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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 00:11 GMT 01:11 UK
Afghan voting number puzzle
By Martin Huckerby in Kabul

Afghan woman gives her thumb impression for her voter identity card
It is estimated that many women have yet to register
Fears are growing that the numbers of people registered to vote in Afghanistan's presidential elections simply do not add up.

When the elections were announced there were plenty of people standing in the way.

The Taleban were busily intimidating would-be voters, while other conservatives bitterly opposed the idea of women taking part.

And all the time, the violence that President Hamid Karzai's government struggles to deal with continued.

'Achievement for democracy'

But that has not stopped many ordinary Afghans from demonstrating an enthusiasm for elections which puts to shame the level of interest in long-established democracies elsewhere in the world.

On 17 August, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council that the high rate of voter registration - more than 9.9m already enrolled - showed the political isolation of groups responsible for violence.

Men registering for Afghan elections
A disproportionate number of men have registered in some areas
What he did not mention was that the number registered already exceeds the estimated total of eligible voters for the whole country.

Originally UN officials estimated there were 9.8m eligible adults, and as the percentage registered climbed ever higher, the Afghan government and US leaders loudly praised this as an achievement for democracy.

When the total reached 9.9m UN officials in Kabul hastily upped the estimated total of voters to 10.5 million, arguing that, with no accurate census, the original figure could be up to a million out - due to the effects of war, civil strife and mass migration.

Inexplicable shortfall

But the figure is still increasing. UN Kabul spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said on 23 August that the total after registration was more than 10.35m, and data was expected to continue arriving for at least a couple of weeks.

Only a little arithmetic shows the figures are dubious.

Only 42% of those registered are women. That means some two-thirds of a million women are not registered.

The shortfall of women means the only way the 10m-plus figure for registered voters can be accurate is if every single male in the country has registered - at least once.

And that ignores an estimated one third of a million unregistered people in conflict-ridden parts of the south and south-east of Afghanistan.

Women registering to vote
Officials say more than 10 million voters have registered
So it is painfully evident that the registration process has been seriously flawed.

There are constant reports of individuals brandishing two or more voting cards, usually announcing they have acquired extra ones as an investment.

The more optimistic hope to make $100 or more per card by selling them - serious money in a country where most people earn less than that per month.

One tale - unconfirmed - even has a woman claiming to have gained 40 voting cards by turning up repeatedly for registration with her identity concealed under an all-enveloping burqa.

In the mujahideen-dominated Panjshir Valley, the number of cards issued is two and a half times the estimated number of voters.

'Democracy marred'

Mr de Almeida e Silva admitted there had been multiple registering, but argued that many countries had problems with first-time elections.

Men getting voter registration cards
The success of the vote could be jeopardised by fraud
He also noted it was hard to tell whether voters were under-age, as almost no Afghans had identity cards or birth certificates.

When it comes to polling on 9 October, voters will have a finger marked with indelible ink in an attempt to prevent fraud.

But the success of those acquiring extra cards suggests similar ingenuity will be employed at the polling stations.

There is a danger that the inflated registration figures will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: if officials claim more than 10m people have registered, then they may feel under some pressure to deliver similar numbers of votes on election day.

And there are those who will be happy to help - notably warlords who have already been reported using their militias to ensure local people vote in the required fashion.

The pity is that there obviously is much enthusiasm for elections among the population at large.

But there needs to be rigorous examination of voter registration plus stringent controls at the 5,000 polling centres - otherwise an election which probably will be a genuine achievement for democracy could be marred by serious fraud.

The writer is a British journalist in Kabul training staff for a new national news agency.

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