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