| MARCO, Afghanistan
MARCO, Afghanistan Sayed Gul walked into a small mud brick room in eastern Afghanistan, a bundle wrapped in a shawl on his back. With a flick, he plonked the package onto a threadbare carpet and hundreds of voter cards spilled out.
"How many do you want to buy?" he asked with a grin.
Like many others, Gul left a routine job - in his case, repairing cars in Marco, a small town in the east - to join a thriving industry selling the outcome of next year's presidential elections.
Gul, who had a long, black beard and was dressed in the traditional loose salwar kameez, said he was able to buy voter cards for 200 Pakistani rupees ($1.89) each from villagers and sell them on for 500 rupees ($4.73) to campaign managers, who can use them in connivance with poll officials to cast seemingly legitimate votes.
From each card, Gul said, he made enough money to pay for a hearty meal like kebabs with rice, and maybe even a soda.
There are months to go until polling day on April 5, but many presidential candidates are already alarmed by the scale of the illicit trade in voter cards and questioning how legitimate the election will be. An election marred by more fraud than the last polls in 2009 will play into the hands of Taliban insurgents and risk a breakdown of government as multinational troops pull out of the war-ravaged nation.
"When people buy and sell voter cards for the cost of lunch, it means that Afghan democracy is for sale," said Azizullah Ludin, who was the chairman of the Afghan election watchdog in 2009 and is now himself running for president.
The United States, which has led an international effort to restore democracy in Afghanistan since it helped oust the hardline Islamic Taliban regime in 2001, desperately wants the election to be the crowning moment of its presence before Western combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
The winning candidate will replace President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third five-year term. Among the candidates are his elder brother Qayum, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, another former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and a former Islamist warlord turned parliamentarian, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf.
Some of the candidates and their supporters were on opposite sides of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s and charges of fraud in the election could set off fresh tensions, strengthening the Taliban.
The threat of the insurgents, who oppose the election, was used at the last poll in 2009 to perpetuate widespread rigging, observers said.
Thomas Ruttig, the co-founder of the Afghan Analysts Network, described how a group of men claiming to be Taliban fighters stormed a polling booth in an eastern province when the vote was on. "Everyone fled. The ballot boxes were empty beforehand, and full afterwards," he said.
The nomination process for the 2014 poll ended only days ago, but the voter card trade is already starting to worry Western diplomats instructed to monitor the election for their governments.
While it may be difficult to measure the scale of fraud compared to 2009, security will clearly be a bigger threat to the process next year, according to Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Last time, there was a degree of certainty about the security situation surrounding the election. This time because of the transition and withdrawing of international troops, the security will be more challenging," Moradian said.
THE TRADE IN BALLOT CARDS
Last week, a group of diplomats from various European embassies swapped stories over dinner about how easy it was to pick up a voter card.
One had first-hand experience, recounting how he had registered as a Panjshiri, or a native of the Panjshir Valley in the north, at a polling station in Kabul.
One of his Afghan staff also signed up with false details. Their fingerprints were taken but no one asked for proof of identity and the voter cards were printed out in about five minutes.
Government officials are struggling in vain to stem the trade in the cards and people like Gul have even started to sell cards in some of major cities around the country.
Women's voter cards are the easiest to trade because men can obtain them on their behalf - without providing a photograph or their fingerprints.
This is because in Afghanistan's ultra-conservative culture, it is insulting to ask a woman to show her face and many are not allowed to leave the house without an escort, if at all.
Men's cards have photographs and fingerprints, but with the help of election officials who have been enticed or threatened into cooperation, these can be used to vote by anyone who holds them.
"Very recently we have sacked a whole team of election officials in Momand Dara district because they were making up fake lists and giving away voter cards," said Akhtar Mohammad Ajmal, the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in the eastern Nangarhar province.
"I don't deny there is voter fraud but we are working hard to tackle it."
In Kandahar, police were involved in the theft of registration lists from a polling station.
The growing strength of the Taliban means that swathes of the country will be beyond the reach of independent observers, leaving the door wide open to manipulation by corrupt officials.
In a recent of example of the hazards faced by monitors, Taliban gunmen shot and killed the IEC head in the northern province of Kunduz last month, a day after he warned that deteriorating security threatened next year's election.
VOTER CARDS FOR POTATOES
Traders like Gul say they are not engaging in criminal behavior, but merely responding to the demands of rich politicians and poor villagers who choose to trade their votes for a few extra meals.
In parts of the northern and lawless province of Kunduz, voter cards have become a form of currency and are being exchanged for bags of rice and potatoes, local officials told Reuters, adding that most of those buying the cards work for candidates as campaigners.
Most of Gul's cards came from his home district of Ghani Khil, a Taliban hotspot in Nangarhar where the physical danger of voting is enough to put many villagers off.
The Independent Election Commission, which was created to ensure elections are free and fair, has had little to say on the matter of voter card trading so far.
"We have heard of this and it is major concern for us," said commission spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor. "But we have certain measures in place to scrutinize the fraud."
This week, Noor said the watchdog had expelled the first presidential candidate from the race for failing to provide required documentation, including evidence of support from 100,000 legitimate votes from 20 provinces.
"He was missing most of his documents, including his support list," Noor told Reuters.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jessica Donati in Kabul; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)