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KABUL, Afghanistan – With Afghanistan's next presidential election just five months away, authorities say they are facing a possible repeat of the abuses that have discredited the country's efforts to build a democracy.
They say they have no idea how many voters are really on the rolls because multiple registrations have resulted in nearly twice as many registered voters as eligible ones, said Noor Mohammed Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission.
The registration cards have no expiry date, there is no database to track them, and they are good for any election, he said.
Nader Nadery, head of the nonpartisan Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said it is too early to charge fraud, but "there is a lot of smoke out there . . . the level of suspicion is high."
With foreign troops set to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of next year, a credible April 6 election would do much to validate the West's efforts over 12 years to foster democracy in the country.
The 2009 election, which gave President Hamid Karzai a second term, was severely marred by allegations of fraud. Suspicions ran from ballot-box-stuffing and bogus registration cards to men from deeply conservative areas turning up at polling stations with handfuls of registration cards to vote on behalf of female relatives, arguing that custom forbade the women to appear in public.
Constitutionally limited to two terms, Karzai is not in the running. But Noor said he worries the glut of registration cards could taint the April 6 poll, while Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded conflict-resolution body, said ballot-stuffing was an even bigger threat.
Holding an election in a country still reeling from 30 years of conflict and struggling to strengthen weak and often corrupt institutions is a herculean task, say experts and candidates.
Taliban threats cast a further damper.
"Poor security in parts of the country will make it difficult and dangerous for candidates to campaign, and for voters to go to the polls and vote on election day," said Wilder. "Poor security, as we saw in the 2009 elections, also makes it difficult for observers and party agents to monitor elections, and provides a great opportunity for ballot-box-stuffing."
While past Taliban warnings have failed to disrupt elections, the insurgents are again threatening to kill candidates, election workers and voters, and there are fears that the approaching departure of foreign troops will sharpen the Taliban's appetite for violence.
The threats to the fragile democratic process are reflected in the election commission's Kabul headquarters, surrounded by anti-blast walls, barbed wire and phalanx of security forces in an otherwise ordinary district of the capital.
Speaking to The Associated Press in his office here, spokesman Noor says: "This is the reality of this country. We are conducting elections in a difficult situation, with poor security, but we must conduct elections.
"It is the only way for our country to succeed."
He said he wished the old registration cards had been thrown out and new ones prepared for this election. Instead, the commission is working on "a badly laid foundation" of an accumulation of cards issued over the course of four presidential and parliamentary elections since 2004, plus a fifth just concluded for next April's poll.
Also, there are no voter lists, meaning no way of checking eligibility on election day. Instead, anyone can show up at any of the 22,000 polling stations with a card and vote.
A credible election would do much for the West's efforts to foster democracy in Afghanistan after the allegations of fraud leveled by Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's 2009 challenger. He refused to participate in a second round of voting because he said he didn't believe it would be fair.
This time he's one of the front-runners in a field of 10 so far, including Qayyum Karzai, brother of the outgoing president who insists he urged him not to run. Others are appealing rulings that disqualified them.
Mahmoud Saikal, a member of Abdullah's party, said "we do have a little bit of time to develop an anti-fraud plan." Voter turnout must be pushed well above the estimated 2009 turnout of less than 30 percent to reduce the impact of ballot box stuffing on the election results, he said, and there should be curbs on proxy voting by men for women. "My preference would be for the women of Afghanistan to come out."
Saikal also said he hoped for "some courageous monitors who have the guts to go to the remote areas."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon