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.
Afghan security officials acknowledged that they confiscated 4,187 fake voter cards Saturday and 22,000 in the days before the election. They said 60 people were arrested in possession of the cards.
But election commission chief Fazel Ahmad Manawi disputed the reports that voters had been able to quickly remove the ink from their fingers. An aide to Manawi said the ink, bought from a company in Denmark, was tested repeatedly before the elections. The commission sent investigators to several provinces Saturday but no evidence of such tactics was found, the aide said.
An unprecedented force of 400,000 police officers and soldiers, supplied by both the Afghan government and NATO coalition, was involved in the security preparations. Guards set up extra checkpoints, and voters were frisked at polling stations.
Still, insurgent groups carried out attacks in 17 of the country's 34 provinces, Afghan security officials said. Of those, insurgents mounted 63 attacks using heavy guns, launched more than a dozen rockets and set off 33 improvised explosive devices, according to the Interior Ministry. One suicide bombing was reported. The attacks killed three police officers, in addition to the 11 civilians, and wounded 45 civilians and 13 officers, the ministry reported.
In 2009, 479 violent attacks killed 31 civilians, 18 Afghan police and eight Afghan soldiers, according to a U.N. report.
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 and Jalalabad, voters arrived in packed cars and vans covered with campaign posters. The district's incumbent lawmaker, Mohamed Sangin Tawalkzai, said insurgent threats did not appear to be keeping constituents from voting.
"The people of Afghanistan know how to show bravery," he said, speaking at his sparse campaign headquarters.
Many Afghans said they were voting to improve a parliament that has been a weak counterbalance to Karzai. Although the legislature has blocked Karzai's cabinet selections and challenged him on the budget, it has done little to stem reports of corruption within the administration.
"I decided to vote for a new candidate," said Satururahman, 40, who goes by one name. "What did the old parliament do? Nothing. I'm going to look at the ballot, find a new name and vote for that person."
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 six rocket attacks across the province.
"These rockets are an everyday thing for us," he said.
Nakamura reported from Kabul. Londono reported from Jalalabad. Special correspondents Masood Azraq and Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.