A day of hope, as Afghans vote, but a long process ahead
April 5, 2014
KABUL — On election day in this tense, war-weary capital, rolling afternoon thunder was the only boom heard in the city. Long lines at polling stations were the story on a day many feared violence would mar the vote for the country’s next president.
After more than a week of steady attacks, Kabul was quiet as Afghans turned out in droves to vote in a presidential election that could see the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, go a long way toward convincing donor countries to keep financing the impoverished country’s government, and mark a high point in an otherwise troubled, unpopular international military campaign.
Voting was extended by an hour to accommodate large crowds.
That is not to say the day went by without incident. Low turnout was reported in some of the more dangerous areas of the country, some stations ran out of ballots, and there were some deadly attacks in the provinces, though not nearly as many as the Taliban had promised in their furious threats against what they derided as “the fake election.”
Still, turnout was high across the country. The director of the Independent Election Commission, Mohammad Yousuf Nuristani, said 7 million people voted, which would mark about a 50 percent increase over the validated votes from 2009. About one million votes in that election, which war marred by allegations of fraud and vote-rigging, were thrown out.
Mohammed Younas patiently waited to vote for more than an hour in a line that snaked for hundreds of meters through muddy alleyways in western Kabul. He said the election process is a chance for Afghans to fix problems themselves.
“If we see challenges, if we see problems, then we must cast a vote for our future,” Younas said.
Large numbers of women also waited to vote Saturday, though in separate lines from the men. The treatment and subjugation of women has been a long-standing issue in the deeply conservative country.
“Men and women have equal rights, and we all need to work for our rights,” said Karima Hashemi, a 37-year-old teacher at a polling station in eastern Kabul.
The biggest winner may have been the Afghan security forces, on their own to secure a major election for the first time, said Ahmad Majidyar, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It was a major test for the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces and they did a great job,” he said.
Saturday’s vote was just the beginning of what could be a drawn out, tortuous process. Counting of ballots began at 5 p.m., when polls closed, and could continue until April 20. Preliminary results won’t be released until April 24, though The Associated Press reported partial results were expected as soon as Sunday. Because of the crowded field of frontrunners, it’s likely no one will win more than 50 percent of the vote, which would trigger a run-off election. The tentative date for that, should it be necessary, is May 28. Then the vote counting and complaints process would start over again, meaning the political wrangling could last into the summer.
Hamid Karzai has been the only president since the U.S. invaded the country in 2001, knocking out the Taliban government, and Saturday marked the first time ever an Afghan leader has voted for his potential successor.
The vote follows a spirited campaign that saw hundreds of thousands turn out for massive political rallies throughout the country, with the field narrowing to three frontrunners: Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who was runner up to Karzai in the 2009 election; Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat and former finance minister; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister who is seen as Karzai’s preferred candidate.
Seeing voters trudge through mud and waterlogged streets en masse on a soggy day, ignoring Taliban threats of mass violence is a hopeful sign for the future of the country, said Shahla Fareed, an analyst and professor of political science at Kabul University.
“It’s very good news for Afghanistan that the people, not guns, can hand power from one leader to another,” she said.
A Stripes reporter was initially barred from a polling place in Pul-e Charki, a Kabul suburb controlled by warlord and parliament member Mullah Tarakhel Mohammedi that saw massive fraud in the 2009 election. Tarakhel insisted the reporter first meet with him in his compound before being allowed into his madrassa, which was also serving as a polling station — there were no election observers to be found in the station.
In some areas, the ballots never arrived because of insecurity. Munsef Bacha, who lives in the restive Uzbin area of Kabul province said polling stations there never opened.
“There was no election in Uzbin,” he said. “People thought the government might make a big effort to bring the ballots, but they didn’t.”
And some sat out the vote because they are disillusioned by politicians they see as ineffective and corrupt.
“I don’t believe in these candidates,” said Fahim, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. “They just make promises but don’t actually act. If the coming government is like the past government, then I won’t support them.”
In addition to violence, fraud was the biggest worry going into the election. No one expected the election to be fraud free, but the extent of irregularities is unlikely to be known for some time, as the lengthy process of vote counting and complaints adjudication has just begun.
For the first time, Afghan election workers had tools such as ink only visible under ultraviolet light as a backup to the traditional fraud-fighting purple ink placed on voters’ fingers to ensure they don’t vote more than once, said Kit Spence, an election monitor with Democracy International.
He said while it is too early to draw any conclusions, initial impressions from the stations he observed in Kabul indicated that the process ran “quite well.”
While the coming days will reveal whether concerns over fraud are fully founded, Spence noted that a high turnout could diminish the impact that any fraudulent ballots have on the results.
All of the major candidates have said they will not accept fraudulent results and Afghans will be watching to see how the losers react when the votes are tallied.
Abdullah, a leading contender in many polls, said he was hopeful Saturday morning as he cast his own ballot at a Kabul high school.
“There have been problems and issues around the country,” he told Stripes as he left the polling center. “But it is very early still and we will see in coming days. We tend to be optimistic.”
Washington, too, will be closely monitoring the results to see who their next partner will be.
The winner is unlikely to be announced for some time, but after more than a year of bitter acrimony between Karzai and America, the three frontrunners have all said they would sign a long-sought security agreement with the U.S., which would pave the way for a small force of international troops to remain after all combat troops withdraw at the end of the year.
That means a possible thaw in relations with the United States and perhaps a rescue of NATO’s checkered military legacy in Afghanistan, Majidyar said.
“I think the election and the coming into office of a new president provides a very good opportunity both for Kabul and for Washington to repair their damaged relations,” he said. “The relationship has deteriorated and as a result of that, the military mission and a lot of governance issues in the country have suffered.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report