Afghans vote amid threats in 1st election since fraud-marred presidential ballot last year

By Amir Shah, AP
Friday, September 17, 2010

Afghans vote amid threats and scattered attacks

KABUL, Afghanistan — Men in traditional tunics and women covered in sky-blue burqas trickled into polling centers to vote in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election Saturday, as scattered attacks and the closure of some voting sites by insurgents underscored the difficulty of trying to hold a vote in a country at war.

The poll — the first since a fraud-marred presidential election last year — is a test of the Afghan government’s ability to conduct a safe and fair vote after months of pledges of reform.

The number of attacks and the willingness of people to turn out at the polls will also be a measure of the strength of the insurgency, which vowed to disrupt the vote.

A rocket slammed into the Afghan capital before dawn, while another hit in Kandahar city in the south and three struck the eastern city of Jalalabad, officials said. No casualties were reported.

Insurgents had warned ahead of the vote that those who cast ballots and those working the polls would be attacked.

About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the parliament. Observers have said they expect the vote in a country where many areas are under threat from insurgents to be far from perfect, but hopefully accepted by the Afghan people as legitimate.

In Nangarhar’s troubled Surkh Rud district, the Taliban blocked two voting centers from opening, said a resident, Kasim, who uses one name like many Afghans. Taliban were patrolling the area to prevent residents from going elsewhere to vote, he said.

And in the province’s main city, Jalalabad, an explosion was heard midmorning at a high school being used as a polling center, according to provincial police spokesman Ghafour Khan. There were no casualties, he said.

In a southern neighborhood of Kabul, a small roadside bomb exploded near a voting center some 40 minutes before opening, injuring no one, local residents said. Voting was delayed at the site in Dah Dana because of the blast, election officials said.

In eastern Khost province, a bomb planted under a pile of wood exploded in the school yard next to a polling center in Khost city. No one was injured, police said. The station remained closed for about an hour before the voting resumed.

Despite the violence and threats, many voting centers opened without incident.

At an elementary school in the east of Kabul, doors opened on time and a line of 15 or 20 men who had been lined up outside filed in to cast ballots.

Mohammad Husman, a 50-year-old government worker, was at the head of the line in a crisp white traditional tunic.

“I came here because I want prosperity for Afghanistan, stability for Afghanistan,” Husman said. “I’m worried about security and fraud. I hope my vote goes to the person I picked to vote for.” He said he arrived a half an hour before the station was scheduled to open.

President Hamid Karzai cast his vote about an hour after polls opened at a high school in the capital.

He urged citizens not to accept money from people trying to influence their vote and instead to cast their ballots for their preferred candidates.

“In every election, we do hope there will be a high voter turnout, that nobody will be deterred by security incidents, which I’m sure there will be some,” he said.

The election will “take the country many steps forward to a better future,” Karzai added. Last year’s presidential election was similarly seen as a chance for the government to move forward to a more democratic future, then complaints of ballot-box stuffing and misconduct mounted, much of it to Karzai’s benefit.

Though Karzai still emerged the victor, the drawn-out process and recalcitrance of the Afghan president to acknowledge corruption within the administration led many of the government’s international backers to question their commitment to Afghanistan. There are about 140,000 NATO troops in the country, and the international community has spent billions trying to shore up the Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency.

Questions about fraud-prevention measures started to arise within a few hours of the polls opening.

Mohammad Hawaid, representative of an election candidate at one of the polling stations, complained that the ink that is applied on fingers of voters to prevent them from casting their ballots multiple times, is not working.

“It can be wiped off,” Hawaid said. “This is a major irregularity.” The ink is supposed to last at least 72 hours and be resistant to bleach — reappearing within a few minutes.

In Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south, voters ventured out of their homes and headed to the polls, a few members of one family at a time. Before voting began, the city was hit by a remote-control bomb and a rocket, but neither caused any injuries, officials said.

Vehicles without special election passes were banned from the streets. Law enforcement, intelligence and government officials were monitoring various parts of Kandahar province via satellite television hookups from the governor’s compound.

At a voting center in Kandahar, Lalia Agha, 26, a taxi driver, said he was pleased with election day security and was happy that inside the voting center, more than one place had been set up to cast ballots. That, he said, eliminates lines and crowds that could be targeted by insurgents.

“I have a lot of expectations for this election. With our candidates, we can send our voice to the parliament,” Agha said. “The election is the only thing we have in our hands in which to change our future.”

The rocket launched in Kabul landed in the yard of Afghanistan’s state-owned television station, a couple of blocks from the presidential palace, NATO headquarters and the U.S. Embassy, Afghan police officer Mohammad Abrahim said.

In Jalalabad, three rockets were fired at a military base on the eastern edge of the city, provincial spokesman Ahmedzia Abdulzai said.

On the eve of the balloting, the head of a voting center in southern Helmand province was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. At least 24 people have been killed in election-related violence preceding the vote, including four candidates, according to observers.

In the past two days, Taliban militants abducted 18 election workers from a house in northern Bagdhis province, and a candidate was kidnapped in eastern Laghman province. Coalition forces also detained an insurgent in eastern Khost province who was “actively” planning attacks during the elections, NATO said.

The Afghan parliament is relatively weak so the outcome of the races is unlikely to change the workings of the government. Voters tend to select candidates of the same ethnic group and are often motivated mostly by a desire for patronage jobs or federal funds for a road or a school in their district.

Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Jalalabad, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.

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