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Grant Kippen, chairman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission, approaches an armed guard as he enters the ECC headquarters in Kabul last week.
Grant Kippen, chairman of Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission, approaches an armed guard as he enters the ECC headquarters in Kabul last week.

One man's mission: Free and fair elections in Afghanistan Add to ...

Grant Kippen has done something quite difficult: He has found what may become the highest-pressure job in Afghanistan.

The Ottawa native and veteran of the 2005 Afghan election has the unenviable title of chairman of the country's Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body charged with ensuring Afghanistan's upcoming elections are free of fraud and other violations.

In a country where 41 people are trying to become president, where some districts are so infiltrated by the Taliban they will probably be eliminated from the election process altogether, and where influence-peddling allegations are already flying a month before the vote, Mr. Kippen is expected to keep the process honest.

He is one of the very few foreigners at the centre of what will be, for the first time since the fall of the Taliban, a truly Afghan-led election.

"There's going to be complaint forms, I think, at just about every polling station in the country," he says over breakfast at a Kabul café popular with Westerners and protected by an armed guard. "The nightmare scenario is we get 28,000 complaints coming in; then we've got to work it all through. But you plan for the worst and hope for the best."

Mr. Kippen, a soft-spoken University of Western Ontario graduate who has previously worked for the United Nations and Elections Canada, has had his life threatened in pursuit of that goal.

During the last Afghan election, his disqualification of a candidate prompted crowds to gather in Kabul and call for his death.

Now he faces what almost certainly will be another tumultuous election period. The ECC has already disqualified 57 people from running, 56 of them because they were found to be members of "unofficial military forces."

On Aug. 20, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a president for the second time since the U.S.-led invasion of this country. Incumbent Hamid Karzai will probably win, even though the three major areas his electorate asked him to address - security, corruption and access to government services - have stalled or worsened throughout much of the country in the five years since his election. On the streets of Kabul and Kandahar, there is little of the excitement that marked the inaugural round of presidential elections.

But this is an election of huge importance for Western nations, including Canada, that have committed money and lives in the military effort here. Unlike previous efforts, this election will be run by Afghans. Locals will man the polls, count the votes and provide security against an enemy fully motivated to discredit and disrupt the voting process.

If the Afghans succeed in pulling off even a passable electoral process, Ottawa and its allies will have at least some proof that the end state so often proposed for this country - a self-sufficient and peaceful democracy - is an achievable goal. If the election is a failure, either as a result of violence or fraud, it will act as grim reminder of just how frail Afghanistan's security and governance infrastructure still is.

Earlier this year, a couple of Afghans walked into a voter registration centre. They identified themselves, gave their fingerprints and were issued voter registration cards.

Only problem is, they were about 12 years old.

If Afghanistan's voter registration process - the bulk of which took place between October, 2008, and January of this year - is any indication, election day may well be riddled with inconsistencies and errors. A report produced in May by the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan - the country's election observation agency that Mr. Kippen helped found - listed all manner of problems with the process by which 4.5 million new voters registered for the upcoming election. They included everything from underage voters and multiple registrations by the same person to the hiring of relatives and political operatives for jobs that require impartiality. In one case, the agency says it discovered about 500 voting cards issued to a single person.

The problems illustrate how Afghanistan's various maladies sometimes collide. In some regions of the country, for example, the security situation is too volatile to send female staff to work at the registration centres, says the agency's director Jandad Spinghar. Because of cultural considerations, male staff members cannot register women. As such, staff in some centres began handing out registration cards to male heads of families based on lists of female relatives brought in by the men. The result is a smattering of areas where, on paper, there are more women registered to vote than men. In reality, that's highly unlikely. "Women" may well determine the outcome of the election, they just may not exist.

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