KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- 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.
Election officials say they can only estimate how many voters are really on the rolls. Added to the confusion are millions of additional registration cards from the elections of the past. Taliban threats cast a further damper.
"This is the reality of this country. We are conducting elections in a difficult situation, with poor security, but we must conduct elections," said Noor Mohammed Noor, the head of the Independent Election Commission. "It is the only way for our country to succeed."
A credible election would do much for the West's efforts to foster democracy in Afghanistan after allegations of fraud marred the 2009 vote that handed President Hamid Karzai a second term. He is banned by the constitution from running for a third.
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.
In New York, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on Afghanistan that underlined the need "to strengthen and improve Afghanistan's electoral process."
Noor said he worries the glut of registration cards from past elections could taint the April 6 poll. He said 20.7 million registration cards have been issued since the first post-Taliban election was held, while the commission's best estimate for the number of eligible voters is 12 million. Afghanistan has had no comprehensive official census in nearly three decades. Attempts have been made since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, but they were canceled or only partially completed because of insecurity.
The registration cards have no expiration date, there is no database to track them, and they are good for any election, he told The Associated Press in an interview at the commission's headquarters, surrounded by high concrete walls, barbed wire and phalanx of security forces in an otherwise ordinary district of Kabul.
Noor 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.
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 the past 12 years to foster democracy in the country. But they face a herculean task in a country still reeling from 30 years of conflict and struggling to strengthen weak and often corrupt institutions.
Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded conflict-resolution body, said ballot-stuffing was an even bigger threat.
"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 election commission announced Wednesday that 11 candidates have qualified to run, and a lottery next week will determine the order that names appear on the paper ballots. Among the front-runners is Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's 2009 challenger who alleged the vote was rigged.
Mahmoud Saikal, a member of Abdullah's party, said voter turnout must be pushed well above the estimated 2009 turnout of less than 30 percent to reduce the impact of ballot-box stuffing, and proxy voting by men for women should be curbed.
"We do have a little bit of time to develop an anti-fraud plan," he said, adding that 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
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.