MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, (AP) – School principal Karima Monib has become an unwilling celebrity in her hometown as a symbol of the fraud allegations plaguing Afghanistan’s recent presidential election.
TV stations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif have repeatedly aired footage of Monib defending herself against accusations that she tried to stuff ballot boxes as head of the polling station at her school.
“This was all a conspiracy against me,” the 47-year-old Monib told The Associated Press, unknotting and reknotting a flowered silk scarf around her face in her office at Khurasan girls school.
The furor over her relatively minor case illustrates how fraud complaints big and small — along with disorder on election day — are undermining faith in the outcome, which is expected to be announced in the next few weeks.
More than 650 major fraud allegations have been filed, along with more than 1,500 minor complaints such as the one against Monib.
“So much money was spent on the election, and now the fraud has dirtied the whole thing,” said Shafiq, 28, who owns a clothing shop in Mazar-i-Sharif and only has one name. “It felt worth it to vote, yes, but now all these fake votes are making it useless.”
Such doubts threaten to further destabilize a country struggling to fend off a resurgent Taliban and could bog down the U.S.-led push to bring militant strongholds under government control.
With 74 percent of polling stations counted, incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads with 48.6 percent. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has 30.1 percent. Karzai needs more than 50 percent to avoid a second round.
The count is due to be completed this week, but results won’t be final until a complaints commission investigates the claims of major violations. Separately, the election commission has already thrown out results from 447 of the 26,000-plus polling sites because of fraud.
There are reports of thousands of ballots tallied in areas where no one voted, of police taking over polling stations and of poll workers ordering voters to cast ballots for a particular candidate, either Karzai or Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
In Balkh province, an Abdullah stronghold which includes Mazar-i-Sharif, Monib was fired from her position as head of the women-only polling site for what the election commission says was clear evidence of fraud.
A state TV crew had charged her with preparing ballots so that she could dump them into a box later. The principal insists she had merely piled up ballots to speed up the voting.
She says she was targeted by Abdullah supporters even before polling day, when she refused to let them campaign at her school. A lawmaker from the region branded her as a Karzai supporter and said the principal should be kicked out of the province.
The line between fraud and misunderstanding can be thin in a country with 75 percent illiteracy.
Adding to the confusion was the chaos at many polling stations as the Afghan government ran a presidential election for the first time. Some women’s polling stations couldn’t find enough workers.
At another girls school in Mazar-i-Sharif, some illiterate old women begged poll workers to point out the symbols for the candidates they wanted. Karzai was represented by a scale and Abdullah, a teakettle.
“They were shouting, ‘Where is the teapot!’ said Mariam Mosevi, 45, the head of teachers at Mawlana Jalluddin school.
Amid the confusion, a poll worker was fired for trying to influence voters.
“She was a young woman, and there was all this shouting,” Mosevi said. “They said she was pointing out for people to vote for Abdullah.” All Mosevi saw the woman do was help voters find Abdullah’s symbol on a long, confusing ballot. “She was innocent. She was crying. She was a sweet woman.”
The woman, named Noriah, declined to be interviewed.
Abdullah is leading so far in Balkh with 45 percent to Karzai’s 39 percent.
Officials with both campaigns say they aren’t sure they can trust the results. “Right now they are including votes that came from fraud, and that is unacceptable to us,” said Zalmai Younosi, Abdullah’s campaign chief for six northern provinces including Balkh.
Sardar Sayidi, the head of Karzai’s campaign in Balkh, says he is resigned to not knowing how much support his candidate has in a province tightly controlled by a governor who supports Abdullah.
“The only way to find out now who the people of Balkh really support would be to go around to their houses and ask them,” Sayidi said. “About 660,000 people had voting cards in this province, so … you’ll be here a long time.”