Afghan polls close after day of violence; 3.6 mn people cast votes

Afghans braved sporadic rocket and bomb attacks to vote for a new Parliament.

Last Updated: Sep 19, 2010, 00:04 AM IST

Zeenews Bureau

Kabul: A string of attacks hit Afghanistan`s Parliamentary Election on Saturday, killing at least 10 people as the Taliban tried to disrupt a poll that is testing the credibility of the government and security forces.

Polls officially closed at 4 pm, but in areas of the capital with heavy turnout some closed earlier because of a shortage of ballots, while some others allowed voting past the deadline.

The Election Commission did not give an overall turnout figure, but said that 3.6 million people cast ballots at the 86 percent of polling stations that had reported figures so far. Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in the Presidential vote last year, out of 17 million registered voters.

Observers had expected the vote to be far from perfect, but hoped it would be accepted by the Afghan people as legitimate.

About 2,500 candidates were vying for 249 seats in the parliament.

The Interior Ministry said at least 11 civilians and four security forces were killed and dozens more injured in the first nationwide balloting since a fraud-marred Presidential election last year undermined international support for President Hamid Karzai.

Security has worsened since then, and the Taliban made good on threats to disrupt Saturday`s polling.

However Afghan security officials dismissed the attacks as "insignificant," and said they did not hamper voting, adding that 92 percent of polling stations were open.

The Afghan Election Commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi declared the elections were "very successful."

Earlier in the day voters appeared hesitant to go to polling stations after a series of rocket strikes in provincial centres across the country, including one which landed near the US embassy and the headquarters of NATO-led forces in central Kabul about three hours before polls opened at 7 am (10:30 pm ET).

Officials reported violence across the country. In the worst attack, police said the Taliban killed one Afghan soldier and six pro-government militiamen in a raid on a security outpost next to a polling station in northern Baghlan province.

The poll — the first since a fraud-marred Presidential Election last year — is a test of the Afghan government`s ability to conduct a safe and fair vote after months of pledges of reform.

The number of attacks and the willingness of people to turn out at the polls will also be a measure of the strength of the insurgents, who vowed to disrupt the vote.

Rockets struck major cities throughout the country — the first one slamming into the capital before dawn, followed by strikes in a number of eastern cities, plus cities in Kandahar and Nimroz provinces. A rocket in northern Baghlan province killed two civilians, police spokesman Kamen Khan said.

In Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold in the south, voters ventured out of their homes and headed to the polls in small groups, despite the rocket attack and several blasts across Kandahar city. One of the bombs targeted the convoy of Governor Tooryalai Wesa as it was driving between voting centres but no one was injured, said police officer Abdul Manan.

Wesa still urged Kandaharis to come out and vote.

"The situation is under control," he said. "There`s nothing to be afraid of. The enemy wants the election to fail, so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you`ll have to come out and vote."

West of Kandahar city, there were lines of voters in Zhari district, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar`s radical Islamic movement was born 16 years ago. Hundreds of Afghan and international troops were securing the area.

"People are fed up with the Taliban, that`s why they`re coming out more and more, so they can get rid of the Taliban," said Saleh Naeem, a businessman. "Because of the Taliban, business is in a bad condition in Zhari."

The Taliban had warned ahead of the elections that those who cast ballots and those working the polls would be attacked.

In Nangarhar`s troubled Surkh Rud district, the Taliban prevented two voting centres from opening until late morning, when NATO and Afghan forces routed the insurgents.

In the north, insurgents on motorbikes attacked a polling centre in the Sayyad district of Sar-e-Pul province.

Ten Afghan police trainees who were guarding the centre ran off when the insurgents attacked, but election workers managed to escape, provincial police chief General Bulal Neram said. He said the insurgents broke windows and ballot boxes and left with some election materials.

Youqob Khan, deputy police chief in Khost, said at least one person was wounded when a bomb planted under a pile of wood exploded in a school yard next to a polling centre in the provincial capital. Voting resumed after about an hour.

Despite the violence and threats, there were Afghans who were determined to cast their ballots.

Karzai calls for high voter turnout

President Hamid Karzai urged Afghans to vote in Saturday`s Parliamentary Election as rocket and bomb attacks struck across the country.

"As in every election, we do hope that there will be high voter turnout and nobody is deterred by security incidents which I am sure there will be some," Karzai told reporters at a polling station near his fortified presidential palace.

The President, who opened the Amani High School voting station by casting his own ballot, said that he hoped the people would be able to vote for the candidate of their choice "without the pressure or force of the money or any other pressure”.

The people should "take the country many steps forward into a better future" by voting for parliamentarians despite recent threats from the Taliban aiming to derail the election, he added.

Fake cards seized

Fake voter registration cards were seized and allegations of fraud were reported across Afghanistan on Saturday after Parliamentary Election began, witnesses and officials said.

A man was seized by police in Kabul with at least 15 fake voters` cards near a polling station, Ahmad Zia Rafhat, spokesman for the UN-backed Election Complaint Commission (ECC), said.

Counterfeit cards were also seized in the southern province of Helmand and northern province of Kunduz, officials said.

Candidates and observers had warned of the possibility of fraud as fake voting cards have been sold across the country. Millions of phony cards were said to have been printed in Pakistan.

Witnesses and a reporter in Kunduz said they saw many voters who were able to clean off their index fingers after voting. Indelible ink is being used by election commission to mark voters` fingers to guard against double voting.

Reports of ballot-stuffing in favour of certain candidates were also reported in Kunduz, but officials could not confirm them. Rafhat said his office received reports of underage voting and of voters who could wash off the ink in Kabul.

Last year`s Presidential Election was marred by massive fraud, mostly in favour of Hamid Karzai, who was re-elected. The ECC said more than one million of Karzai`s votes were fraudulent, but the incumbent was finally declared the winner when his main opponent dropped out of a planned run-off election.

Staffan de Mistura, the top UN envoy to the country, said on Saturday that fraud and security were major concerns despite tougher measures.

"Today is a crucial day, security is a concern, fraud is a concern. You know we are in Afghanistan, in the most critical period of the critical year," de Mistura said at a polling station in Kabul where he was observing the process.

Complaints

It will not be clear for several weeks at least who among the almost 2,500 candidates have won the 249 seats on offer in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of Parliament.

Preliminary results from Saturday`s voting will not be known until October 08 at the earliest, with final results not expected before October 30.

Election observers expect thousands of complaints from losing candidates, with Afghanistan`s own poll watchdog expecting a "disputatious" election, which could delay the process further.

Almost 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are providing security for the poll, backed up by some 150,000 foreign troops.

(With Agencies` inputs)