Deadly attacks, signs of fraud mar Afghan vote

Early returns suggest that about 40 percent of the country's voters went to the polls Saturday in the nation's second parliamentary election.
By David Nakamura and Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 10:08 PM

KABUL - Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, viewed as a bellwether of Afghans' mood after months of Taliban intimidation and disclosures of official corruption, revealed a disenchanted electorate - and a buoyant insurgency - on Saturday.

By day's end, Afghan officials had declared a semi-victory, pointing out that the number of violent incidents (309) and civilian deaths (11) had been held below their own expectations. Yet voter turnout plummeted compared with last year's presidential election. And chief U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura concluded that voters and poll workers alike had engaged in "widespread irregularities" at the ballot box.

"It was a rough day from a security point of view," de Mistura said. "The Afghan security forces did their best and made a major effort, but there were major incidents."

Insurgents launched rocket attacks, detonated bombs and engaged in gun battles with Afghan police and soldiers. "The enemy threw everything at us," Afghan Interior Minister Bismillah Khan said.

More than 3.6 million people cast ballots to elect 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, according to the Independent Election Commission. That represented 27 percent of the country's estimated 13.5 million registered voters, though officials said about 700 of the 5,355 polling centers that opened Saturday had yet to report their tallies.

In the presidential election last year, more than 5.5 million votes were cast, albeit in a contest characterized by widespread reports of fraud. Saturday's elections were viewed as a major test of the ability of Afghan and international forces to prevent violence and fraud and restore the public's faith in the democratic process.

Asked why turnout might have declined this year, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak suggested that "one possibility is that the propaganda of the enemy affected the psyche of the people."

The election commission took precautions: It closed 461 polling centers Saturday in addition to the 1,019 that were shut in recent weeks because of security concerns. At many locations, election officials and campaign workers outnumbered voters. But those who ventured out appeared unbowed by Taliban threats.

"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 unemployment as a top issue and said he was voting "for the betterment and rebuilding of my country."

The mood of Afghans might also have been dampened by recent reports of corruption in President Hamid Karzai's administration and the near-collapse of Kabul Bank, the country's largest private financial house, which has ties to Karzai.

Even with the low turnout, it could be weeks before the results are ratified. More than 2,500 candidates are vying for seats. Preliminary tallies are due early next month, but Western officials cautioned that ballot boxes from remote polling sites in dangerous districts could be tampered with before arriving in Kabul, the capital. That could generate bitter disputes among rival candidates and their supporters.

Allegations of impropriety have surfaced, including reports that many voters had washed off the supposedly indelible ink from their fingertips to vote repeatedly and that thousands of falsified voter registration cards had been used.

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