Afghan Elections: Bombs on One Hand, Empty Ballot Boxes on the Other

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Afghan Elections: Bombs on One Hand, Empty Ballot Boxes on the Other

by
Jon Boone in Kabul and Kapisa

An Afghan woman's ink-dipped finger after showing her identity card to vote in Herat, western Afghanistan. Photograph: Rahed Homavandi/Reuters

The classrooms serving as polling stations across the relatively
secure and prosperous plains north of the Afghan capital were crammed
full of people - but precious few of them were there to cast their vote.

Election
workers and campaign observers milled about with little either to do or
to observe. In one school in Kalakan, a solitary presidential ballot
paper sat in the bottom of the translucent voting box reserved for a
nearby community of Kuchi nomads.

An election observer
from the Philippines, touring a patch of polling stations in full body
armour, said not enough had been done to transport such people from
their far-flung homes or to educate them on their rights.

If
demand warranted it, officials were permitted to extend voting beyond
4pm, but at a mosque in a busy part of eastern Kabul the officer in
charge was preparing to close down on time and start counting ballots.
"We haven't seen anyone for an hour," he said.

Most of the
usually choked routes in and out of Kabul were almost empty, but on one
baking, unpaved road in Kapisa province we came across a group of 10
men halfway through their two-hour walk to their nearest polling
station in a distant village surrounded by uncleared minefields.

"We
wouldn't have come if it was not a holiday today," said Mohamed Rasoul,
who does backbreaking work at the local gravel mines.

Although
they were just a few hours' drive from the capital, rural values ruled
- none of their wives or female family members would be voting, they
said.

In the southern badlands, observers and local people
reported that the situation was far worse. Alex Strick van Linschoten,
a Dutch academic who lives in Kandahar, said turnout in the city had
been "extremely low".

One student who has been working in
Kandahar as an election observer for the last two weeks said a constant
barrage of explosions and rocket attacks into the city scared people
off. "Until 10 o'clock people were coming, but about half as much as
2004. But later no one was coming as the situation got worse and
worse," the young man, clearly shaken by a difficult day, told the
Guardian by phone.

In Uruzgan, another southern province, a UN official said some districts had recorded "barely 100 voters".

The
day started with the two leading candidates, Hamid Karzai and Abdullah
Abdullah, both going to their local high schools to vote. Abdullah, a
former foreign minister, looked every inch the suave, modern politician
when, dressed in jeans and a jacket, he arrived at the Nadeira high
school with his wife and young son.

But even as he was
pushing through the scrum of Afghan and international journalists to
the giant upturned cardboard box turned voting booth, the wheels were
coming off Afghanistan's second ever attempt to elect a leader.

In
the tatty corridors of the school, Abdullah's bodyguard was showing off
his hand to journalists - just half an hour earlier his right index
finger had been dipped in supposedly indelible ink after he cast his
vote. Now it was entirely stain-free. Soon, other recent voters were
testing his technique, dipping their dark purple fingers into a bottle
of domestic bathroom bleach and cleaning off the ink in just a couple
of minutes.

It was, to say the least, an inauspicious
start to a day that would be punctuated by audacious insurgent attacks,
low turnouts in the south and inevitable allegations of fraud. In other
words, everything that had been feared.

Stories of people
washing off ink during the 2004 presidential election caused anger
among ordinary Afghans, whose confidence in the process was undermined
by a problem that was later blamed on a few consignments of the "wrong
ink" being purchased.

To try to allay fears, the UN boss
in the country, Kai Eide, held a press conference last month in which
he tried to prove that he could not remove it from his finger with a
range of domestic cleansers. Few people believed the foreigners could
spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an election and let it happen
again.

Within the hour another leading candidate, Ramazan
Bashardost, had marched round to the election complaints commission to
lodge a case with the mixed group of international and Afghan
adjudicators overseeing this year's election. Afterwards, the scourge
of corrupt politicians wagged his own clean finger in front of the
cameras.

An exasperated spokeswoman for the campaign of
Ashraf Ghani, another contender who has raised fears of fraud
throughout his campaign, said the incident was "kind of funny, in a
way".

"This wouldn't matter if just one of the safeguards
worked - if the ink stuck, if polling stations were secure, and if
people had not been given more than one voter card each. But with all
three of them so compromised, people can abuse the process."

The
spokeswoman said she was most concerned about stories pouring in of
unabashed ballot box stuffing in areas too dangerous for campaign
observers to visit.

In Spin Boldak, protesters took to the
streets outside the house of the powerful border police chief, General
Abdul Raziq, after rumours spread that he had delivered pre-filled
ballot boxes to polling stations on the morning of polling day.

Violence
was not confined to the south - there was a major shootout between
police and insurgents in Kabul and perhaps as many as a dozen bombings
in the city. The Taliban
also laid siege to the capital of Baghlan province, an event that on
its own would have dominated the headlines on any other day.

Whether
the fraud, low turnout and violence will matter will be decided in the
coming days as the results are analysed and Afghanistan's leading
politicians consider whether to accept the outcome - or dismiss it as a
bad joke.

Ghani made it clear that he would be vigorously pursuing claims of fraud but appealed for them to be "resolved peacefully".

At
the end of the day, at a press conference, Karzai appeared relaxed,
jovial and determined to put the best gloss on things, denying turnout
would be low. "The Afghan people dared rockets and bombs, but they came
out and voted and that's great."

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