18 Sep 2010

Afghan election: voters battle Taliban bomb threats

As Afghans brave the ballot boxes for the election amid Taliban rocket strikes, Channel 4 News’s Nick Paton Walsh says expectations are low in the wake of last year’s vote-rigging debacle.

Voters battled bomb threats to cast ballots in the first election since corruption marred the poll booths threatening Hamid Karzai second term in 2009.

The latest test on the Afghan government’s rule opened to a string of rocket strikes in major cities throughout Afghanistan – with the first attack on Kabul before dawn, followed by strikes in several eastern cities.

Two civilians were killed within hours of the polls opening. In Nangarhar’s troubled Surkh Rud district, the Taliban blocked two voting centres from opening and patrolled the streets to prevent people from travelling elsewhere to cast their votes.

Afghanistan's election: the latest test
After the disaster of last year's presidential election, expectations for today's vote have wisely been set incredibly low, writes Channel 4 News' Nick Paton Walsh.

On trial is not so much the MPs vying for seats in the Afghan parliament, but the democratic system that NATO has foisted upon Afghanistan. Can they deliver a vote of enough credibility that it seems to ordinary Afghans that the dangerous act of voting is worth the risk?

So far today the violence - while awful to its victims - is comparatively low. 11 dead from rocket attacks and other violence across the country. Rockets rained down on the usual targets in Kabul, but to the usual limited effect.

Perhaps the Taliban felt people were scared or distrustful enough of the process that they could save their ammunition?

There are some givens in a vote like this. Turnout will be low - around 30 per cent. Fraud will be high. One in six polling stations are in areas too dangerous for them to even open. In Kandahar, the New York Times reports, a vote can be bought for a dollar, in northern Kunduz they cost as much as $15. But on average they're worth about $6.

So the real results come not on October 8th - when preliminary tallies will emerge for the 249 seats of a parliament President Karzai really does need to ratify his laws and cabinets - but in the coming few days.

The law says all complaints about procedures must be lodged in the 72 hours after voting stops.

There will be complaints. The test is whether NATO and the Kabul Presidential Palace deal with them seriously and authoritatively enough to make the parliament they eventually spawn seem representative at all.

Explosions were heard mid-morning from a high school turned polling station in Ghafour Khan, but no casualties were recorded.

In one neighbourhood of western Kabul, all the voting centres were packed from early morning, with a few lines a hundred people deep. In most of the city, however, people came through in handfuls to nearly empty voting centres.

President Hamid Karzai cast his vote at a high school in the capital, telling reporters that he hoped voters would not be deterred by the attacks.

52 Kuchi candidates – ten female and 42 male – are running for the ten seats in Afghan lower house of parliament reserved for Kuchis from which three are reserved for women.

“We Kuchis are free people,” said nomad Janat Gul on Saturday.

“We have no problems with Taliban or the government. Nobody causes us problems. We are impartial people and God willing our votes will be counted and they will not be wasted.”

As voting continued, Afghan defence ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi, gave an upbeat assessment at a news conference in Kabul.

Azimi told journalists: “We have had a number of blasts, rocket attackers, ambushes and fighting in some places, but our forces together with fast-response police forces have been able to react on time against these incidents and we are happy with the security situation overall.”

About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats in the Afghan parliament. Last year’s presidential election was seen as a chance for the government to move forward to a more democratic future, then complaints of ballot-box stuffing – much of it for Karzai’s benefit – and misconduct mounted.

Though Karzai still emerged the victor, the drawn-out process and his reluctance to acknowledge corruption led many of his international backers to question their commitment to Afghanistan.