
The country`s international backers praised those who voted Saturday and hoped for a democratic result. A repeat of the pervasive fraud at the presidential election a year ago would further erode the standing of President Hamid Karzai`s administration — both at home and abroad — as it struggles against a Taliban insurgency. Officials said militant attacks on Election Day killed at least 21 civilians and nine police officers.
The Washington-based National Democratic Institute said in a statement Monday that "although violence marred the electoral process in many parts of the country, millions of Afghans turned out to vote ... showing courage and resolve to move their nation toward a more democratic future."
But the group also pointed out that many problems; some dating back to Afghanistan`s first elections in 2004, still have not been addressed. These include "a defective voter registration process, barriers to women`s participation, and the need to secure the independence from the executive of Afghanistan`s two election bodies."
The Afghan observer group called on "all state institutions, especially the president, to support the impartial and independent" investigation into the fraud allegations during the weekend vote.
"We did succeed to have an election in almost all over Afghanistan, but that does not mean that we did not have difficulties in terms of arrangements for the elections," Karzai`s spokesman Waheed Omar said, adding that it was too early to discuss the quality of the elections.
"There were attempts, mainly by the enemy and also by some of the political circles, to try to minimize the expectations of the Afghan people by trying to tell them even that the elections were not possible, or that the elections were going to be delayed," he said. "In some cases they said that the election would not take place in some provinces in Afghanistan."
The state electoral commission criticized observer groups and the media for being "quick to imply the electoral process is unsuccessful based on allegations of fraud and misconduct." The commission acknowledged in a statement "that cases of fraud and misconduct are inevitable in the current security climate" and it "is fully committed to working with the Electoral Complaints Commission to eliminate the effect from the final results as far as possible."
It reminded observers that "the (electoral) process is not yet completed." Nader Nadery, the head of the Afghan observer group, said those responsible the election irregularities should be prosecuted by judicial authorities and that this could not be done without the help from top officials.
"Investigating these irregularities would increase political credibility of the government," Nadery told The Associated Press. "It would be good for their own reputation." The group said one of its major concerns were "more than 300 instances of intimidation and coercion of voters" by local warlords and powerbrokers — some with close ties to Karzai`s government — who are seeking to remain in power by having their own candidates run in the elections.
"We had more than 280 cases of direct attacks by the insurgents and we also we had 157 cases of warlord interference in the process and the committed acts of violence," Nadery said. "Both are dangerous to the future of democracy in this country."
Afghan officials have started gathering and tallying election results in a process that could last weeks if not months. Candidates can submit complaints to the elections fraud watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission. This panel of five people is the final arbiter on fraud allegations, and it was the body that invalidated nearly a third of Karzai`s votes last year. The panel is significantly weaker than in the presidential election, when it was dominated by U.N. appointees.
This year, the majority of the panel is Afghan and the entire group has been appointed by the government, making the group potentially more susceptible to pressure from the administration. Also on Monday, Britain`s military handed the U.S. responsibility for northern Sangin district in Helmand province.