Afghans Vote, Against Backdrop of Threats
Low Turnout in Many Areas Could Raise Questions About Legitimacy of Election

By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 21, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 20 -- Defying Taliban threats to bomb polling stations and maim voters, millions of Afghans cast ballots Thursday in a presidential election that was relatively peaceful and orderly despite widespread predictions of violence and fraud.

The day was marred by reports of low voter turnout in many areas, however, which could complicate efforts to declare the results legitimate. With no official tabulations expected for several weeks and a runoff likely between incumbent Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, Afghans face the prospect of a drawn-out period of political tension and uncertainty.

Officials said nine civilians and 18 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in scattered incidents of election-day violence, including a foiled attack on a police station in the capital. Officials said that they thwarted numerous suicide attacks planned for Kabul in recent days and that security was effective in major cities and towns.

In rural areas nationwide, more than 800 polling stations out of about 7,000 were closed because of security concerns, but there were no reports of major insurgent attacks. Taliban leaders had threatened to carry out suicide attacks against what they called a "sham" and "infidel" election, but the strikes did not materialize.

"The Afghan people dared rockets, bombs and intimidation to come out to vote," Karzai, who has led Afghanistan for 7 1/2 years, told reporters at his palace Thursday afternoon. "We regret the loss of civilian lives, but we are grateful for the sacrifices people made. It went very, very well."

International officials also expressed satisfaction with the election. "So far, every prediction of disaster has turned out to be wrong," Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a tour of polling stations in Kabul.

U.N. spokesmen here congratulated Afghan officials for organizing the vote in an "extremely challenging environment" and said voters had clearly demonstrated their "desire for stability and development." More than 15 million people had registered to vote nationwide.

Nevertheless, a combination of fear and disillusionment with politics kept many people away from the polls, especially ethnic Pashtun voters in southern and eastern provinces where Taliban insurgents are a major presence.

There was much higher turnout and less violence in the northern provinces, which are dominated by other ethnic groups, potentially creating a regional imbalance in voting results and raising questions about the legitimacy of the election. Although there were no major complaints of fraud, international observers said it will take time to determine how many people voted and to what degree the voting was marred by fraud and violence.

"I think everyone has to guard against making judgments that 24 or 48 hours later may not hold," said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, speaking in Kabul late Thursday. He led a team of more than 100 Afghan and international election observers.

In some rural districts of Helmand, Kandahar and Logar provinces, which have been wracked by insurgent violence, very few people voted. In Kandahar city, however, officials said turnout was robust despite Taliban threats and the firing of 11 rockets. Zalmay Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said that one rocket killed three children but that most others did little damage.

In eastern Nangahar province, another heavily Pashtun region, several people waiting to cast ballots said their neighbors and relatives had refused to come out because the Taliban had threatened to cut off the purple-ink-stained finger of anyone who had voted.

"During the day, it's the government of Karzai, but at night, it's the government of the Taliban," said Hamidullah Mohmand, a villager from Nangahar who traveled to the provincial capital, Jalalabad, to vote because he thought it would be safer. Afterward, he said he was eager to wash the dark ink off his right forefinger before returning home.

Even in Kabul, where more than 10,000 police officers were deployed to protect voters and vehicles were searched at every corner, some high schools used as polling places had received only a trickle of voters by midday, and election monitors sat idle for hours in some classrooms reserved for female voters.

Some residents said they saw no point in voting because they had become disenchanted with politics; had found no champion among the dozens of presidential candidates; and were certain that Karzai would win, even though his government has steadily lost popularity and is widely accused of corruption and incompetence.

Yet many of those who did turn out expressed strong feelings about the need to strengthen Afghan democracy and to send Taliban insurgents a message that they could not frighten civilians with threats of retaliation.

"We are here to decide our future. This is a first chance for us as a family to vote for a peaceful Afghanistan with good leaders, and we are not going to allow the Taliban to scare us away," said Mohammed Ashraf, 37, a laborer who recently returned from a long exile in Iran and voted in a crowded high school gym in western Kabul, along with his wife.

Many polling agents and monitors seemed especially enthusiastic and proud of their roles, ushering local VIPs and bewildered villagers through the process with equanimity and flourish. Often they had to help voters make sense of the cumbersome paper ballot with its photos and symbols of 41 candidates for president, plus hundreds for provincial council seats.

"You see, this man cannot read, so I am going to guide him," Rahir Ahmad, a polling officer, said loudly to everyone waiting to vote in a high school classroom. Then he took a confused-looking elderly man by the elbow and led him behind a cardboard voting booth.

A few minutes later, Abdullah, the major challenger to Karzai, arrived to vote with a huge entourage of security guards and camera crews. Strolling through the scrum with his wife and young son at his side, Abdullah smiled as he left the school and repeatedly held up his ink-stained finger for the television cameras.

In another school across the city, Karzai came to vote with his wife, a doctor who has rarely been seen in public. Karzai and Abdullah, although English-speaking and modern in their outlooks, had campaigned without their wives in deference to conservative Afghan traditions that require women to be hidden from public view.

Many voters remarked that the lines seemed much thinner than in 2004, when the first presidential election was held after the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. The national mood was extremely upbeat at the time, and Karzai was easily elected with 54 percent of the vote. This time, polls suggest he will garner less than half the vote, with Abdullah picking up a quarter and other candidates splitting the rest. If none of the candidates reaches 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will face off in a second round in early October.

"I came here to vote for a real Muslim who can help save our poor country," said Khair Mohmad, 55, a day laborer waiting to vote in Kabul. He said he had supported Karzai in 2004 and intended to do so again. "No one pressured me to come here today," he said. "I came to vote for peace and security."

Partlow reported from Jalalabad.

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