Surge of 'phantom' female voters in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Afghan women appear to be massively outnumbering male voters in one of the most conservative parts of the country, amid allegations of widespread fraud designed to re-elect President Hamid Karzai in next year's polls.

Western officials admit the figures are "completely implausible", given the region's entrenched Pashtun values which make it difficult for women to register in person. "We know the figures are hyped but no one is doing anything about it," said a diplomat in Kabul.

The United Nations admitted fraud is happening. In Gardez, Paktia's provincial capital, male voters told The Independent they were encouraged to register their female relatives, in absentia. "They said I could just give them a list of the women in my family, and they would give me the registration cards," said one.

"I could see lists and lists of women's names on the table. They said they were under pressure from Kabul to register lots of women." Strict election rules require men and women to register themselves. Men have to provide photographs and fingerprints. Women are required to provide only fingerprints and there are dedicated women-only registration centres.

The practice raises the prospect of phantom voters being counted in the 2009 elections. The UN has no official oversight role and none of the foreign diplomatic missions are in charge of monitoring the registration process, although Britain is helping bankroll the operation.

Observers fear it is part of a top-down ploy to inflate the number of ethnic Pashtuns on the electoral roll. President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, as are most of the Taliban. They are Afghanistan's biggest ethnic group, and traditionally the country's rulers. But most of them live in areas worst-affected by the insurgency, in the south and the east, and there are fears that fighting could force a low turnout, letting a non-Pashtun win.

If that happened, the result would likely be deemed unacceptable to large swaths of people already disinclined to support the government. Voter registration started in the most stable provinces on 14 October. So far, about 30 per cent of the registrants are women. In the 2004 polls, 40 per cent of voters were women. The same voter in Gardez said he used his thumbprint on his own card and his index finger on his wife's.

"The guys at the registration centre told me to do it," he added. "They said it wouldn't be a problem, and if I had more women, I had more fingers." Officials in the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Gardez denied any reports of fraud. Amir Hamza, Paktia's provincial election officer, said: "We haven't had any reports of irregularities but we are human. I'm sure some people will make mistakes. There are irregularities with elections all over the world."

Questions have already been raised over voter registration figures in neighbouring Logar province, which saw a 50-50 split between men and women. The UN spokesman in Kabul, Adrian Edwards, said: "In some provinces there has been registration fraud, principally in Logar and Paktia. But that doesn't translate | into election fraud."

But he stressed additional checks would be in place on election day, like inking voters hands, to stop people voting twice.