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Fraud, misconduct threaten Afghan presidential election

An Afghan woman got her photo taken as part of the voting process in Kabul on Saturday.
An Afghan woman got her photo taken as part of the voting process in Kabul on Saturday.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/Getty Images

KABUL — Accusations of fraud and misconduct — more so than scores of Taliban attacks — threatened to overwhelm the results of Saturday’s vote for the next president of Afghanistan, denying the winner legitimacy and frustrating efforts to restart peace talks to end 18 years of war.

When polls closed Saturday, Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi said there had been 68 Taliban attacks across the country, most of them rockets fired from distant outposts. At least five people were killed, including one police officer, and scores more were injured.

A surge in violence in the run-up to the elections, which followed the collapse of US-Taliban talks to end America’s longest war, had already rattled Afghanistan in recent weeks. Yet on Saturday, for those who went to vote, it was the process itself that drew the greatest criticism, threatening the country’s fragile battle against chaos.

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Many Afghans found incomplete voters’ lists, unworkable biometric identification systems aimed at curbing fraud, and, in some cases, hostile election workers.

Ruhollah Nawroz, a representative of the Independent Complaints Commission tasked with monitoring the process, said the problems were countrywide. Whether they were the fault of the government or the Independent Election Commission, Nawroz said Afghans will have trouble seeing the vote as free and fair.

Nawroz said he arrived at a polling center in the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, the capital, at 6 a.m. and “hour by hour I was facing problems.”

Preliminary results won’t be out until Oct. 17, with a final vote count on Nov. 7. If no candidate wins 51 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates.

Voter Hajji Faqir Bohman said the Taimani polling center was so disorganized and flawed that even if his candidate wins, ‘‘I will never believe that it was a fair election.’’

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The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the five-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote in Kabul, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.

A young woman, Shabnam Rezayee, said she was attacked by an election worker after insisting on seeing the voter’s list when she was told her name was not on it. Rezayee said the worker insulted her ethnicity, then punched and scratched her. When it ended, Rezayee found her name on the list and voted. ‘‘I am very strong,” she said.

In Kabul, turnout was sporadic. Afghans, who had patiently lined up before voting centers opened, in some locations found that election officials hadn’t arrived by opening time.

Imam Baksh, a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering whom he would vote for. ‘‘All of them have been so disappointing for our country,’’ he said.

The government’s push to hold the vote was in itself controversial. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who still wields heavy influence, warned that the vote could be destabilizing for the country at a time of deep political uncertainty, and could hinder restarting the peace process with the Taliban.

But on Saturday, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, said he believed that nothing would be acceptable to the Taliban except a complete return to power.

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‘‘The elections were a way for us to show, for the people of Afghanistan to show, we are committed to democracy and self-determination and that is how we want to see Afghanistan ruled and that was the most important message and I think that was delivered.’’

On Saturday, a polling station at a mosque in southern Kandahar was attacked, injuring 15 people, including a police officer and several election officials, along with voters. Three were in critical condition, officials said.

In northern Kunduz, where the Taliban have previously threatened the city — even briefly taking control of some areas — insurgents fired mortar rounds and attacked Afghan security forces on its outskirts, said Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for the province. At least two people were killed. In dozens of other places across the country, the Taliban fired rockets and mortars to frighten people away from voting.

Tens of thousands of police, intelligence officials, and Afghan National Army personnel were deployed throughout the country to protect the 4,942 election centers. Authorities said 431 polling places remained closed because it was impossible to guarantee their security.

At one polling station in Kabul’s well-to-do Shahr-e-Now neighborhood, election workers struggled with biometric machines as well as finding names on voters’ lists.

Ahmad Shah, 32, cast his vote, but said the election worker forgot to ink his finger — which is mandatory to prevent multiple voting by the same person.

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‘‘What sort of system is this?’’ he asked, frustrated that he had risked his safety to vote and expressed fear that fraud will mar the election results. ‘‘It’s a mess.’’

Still, 63-year old Ahmad Khan urged people to vote.

‘‘It is the only way to show the Taliban we are not afraid of them,” he said, though he also said he was worried about the apparent glitches in the process.

Campaigning for Saturday’s elections was subdued and went into high gear barely two weeks ahead of the polls as most of the 18 presidential candidates expected a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban to delay the vote. But on Sept. 7, President Trump declared a deal that had seemed imminent was now “dead’’ after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including two US-led coalition soldiers, one of whom was American.

While many of the presidential candidates withdrew from the election, none formally did so, leaving all 18 candidates on the ballot.

Elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed and in the last presidential polls in 2014, allegations of widespread corruption were so massive that the United States intervened to prevent violence. No winner was declared and the United States cobbled together the unity government in which Ghani and Abdullah shared equal power — Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.