Afghan elections marked by violence, 'irregularities,' modest turnout

By David Nakamura and Ernesto Londoño
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 12:48 PM

KABUL - There were "widespread irregularities" but no evidence of "massive fraud" in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, the chief U.N. envoy here said Saturday evening.

Citing early reports from his staff and observers around the country, Staffan de Mistura called the country's second parliamentary vote a "mixed picture."

"It was a rough day from a security point of view," he said in an interview four hours after polls closed. "The Afghan security forces did their best and made a major effort, but there were major incidents."

De Mistura said it would take days to ascertain the scope of fraud that took place, particularly in insecure rural areas that have been trouble spots in past elections.

Late Saturday, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters that insurgents had carried out attacks in 17 of the country's 34 provinces throughout the day.

The attacks killed at least 11 civilians and three police officers, authorities said, and wounded 45 civilians and 13 police officers.

Interior Minister Bismillah Khan said authorities recorded 63 incidents involving heavy gunfire and 33 bomb explosions. More than 4,100 fake voter registration cards were confiscated, he said.

Meanwhile, preliminary turnout figures released by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission suggested that approximately 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls Saturday.

About 3.6 million votes were cast in the 4,632 polling stations that had reported numbers to the capital by Saturday night, commission chief Fazal Ahmad Manawi said at a news conference.

Manawi said the most prevalent form of fraud detected Saturday involved voters who managed to remove from their fingers the supposedly indelible ink that showed they had cast a ballot - and who then attempted to vote again.

Among those who turned out in Kabul were some who professed to be unafraid of threats from Taliban insurgents to wreak havoc.

"I wasn't afraid. It's my own country, so why should I be afraid?" said Reza Khan, 27, a cook who voted at Kabul's Naderia High School. He cited a need for jobs for the unemployed as a top issue and added that he was voting "for the betterment and rebuilding of my country."

The election is being viewed as a major test of the Independent Election Commission, Afghan security forces and the international coalition to improve on the fraud-tainted presidential election last year. President Hamid Karzai was reelected amid widespread reports of ballot box-stuffing and forged voter registration cards. Each of the 249 seats of the Wolesi Jirga, the parliament's lower house, is being contested by 2,500 candidates, including 400 women.

The polls, which opened at 7 a.m., closed at 4 p.m. Final results, however, could take up to six weeks to be ratified. During last year's presidential elections, challenges to the ballot counts forced the process to drag on for months.

Glenn Cowan, a principal at Democracy International, an election monitoring group headquartered in Bethesda, said staff in provinces across the country reported that security was relatively good.

The election commission had shuttered 1,000 of the country's 6,800 polling centers before the election, citing a lack of security. Commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi said an additional 461 polling centers were closed Saturday. In all, 5,355 centers opened for voting, Manawi said.

Security forces set up extra checkpoints throughout cities, and voters were frisked at polling stations. On Saturday morning, officials reported one rocket attack in Kabul, one in Baghlan province in the north and six in Nangahar province in the east.

Jalalabad police spokesman Abdul Ghafar said insurgents launched at least six rockets Saturday morning. Three were aimed at the NATO base by the airport, he said, and the others landed in the Besoud, a district in northern Jalalabad. Ghafar said there were no reports of casualties.

In the southeastern province of Kandahar, one of the country's most dangerous areas, Gov. Toryali Wesa was on his way to inspect three polling centers in the Dand district when his convoy struck a roadside bomb hidden in garbage, spokesman Zalmay Ayoubi said. No one was injured and the governor proceeded to the centers, he added.

"When the explosion happened, black smoke was in the air. We were not able to see anything," Ayoubi said. He said security forces also discovered about 10 explosive devices hidden throughout the province and detonated them through controlled explosions.

In Sarobi, a small village along the winding, mountainous road that connects Kabul to Jalalabad, voters arrived in packed cars and vans covered with campaign posters.

The incumbent lawmaker in the district, Mohamed Sangin Tawalkzai, said threats from insurgents did not appear to be keeping constituents from voting.

"The people of Afghanistan know how to show his bravery," he said, speaking at his sparse campaign headquarters. "So far it's been quiet."

Tawalkzai said he understood why some voters were frustrated with the outgoing parliament, which accomplished little.

"Having a parliament was a new experience for Afghanistan," he said. "Parliament members tried their best."

Many Afghans are hoping the incoming parliament will be better.

"I decided to vote for a new candidate," said Satururahman, 40. "What did the old parliament do? Nothing. I'm going to look at the ballot, find a new name and vote for that person."

Satururahman said threats from the Taliban won't deter him from casting a vote. Before sunrise, when he went to the mosque to pray, he found two leaflets threatening people to stay away from the polls.

"These letters will not scare us," he said.

Villagers a few miles down the road were less stoic, as a gunbattle between insurgents and government forces reverberated nearby. A crowd of roughly two dozen men stood by the side of the road warning motorists from continuing ahead toward Jalalabad.

Lal Zada, 45, voted for the first time in his life in the Besoud district of Jalalabad, where voters lined up to cast ballots despite rocket attacks in the early hours of voting.

"These rockets are an everyday thing for us," he said. "It has become very common in Afghanistan."

Nakamura reported from Kabul. Londono reported from Jalalabad. Special correspondents Masood Azraq and Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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