Rights group says voters lose trust in Afghan poll

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s voters were fast losing trust in an electoral process dominated by “criminals and warlords” running in August’s presidential poll, an Afghan human rights watchdog said on Tuesday.

A woman attends an election campaign for Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in Kabul June 29, 2009. . REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), an independent group which says it receives donations from scholars, journalists and other individuals, also criticised President Hamid Karzai for choosing former guerrilla leaders as his two running mates.

Afghanistan’s second direct presidential vote, on Aug. 20, is seen as a crucial period for both Kabul and Washington, with violence in Afghanistan reaching its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted after a U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Some 90,000 NATO and U.S.-led troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan as part of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat al Qaeda and its allies.

ARM said in a report the Afghan people were losing trust in the election because they see “the entire process dominated by criminals, warlords” and other obscure forces. Forty candidates, many of them little-known, are challenging Karzai.

ARM’s comments come days after leading think tank the International Crisis Group said poor security and the failure to capitalise on gains since Afghanistan’s first presidential vote in 2004 meant widespread fraud was possible in the voting.

Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since 2001, was seen as weak at home and in several Western capitals earlier this year in the face of the growing Taliban insurgency.

But he has managed to consolidate his position in recent weeks, gaining the support of key rivals from various ethnic groups. Karzai is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

He has chosen as his vice-presidential running mates former guerrilla leader Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a Tajik from Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group, and Hazara leader Karim Khalili.

Kabul-based ARM said warlords and other factional leaders had become rich after helping U.S.-led forces topple the Taliban and that such people had “no respect for democratic principles and will block reforms and modernity”.

Karzai’s main rivals were all once members of his cabinet -- former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, and former vice president Hedayat Amin Arsala.

An opinion survey published by a U.S.-based group last month gave Karzai a wide lead with 31 percent support as the most popular choice for president. His rivals could only attract single-digit support.

The ARM report noted that making alliances with legitimate parties and promising positions in government to key allies were all part of the political process, but said democratic principles and human rights must not be compromised.

It called on the United States, the United Nations and the European Union to help safeguard a genuinely democratic election.

Most of the more than $230 million the Afghan election will cost is being provided by Washington and its allies.