Fraud the main enemy for Afghan election officials

Hawa Alam Nuristani, head of the Afghan Independent Election Commission. (AFP)
Updated 21 September 2019

Fraud the main enemy for Afghan election officials

  • The Taliban have openly threatened to disrupt the polls, and killed 26 people in a bomb blast at a campaign rally being held by President Ashraf Ghani earlier this week

In a dusty Kabul suburb, hundreds of workers check and recheck biometric fingerprint readers — part of a massive effort to ensure Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election is not tainted by fraud allegations that have marred previous polls.

The young employees at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) are rushing through final technical preparations for the vote, set for September 28.

The stakes for the IEC are high, with the question of turnout in Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since the fall of the Taliban crucial to whether it is seen as fair and transparent.

The Taliban have openly threatened to disrupt the polls, and killed 26 people in a bomb blast at a campaign rally being held by President Ashraf Ghani earlier this week.

Turnout in previous polls has historically been low. The UN estimated it at around 32 percent for the 2009 elections, while no credible figure was available for the 2014 vote.

Each time the exercise has been tainted with accusations of irregularities — particularly in 2014.

FASTFACTS

• Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has promised to introduce measures to prevent civilian casualties in the ongoing war against militants.

• The death toll from a massive bomb attack which flattened a hospital in southern Afghanistan earlier this week has risen to at least 39.

Then, Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to have won, plunging Afghanistan into months of crisis before the US and the UN pressured them to form a “national unity government,” with Ghani as president and Abdullah his chief executive.

The two are once again facing off in 2019 as the likely favorites, underscoring the comparison to 2014.

“People have lost their trust and confidence because of serious fraud in the past elections,” said Sughra Saadat, spokeswoman for the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA).

“So far, election bodies have failed to restore people’s trust.”

Without such faith in the process, it is hard to see why voters should risk their lives to participate.

Yet the winner will need a strong mandate if he wants to pose as an interlocutor with the Taliban in any future talks.

The insurgents have always considered Ghani a “puppet” of Washington, and ensured he was sidelined from talks — which have since fallen apart — between Washington and the Taliban that would have paved the way for the US to begin withdrawing troops.

If re-elected, Ghani hopes to put the Afghan government back in the mix.

The IEC’s chairwoman, Hawa Alam Nooristani, assured AFP that this vote will be different “because we have worked on rules and regulations, procedures and mechanisms to prevent fraud.”

Supervisors in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were recruited in a process overseen by independent organizations such as the TEFA, she added.

Her secret weapo— the biometric fingerprint readers which are meant to prevent people from voting more than once — were used during the chaotic legislative elections in October last year, but they were only introduced at the eleventh hour.

Untrained staff struggled with glitches such as the devices running out of power, and the result was at best mixed.

This time, she says, all the necessary precautions have been taken — in particular, getting technicians from the German company which makes the readers to train the IEC workers directly.

Protecting voters— and polling station officials— remains a top priority.

All observers expect a further wave of violence from the insurgents, who want to undermine the future head of state by discouraging as many of the 9.6 million voters as possible from going to the polls.

Nearly 500 polling stations have already been excluded because security could not be guaranteed, leaving 4,942 across the country to be protected by 72,000 members of the security forces.

The IEC’s huge complex is itself a tightly guarded fortress, with four checkpoints and as many barriers to cross before visitors can access it.

Under a blazing sun, workers unload long bundles of canvas from a truck — tents which will serve as polling stations in rural areas without the necessary facilities.

Grey metal hangars house the technical operations. Under one, the voices of around a hundred young people can be heard as they activate and test the biometric readers before stacking them in large blue plastic boxes.

In the next hangar, men fill the same blue boxes with sealed ballots, voter registers, and a variety of materials to guarantee the integrity of the ballot.

Those include invisible ink to mark voter registration cards, with the mark only visible under the light of a small torch contained in the box, batteries included.

Then there’s the traditional, low-tech safeguard: bottles of indelible ink into which every voter will dip their finger as they vote.

“It will make a difference,” Farid Nader, a supervisor, says hopefully. “Young people will trust the election.”


Citing jobs, Trump claims victory over virus, economic collapse

Updated 06 June 2020

Citing jobs, Trump claims victory over virus, economic collapse

  • US tops COVID-19 mortality rally with 108,000 people confirmed dead
  • Trump says more than 1 million Americans would have died had he not acted

