Afghan Voters Take Next Step to Democracy

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-Sep-05 | Author: Carlotta Gall and Somini Sengu| Source: The New York Times

A woman working at a polling station in Kandahar Sunday as Afghanistan held parliamentary elections.

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 18 - Undeterred by threats from Taliban insurgents and saboteurs, millions of Afghans voted Sunday in the country's first free legislative elections in more than a quarter of a century. It was the last formal step toward Afghanistan's transition to a democratic government after the American-led military ouster of the Taliban nearly four years ago.

The crucial question now is whether any of the former warlords who once ruled this country succeeded in persuading Afghans to vote them into office. Results of the elections, in which a large number of former militia commanders vied for seats in Parliament and provincial councils, will be announced next month.

Despite scattered reports of shootings and attempted sabotage that left five people dead during the day and two police officers dead on the eve of the election, the vast bulk of the voting went remarkably smoothly, election officials and international observers said.

Some officials said early assessments showed that the turnout among the 12.4 million Afghans who had registered to vote was about 50 percent, lower than had been hoped. But the officials suggested that the turnout reflected voter confusion over the 5,800 candidates, not intimidation from threats of a major attack from the Taliban, the Islamist extremists who sheltered Al Qaeda here before the American-led invasion evicted them from power.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundations of Afghanistan, or FEFA, which sent more than 7,000 observers around the country, listed a large number of security incidents and election violations, including serious cases of intimidation, but said they did not affect the results.

"Low turnout was a definite setback," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the director of FEFA. He estimated that turnout would be significantly lower than the estimated 70 percent in the presidential election last October. He blamed an electoral system that allowed for too many candidates to run and prevented political parties from emerging as strong entities.

While there were numerous accounts of voter intimidation and tussling among supporters of rival candidates, officials dismissed them as relatively innocuous - considering this country has withstood so many years of conflict and warlordism.

"We did see some procedural irregularities but nothing that I consider systemic and which would have influenced the overall conduct of the election," said Peter Erben, the chief international election officer with the Joint Elections Management Board, which operates with the assistance of the United Nations. "This was a peaceful and good election."

He added that only 16 of roughly 6,000 polling sites did not open.

"I came for my country and for a better future," said Alem, 25, a fruit seller who goes by one name like many Afghans. He was one of scores of men and women lined up under flags and bunting in the main mosque of the Old City in Kabul. "We will have a good future with a parliament. They should serve us well and bring some prosperity and security."

The strength and substance of the parliament will be an important test of Afghanistan's still fragile transition to peace. The parliamentary elections, nearly a year after the election for president last October, had been clouded in recent weeks by a spate of guerrilla attacks against the Afghan government and its American backers. The elections signal the end of the Bonn Accords of 2001, the international program for Afghanistan's transition since the fall of the Taliban.

"It's a day of self-determination for the Afghan people," said President Hamid Karzai, looking tired as he voted at 7 a.m. at government offices in central Kabul. "After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupation and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."

A leading opposition politician, Muhammad Yunus Qanooni, called it a memorable day that he hoped would reward his bloc of parties with a majority in the new parliament.

Some voters said they hoped that the elections would usher in the changes that the Karzai government had failed to deliver thus far.

"President Karzai made big promises to us and nothing appeared," said Muhammad Es Haq, 50, who said he survived on charity as a cleaner at a Kabul mosque. "If it is a good parliament they will make something of those promises."

Muhammad Akbar, 60, another unemployed man who arrived at dawn and waited an hour for voting to start in his local mosque in western Kabul, said: "I came to vote for our future. There should be changes and jobs created for the people. Our country should at least be developing."

In some parts of the country, the former militia leaders were seen as the men who could deliver on promises of development, which in a country without any industry to speak of, except drug trafficking, refers chiefly to donor-financed projects.

In a village on the outskirts of Kandahar, as his followers waited patiently for him to cast the first vote, Hajji Amir Laley, the leader of an anti-Soviet mujahedeen faction and a candidate for the parliament, arrived in a three-vehicle convoy covered with his campaign posters. Another of his posters was pasted onto the entrance wall of the polling site itself, a violation of election law. No one else's posters could be found anywhere. He marched into the polling station, a small coterie of men at his side, without a pat-down search, which was required of everyone else.

"Everyone trusts him," explained Abdul Nabi, one of Mr. Laley's former fighters. "He is the one who secures the area."

As a powerful warlord, Mr. Laley once controlled an important stretch of the highway between Kabul and Kandahar. His followers credited him with having saved the one piece of industry in the area - a textile factory in Daman district.

"He is not a warlord; he was fighting jihad against the Soviets," insisted Muhammad Daoud, 31, referring to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. "We hope he gets elected. We will get jobs and contracts for our area."

A small, grinning boy voted, too. He looked to be about 13. A poll worker in charge of screening voters suspected of being underage said the boy had a voting card. He later said the boy was Mr. Laley's son.

"It's an irregular polling station," said Sanaullah, an observer with an independent Afghan organization, the Human Rights Commission.

At a women's polling center in Kabul, Rahima, 40, said she did not believe that former warlords would secure much support. "I don't think they will win," she said. "Even small boys know who they are."

In an interview on Saturday night in his Kandahar home, Qayoom Karzai, the president's brother and a candidate for the parliament, rued the abiding influence of former commanders on Afghan politics. He criticized the decision to reward some of them with top government positions - a decision made by his brother - and said he hoped that elections would redeem those running for office now.

"If a warlord is voted in, I believe it sort of legitimizes that man," he said. "Hopefully, he will act as a clean man."

The election-day violence included an attack using mortars and heavy artillery in Kunar Province that killed four people, Mr. Jalali said. An Afghan soldier died and four others were wounded in Nuristan, while two police officers were killed in an attack on a security post in Khost early Sunday before voting began, he said.

The police thwarted some violent sabotage, including an attempt by two men to enter a polling station with bombs hidden in pens. The police also defused a large amount of explosives in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. Two rockets hit a United Nations warehouse in Kabul on Sunday, wounding an Afghan guard. In Helmand, to the west, an attack on a polling station led to a gun battle with the police that killed two men suspected of being members of the Taliban, the police said.

Still, with many provinces bracing for violence, officials expressed relief as polls closed. "There was no suicide attack, no bombings," said Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar. "Candidates fighting?" He shrugged.

Carlotta Gall reported from Kabul for this article, and Somini Sengupta from Kandahar.