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In crucial step toward democracy, Afghans vote for lawmakers

Violence before Sunday's election left seven candidates and six poll workers dead.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2005



KHAIRABAD, AFGHANISTAN

One illiterate farmer came to the polls here with the number of his candidate written on the palm of his hand.

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A woman said she planned to vote for the candidate who had eyeglasses as his symbol, but found two such candidates on the ballot. She hopes she voted for the right person.

A school-teacher said he knows his candidate like a brother. In fact, the candidate is his brother. But it still took five minutes to find his face on the ballot, an eight-page poster-sized booklet with 390 tiny faces and names to choose from.

"I had to ask these election workers for help to find my candidate," says Sheen Gul, the farmer with the number on his hand. "It was really difficult, but this is good for Afghanistan. We know our country will be better if people come out to vote."

Early reports, however, indicated that, unlike the presidential elections held last October, there were few early morning poll lines and little exuberance as polls for Afghanistan's first fully elected parliament opened with tight security on Sunday.

Nevertheless, election officials were still predicting that a high percentage of the 12.4 million voters would eventually take part in this crucial step in Afghanistan's transition to democracy.

"I ask everyone to appreciate that tomorrow will be a difficult day," said Peter Urban, the chief elections official for the Joint Election Management Body, which is running the elections with the Afghan government. "But we're hopeful that we'll have a generally peaceful and orderly day ... and credible and acceptable elections."

The fact that Mr. Urban speaks of "credible and acceptable" elections instead of "free and fair" elections is an indication that Afghanistan still cannot guarantee that citizens are able to cast their votes in an environment free of violence, intimidation, or corruption. But the key, Urban says, is that this process, however imperfect, is a necessary step toward creating a legitimate system of government that the Afghan people will accept.

The vote count is expected to take two to three weeks. Jean Arnault, the special representative of the United Nations in Kabul, told reporters at a press conference on the eve of elections, "There have been criticisms here and there, but let me tell you, no one could have done better."

The international community mounted a massive effort to give every village and every district the opportunity to vote. With many areas unreachable by road, election officials deployed 1,247 donkeys, 300 horses, 24 camels, 1,200 trucks, 9 helicopters, and 39 transport planes in order to get ballots to the 26,250 polling stations around the country.

Security has been a major concern. During the months-long campaign, seven candidates and six election workers were killed across the country. The Taliban called for a boycott of the election, and attacks against police and election officials continued up until the day of election itself. On Sunday, one French Special Forces soldier was killed and another was wounded, while patrolling in southern Afghanistan.

On Friday, three policemen and a police chief were killed in the Mousavi district, an area near Khairabad and just a few miles from Kabul. The attack worried many Afghan security officials, who note that the area is a stronghold of the radical Islamist party, Hizb-i Islami, which has declared jihad against the Karzai government and foreign troops.

Here in Khairabad, however, the voting process appeared to be orderly and professional. The only problem is that not many citizens seemed to be voting. By 10 a.m., only 43 of the expected 600 male voters had come to cast their votes.

"These people are all sleeping and we can't convince them to come out," complained independent candidate Rahimullah Yawaze, at 10:30 a.m. "Even if I go down the street with a loudspeaker and shout at them, they won't come."

Amir Rahman, a poll observer, says that people will vote in this election because they want to solve problems through votes rather than war. His only worry is that people might become disenchanted by candidates who promise more than they can deliver.

"These are the first steps toward democracy," says Mr. Rahman. "We hope that it will get better and better."

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