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Afghan Election: Ballot Shortages Show Lessons Not Learned

Afghan observers sit at a polling station in Kabul in the second round of the presidential election on June 14.
Afghan observers sit at a polling station in Kabul in the second round of the presidential election on June 14.
KABUL -- One of the biggest criticisms of Afghanistan’s otherwise much-lauded first-round election was a chronic shortage of ballot papers. Tens of thousands of people, some waiting in line for hours, were turned away.

It appears tragedy has struck twice, because during the June 14 runoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, ballot shortages were reported in as many as half of the country's 34 provinces.

After the first round on April 5, observers accused election authorities of being unprepared for the high turnout of around 7 million people.

Election officials themselves said the shortage of ballots was actually a calculated move -- an effort to prevent the widespread fraud and ballot-box stuffing that critics alleged took place during the presidential election of 2009.

One reason cited at the time was that unexpectedly low turnout left a high number of leftover ballots available to be filled in. To prevent such a situation from developing again, each polling station was limited to only 600 ballots for the first round of the 2014 vote.
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Officials had estimated that 600 ballots for each station would be enough for the first round but were far off the mark. Nearly 2 million ballots were printed for the second round. It is unknown whether limits were put in place at polling stations this time around, but ballot shortages were recorded again, reopening avenues for the type of fraud alleged in 2009.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, which had correspondents on the ground in many of the country’s provinces on election day, reported shortages in Kandahar, Khost, Kunar, Nangarhar, Herat, Balkh, Badakhshan, and even Kabul, among other provinces.

In Kabul, shortages in one district sparked angry protests. Demonstrators accused election officials of intentionally delivering a small number of ballots to the district.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has said it provided additional ballots to more than 300 polling stations across the country on June 14.

But many other voting centers failed to receive extra supplies. And those polling stations that did often had to wait hours to get them, limiting the number of voters casting ballots.

Even if election officials did underestimate turnout, there may be a silver lining.

But it still came as a surprise. Early on election day, IEC chief Ahmad Yusuf Nuristan had reassured voters there would be enough ballot papers. Nuristani, who was the first to cast his vote in the country, briefly addressed reporters in Kabul.

And just a few days before election day, Nuristani said the IEC had printed nearly 2 million more ballot papers than in the first round, when 13 million were printed to correspond with the number of eligible voters.

While some have said the limit on ballot papers would curtail fraud, others saw it as undemocratic.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.