Afghan Election: "In My Family of 45 People, I'm The Only One Who Voted"
The specter of the Taliban cast a long shadow over the country's long-awaited presidential and provincial council elections today, August 20, with very low voter turnout in the war-ravaged south of the country.
The Taliban and other opposition groups had conducted a very effective intimidation campaign over the past few weeks, threatening to maim and kill voters if they participated in what they described as "infidel" elections.
Voters were asked to dip their fingers into bottles of indelible ink, in order to prevent one person from voting more than once. The Taliban had publicly threatened that they would cut off any inked finger.
"In all of my family of 45 people, I am the only one who voted," said Matiullah, a resident of Ghazni province. "But now I am worried. I have ink on my finger and the Taliban may punish me."
But for many voters this was not an issue. While the ink is supposed to take days to wash off, multiple reports from various provinces suggested that people were able to clean their fingers with cloths, water, or a little spit.
"The ink was not standard," said Massoud Hassanzada, a journalist in Herat. "Some washed off very quickly."
Ghulam Ahmad, a 70-year-old Herati voter, held up his very clean finger. "It took five minutes to get it off," he said.
Another fraud-prevention mechanism was the hole-puncher: once a voter received a ballot, his voter registration card was punched to prevent him from using it to vote again.
But the hole-punchers purchased for the occasion did not seem up to the task. In some provinces, they dispensed with the idea altogether, in others election workers struggled to cut through the stiff plastic laminate with scissors.
It was never going to be a perfect vote. United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide recently referred to the Afghan poll as "the most complicated elections … anywhere in the world".
With the ballot taking place in a country in the midst of war, with little experience of democracy, deep ethnic divides and overwhelming corruption, the international community - which funded the vote as well as overseeing much of the electoral process - was very concerned over the fairness of the poll.
The concern proved to be well founded. Voter turnout ranged from high in the relatively stable north to extremely low in many parts of the war-ravaged south.
"We expected 4,200 people to vote at this center," said Nasir Ahmad, head of a polling station in the Chel-Metra district of Helmand province, speaking on the morning of the election. "But it's already 10.30, and we have only registered 83 people."
Even that was better than in many areas, where polling stations remained firmly closed because of Taliban threats. In parts of Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, and eastern Herat, as well as Helmand and Kandahar, residents had almost no possibility to cast their ballots.
"In Jalrez district, there have been rocket attacks, and everything is closed," said one resident of Wardak province. "In Sayedabad and Jighatu as well, there is fighting. Everyone is staying home."
Five rockets struck Wardak's provincial capital, Maidan Shahr, early in the day.
Rockets seemed to be the Taliban's weapon of choice for depressing turnout. In Kunduz, in the north, four rockets struck early in the morning, with two of them landing near a polling station. Kandahar suffered over 14 strikes, Helmand eight.
Due to a news blackout imposed by the Afghan government, details are sketchy, but it is estimated that at least two dozen people died in election-related violence.
Alleged voting irregularities have also marred the poll, ranging from accusations of inappropriate campaigning to claims of blatant fraud.
According to the election law, campaigning is supposed to stop 72 hours before the vote. But in several polling stations, campaign workers reportedly refused to comply.
At this late stage, the only real candidates, out of an initial field of 41, are the incumbent, President Hamed Karzai, and his former foreign minister, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
"New posters of Karzai were all over the polling stations in Lashkar Gah," said the head of one voting center. "I reported this to the Independent Election Commission (IEC) but they said they could not do anything about it."
In a polling center in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, a fistfight reportedly broke out when a Karzai supporter began handing out photos and campaign literature to those in line to vote. The campaigner was eventually ejected from the center.
Also in Mazar, supporters for both Karzai and Abdullah are said to have transported voters to the polls.
"I came out of my house and there were buses there," said Jan Mohammad, a resident of the Dasht-e-Shur neighborhood. "I got on and all the way to the polls they kept saying 'please vote for Abdullah'."
But there were much more serious violation allegations. In Helmand province, reporters said they saw election workers actually marking ballots for older voters.
In Balkh, three election workers had to be dismissed on polling day because of suspicions of blatant fraud.
Engineer Abdul Mohammad, head of the Balkh IEC, confirmed the sackings in a press conference. "We fired three workers," he said. "They were campaigning for Abdullah during the election."
According to Engineer Abdul, one woman, Nooriya, was pointing out Abdullah's photo to voters when thy came in. "Vote for him," she is reported to have whispered
Another election worker, Najiba, is said to have been found with five voter registration cards under her election paraphernalia. A photographer claimed to have caught her trying to enter the numbers onto the voter register, in order to be able to cast extra ballots for Abdullah.
Abdullah has a great deal of support in Balkh, owing mostly to his alliance with the province's powerful governor, Atta Noor Mohammad. Atta, a former ally of Karzai, has taken bitterly against his former colleague.
Asked as he was leaving the polls at the Fatima-e-Balkhi Lycee in Mazar whether he was prepared to work with Karzai if the latter won the poll, Atta was brusque and to the point.
"Never," he said. "Never, never, never."
Those who did vote exhibited a certain degree of optimism.
"Abdullah will win this election," said Hedayat, who was sporting a tee shirt and campaign button of his hero. "If the vote is not faked, he will win for sure."
Others were just happy to be part of the process.
"I waited three hours to vote," said Hassida Mojadeddi, a voter from the Khair Khana district of Kabul. "I dreamed last night that the election was over and I had not been able to cast my vote, so I woke up early and came."
Unfortunately, her local polling station was nowhere near ready for her. When the doors were supposed to open at 7 am, the center still had not received the ballots for the presidential election. Many of the workers were late, and the supplies, such as voter rolls, ink, and hole-punchers, were nowhere to be found.
Attaulah Yaqubi, a young man who works for an international organization, told IWPR that he was voting for change.
"The destiny of my country is in my hands," he said. "That is why I came to vote. I want a change. I am not at all satisfied with the choice I made five years ago."