/ 18 September 2010

Afghans vote amid violence

Afghans voted in a parliamentary election on Saturday despite Taliban attacks that killed at least 10 people, but widely reported voting fraud threatened to undermine the result and the government’s credibility.

Voters appeared hesitant to go to polling stations after a series of rocket strikes across the country before polls opened.

The Taliban said on their website after polls closed they had conducted more than 150 attacks. While fewer than the 272 blamed on the Islamists at last year’s presidential poll, the violence was more widespread and reached once stable areas.

In the worst incident, police said the Taliban killed an Afghan soldier and six pro-government militiamen in a raid on a security post near a polling site in northern Baghlan province.

The election was being closely watched in Washington ahead of United States President Barack Obama’s planned war strategy review in December, which will likely examine the pace and scale of US troop withdrawals after nine years of war.

A flawed poll would also weigh on Obama when his administration faces mid-term Congressional elections in November amid sagging public support for the war, with violence at its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

The trend for the day was set early when a rocket landed near the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of Nato-led forces in Kabul about three hours before polls opened at 7am (2.30am GMT).

Independent Election Commission (IEC) chairperson Fazl Ahmad Manawi said a tenth of the 5 897 polling centres either did not open or report in by midday, mainly over security fears. The IEC had already decided not to open another 1 019 deemed unsafe.

Irregularities reported before and during the vote included fake voter registration cards, people washing ink off their fingers and attempts to bribe or intimidate voters. Low turnout and widespread fraud would both hurt the poll’s credibility.

Glenn Cowan, co-founder of US-based observers Democracy International, said turnout felt “about the same” as 2009, when about 4,2-million Afghans cast valid votes.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent watchdog, estimated last year’s turnout at around 35%. There are 11,4-million eligible voters this time.

It will not be clear for several weeks who among the almost 2 500 candidates have won the 249 seats in the wolesi jirga, or lower house of Parliament. Early results will not be known until at least October 8, with final results not due before October 30.

Poll observers expect thousands of complaints, which must be lodged within 72 hours and could delay the process further.

Rockets, explosion
Rocket strikes in northern Takhar province and eastern Kunar killed three and wounded nine, officials said. Kunar authorities called in a Nato air strike that killed nine Taliban fighters who attacked a poll site, police chief Khalilullah Ziayee said.

In northern Kunduz province, government forces killed eight Taliban after the insurgents fired rockets at Kunduz airport, where Nato forces have a base, government officials said. Sixteen civilians were wounded by rockets elsewhere in Kunduz.

Many voters stayed home after the Taliban threatened to cut off the ink-stained fingers of those who cast ballots.

“I don’t want to go and vote because of the Taliban’s intimidation. I don’t want to risk my life, just for a candidate,” said one resident in Logar, south of Kabul, where four polling stations were closed after Taliban attacks.

Others defied the hardline Islamists’ threats.

“This is for Afghanistan’s future,” said student Sohail Bayat after casting his vote in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai cast his ballot in Kabul for a female Hindu candidate, two palace officials close to him said, in a choice that could rankle supporters in the conservative, Muslim nation.

While not standing, the election was seen as a test of Karzai’s credibility after last year’s deeply flawed presidential vote. Corruption and vote-rigging were again major concerns.

Washington believes graft weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when troops will leave. Obama has pledged to start drawing down US forces from July 2011.

Almost 300 000 Afghan soldiers and police provided security for the poll, backed up by about 150 000 foreign troops, but that was not enough to convince some disillusioned Afghans.

“If I saw an honest man, I’d vote for him,” said Faqir Jan, an unemployed Kabul man. – Reuters