Afghanistan election day: spotty turnout, fake voter cards, and some feisty voters

Afghanistan's election Saturday yielded reports of intimidation in unstable regions. In Kabul, some voters aimed to oust incumbents, while others appeared to want to cast ballots more than once.

Allauddin Khan/AP
An Afghan election worker prepares to hand out ballots in Kandahar for Saturday's election.

In the safer cities of Afghanistan, voters turned out to cast ballots for Parliament, while spot reports from unstable regions suggest intimidation and disillusionment kept many Afghans at home.

Like last year's troubled election, violent attacks on voting day were numerous and geographically widespread, but not individually dramatic.

Preliminary figures indicate that 3,642,444 ballots were cast, according to the country's election commission. At the same point in the presidential vote last year, before any votes were dismissed for fraud, more than 5 million had been cast.

The extent of actual voting will not be fully understood until ballots boxes are inspected and tallies are analyzed for patterns of fraud, a process that could take weeks. The verdict on how fair the election will hinge on how diligently dirty votes are tossed out in the days ahead.

But the question of how free the election was may linger.

"How many would have voted if it was safe?" asks Marvin Weinbaum, an election observer in Kabul with Democracy International. "You can't measure the intimidation. How do you evaluate that? That's the real unknown here."

Observers from the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan reported 224 "serious acts of intimidation" in the first four hours of voting.

And the country's election commission reported that it did not open 153 polling centers amid security concerns – that is on top of more than a 1,000 closed before the election. Due to the closures, significant numbers of Afghan voters had no nearby polling center.

Journalists in heavily Pasthun regions of the contested south and east of the country reported seeing few people voting.

* In rural districts of Wardak, a contested province south of Kabul, Monitor reporter Anand Gopal found almost no voters. In one polling center, he witnessed local militia arrest poll workers who were busy stuffing ballot boxes after locking out the lone observer. (See story.)

* In Kandahar city, the center of the Pashtun heartland, few people turned out to vote following notices from the Taliban threatening to kill those who voted, says local journalist Bashir Nadem. Adding to the unease, three explosions rocked the city in the morning, including one that unsuccessfully targeted the governor of the province. Unknown assailants hijacked a packed bus that entered from outside the province, but Mr. Nadem could not confirm any more details.

* In Gardez, a city surrounded by conflict in southeastern Afghanistan, the security situation was calm but turnout was "quite low," says Thomas Ruttig with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "Most were not very hopeful about the meaning of the election. There was so much talk about fraud, and in Gardez, fake voter cards were sold in the bazaar in bundles."

* In Herat, a western province with some contested districts, Taliban rocketing of a bazaar and a roadside bombing in Kushki Kohna district dissuaded people from voting, says Ahmad Quraishi, a journalist with Pajhwok news agency. And the Taliban reportedly attacked a polling center in a second district, sending people running.

Kabul voters unruffled - even feisty

The story from the capital reflects a much different election day. While a rocket did slam harmlessly into the city, voters appeared unruffled – at times even feisty.

"The reason I decided to vote today is that the previous MP didn't know how to do his job," says Nur Agha, an employed man in Kabul.

Visits to a dozen or so polling stations found solid vote tallies in the hundreds and at times dozens of candidate election observers crowding into tight rooms and peering through windows.

The large numbers of observers stem from the more than 600 candidates running in Kabul. Their observers packed so tightly into classrooms at Udhkeyl High School in east Kabul that the last-minute voters in the afternoon had trouble squeezing through.

Packs of observers turned into chaotic mobs whenever they saw foul play. At Udhkeyl, uproar over a man trying to vote after scrubbing ink off his fingers quickly brought police attention.

Sir, we believe you already voted

At another high school, Mahmood Hotaki, a man with ink on his fingers attempted to vote with a fresh voting card and his stained hand in his pocket.

"I didn't vote already but I touched the hand of another person who did," said the man, who would only give his first name, Noor.

The explanation didn't wash with one candidate observer named Mohammad Asif, who followed Noor as he got turned away from one polling station after the next. He and other observers finally mobbed Noor and brought him to security officials.

Observers filled the halls as the election officials shouted at each other, then at the crowd that was blocking voters, then at Noor. In the end, election officials accepted his explanation and his offer that he would not try to vote again.

"I think it is a mistake to let him get away," says Mr. Asif, who was not aware that he could file a written complaint.

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