KABUL: Men in traditional tunics and women covered in sky-blue burqas trickled into polling centres 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.
At least two people were killed in the first hours of polling, officials said.
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 insurgents, who vowed to disrupt the vote.
Rockets struck major cities throughout the country — the first one slamming into the capital before dawn, followed in the next few hours by a series of rockets in eastern Ghazni, Gardez and Jalalabad cities, as well as in Kandahar and Nimroz in the south and old Baghlan in the north. The Baghlan rocket killed two civilians, police spokesman Kamen Khan said.
The Taliban 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 centres from opening until late morning. A resident, Kasim, said Taliban were patrolling the area to prevent residents from going to the local centre or going elsewhere to vote. Kasim, like many Afghans, only used one name.
As midday approached, however, area residents said Nato and Afghan forces arrived, prompting the Taliban to flee and allowing the voting centres to open.
Despite the violence and threats, there were Afghans who were determined to cast their ballots.
At an elementary school in eastern Kabul, doors opened on time and a line of 15 or 20 men who had been waiting 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.
Turnout countrywide appeared to be spotty at best. In one neighbourhood of western Kabul, all the voting centres were packed from early morning.
At a mosque that was serving as a voting centre, a line of about a hundred men waited to vote. Elsewhere in the city, people came through in handfuls to nearly empty voting centres.
In eastern Ghazni province a series of rockets fired into the capital and surrounding areas scared many voters, who decided against venturing out to vote.
Sayed Ismail Jahangir, spokesman for the governor of Ghazni province, said people began to arrive at polling centres in late morning.
One women’s polling station in Jalalabad was humming with people. A steady stream of women with their burqas thrown back over their heads came to vote, some clutching the cards of candidate Nurzia Atmar.
One of the women said Atmar had provided buses to bring them to the polling booth.
”We are all afraid something will happen but we wanted to come. Maybe she can do something for us,” said the woman, whose name was also Nurzia. She did not give her full name for security reasons.
President Hamid Karzai cast his vote at a high school in the capital. He said he hoped voters would not be deterred by the attacks.
The election will ”take the country many steps forward to a better future,” Karzai said.
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 Jalalabad, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with faked registration cards.
“The women coming here have so many cards that don’t have the stamp and are not real cards but still they are voting,” said Nazreen, a monitor for the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, which has dispatched observers throughout the country.
Fake voter cards flooded into Afghanistan ahead of the poll, but election officials had promised that poll workers were trained on how to spot them and would not let ineligible voters cast ballots.
In Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south, voters ventured out of their homes and headed to the polls in small groups, despite the rocket attack and several blasts across Kandahar city. One of the bombs targeted the convoy of Gov. Tooryalai Wesa as it was driving between voting centres, said police officer Abdul Manan. No one was injured.
Wesa still urged Kandaharis to come out and vote.
“The situation is under control,” Wesa said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. The enemy wants the election to fail, so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you’ll have to come out and vote.”
Vehicles without special election passes were banned from Kandahar’s streets. Law enforcement, intelligence and government officials were monitoring various parts of the province via satellite television hook-ups from the governor’s compound.
Kandahar taxi driver Lalia Agha, 26, said he was pleased with election day security and was happy that inside the voting centre, 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.”
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.
Nato said Saturday that coalition forces have conducted 12 operations in seven Afghan provinces in the past week against insurgents planning to disrupt the vote. Three insurgents were killed and several captured, the military alliance said.