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump effectively claimed victory over the economic crisis and COVID-19 on Friday as well as major progress against racial inequality, heartily embracing a better-than-expected jobs report in hopes of convincing a discouraged nation he deserves another four years in office.
In lengthy White House remarks amid sweeping social unrest, a still-rising virus death toll and Depression-level unemployment, the Republican president focused on what he said was improvement in all areas.
He was quick to seize the positive jobs report at a time when his political standing is at one of the weakest points of his presidency less than five months before the general election. Just 2 in 10 voters believe the country is headed in the right direction, a Monmouth University poll found earlier in the week.
The president also addressed the protests, which have calmed in recent days, that followed the death of George Floyd, the black man who died last week when a white police officer knelt for minutes on his neck.
Claiming improvements everywhere, Trump said, “Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. ... This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”
Trump condemned “what happened last week,” said no other president has done as much for black Americans, and declared that an economic rebound was “the greatest thing that can happen for race relations.”
Putting words in the dead man’s mouth drew quick criticism, including from likely presidential foe Joe Biden, who said it was “despicable.” The Trump campaign said any reports saying Trump was contending Floyd would be praising the economic news were “wrong, purposefully misrepresented, and maliciously crafted.”
A few blocks away, city workers painted a huge “Black Lives Matter” sign on 16th Street leading to the White House.
Politically, few things matter more to Trump’s future than the state of the US economy, which was all but shut down by state governments this spring to prevent greater spread of the deadly coronavirus. Defying health experts, the president has aggressively encouraged states to re-open and has assailed state leaders by name who resist.
At the same time, he’s taken an uneven approach to explosive racial tensions in the wake of Floyd’s death. As he has in recent days, Trump on Friday offered a sympathetic message to Floyd in one breath and lashed out at protests in his name the next.
Local governments “have to dominate the streets,” Trump said. “You can’t let what’s happening happen.”
The president spoke in the Rose Garden after the Labor Department said that US employers added 2.5 million workers to their payrolls last month. Economists had been expecting them instead to slash 8 million jobs in continuing fallout from the pandemic.
The jobless rate, at 13.3%, is still on par with what the nation witnessed during the Great Depression. And for the second straight month, the Labor Department acknowledged making errors in counting the unemployed during the virus outbreak, saying the real figure is worse than the numbers indicate.
Still, after weeks of dire predictions by economists that unemployment in May could hit 20% or more, the news was seen as evidence that the collapse may have bottomed out in April.
Friday’s report made for some tricky reaction gymnastics for Trump’s Democratic election opponent, Biden, who sought to contrast the improving figures with the fact that millions of Americans are still out of work. The high jobless rate, he said, is due to the Trump administration mishandling the response to the pandemic.
“Let’s be clear about something: The depth of this jobs crisis is not attributable to an act of God but to a failure of a president,” Biden declared in a Delaware speech shortly after Trump spoke.
The presumptive Democratic nominee said Trump was patting himself on the back as America faces some of its sternest challenges ever.
“It’s time for him to step out of his own bunker, take a look around at the consequences,” Biden said.
It’s unclear how many jobs that were lost as a result of the pandemic are permanently gone or whether the reopenings in states will create a second surge of COVID-19 deaths. In addition, the report from mid-May doesn’t reflect the effect that protests across the nation have had on business.
Many economists digging into the jobs report saw a struggle ahead after the burst of hiring last month.
Friday’s report reflected the benefits of nearly $3 trillion in government aid instead of an organic return to normal. Only one of every nine jobs lost because of the pandemic has been recovered, and the specter of corporate bankruptcies hangs over the recovery.
Much of the growth came from 2.7 million workers who were temporarily laid-off going back to their jobs. This likely reflected $510 billion in forgivable loans from the Payroll Protection Program to nearly 4.5 million employers — an administration initiative that helped push the unemployment rate down to 13.3% from 14.7% in April. African American unemployment rose slightly to 16.8 percent.
Late Friday, Trump signed legislation to add new flexibility to the PPP, giving business owners more flexibility to use taxpayer subsidies and extending the life of the program.
As the money from the PPP runs out, there could be another round of layoffs, warned Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Loyola Marymount University.
“There will be continuing residual fear and uncertainty,” Sohn said.
Trump on Friday defended his handling of the pandemic, contending that more than 1 million Americans would have died had he not acted. More than 108,000 people are confirmed to have lost their lives due to the coronavirus, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University.
Now, though, Trump said states and cities should be lifting remaining restrictions. “I don’t know why they continue to lock down,” he said of some jurisdictions that have maintained closings.
Former South Carolina Gov. and Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican who briefly mounted a primary challenge to Trump last year, dismissed any employment gain due to federal deficit spending.
“What we have right now is federal policy aimed solely at boosting numbers that obviously would help in a reelection effort,” Sanford said in an interview. “We’re literally buying jobs.”
But there was little sign of concern among Trump and his Republican allies in Washington.
“This shows that what we’ve been doing is right,” Trump said of the jobs numbers. He added: “Today is probably the greatest comeback in American history.”
He pitched himself as key to a “rocket ship” rebound that would fail only if he doesn’t win reelection.
“I’m telling you next year, unless something happens or the wrong people get in here, this will turn around,” Trump said.