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Afghanistan | International

Afghanistan holds parliamentary vote
by reposts
Sunday Sep 18th, 2005 5:41 PM
Voting has ended for the first parliamentary and local elections held in Afghanistan in more than 30 years.
More than 12 million voters had a choice of almost 6,000 candidates. Voting was steady through the day.

Thousands of foreign and Afghan security forces were on high alert after a campaign marred by violence.

Six people, including two policemen and a French soldier, were killed in separate incidents. A UN compound near Kabul came under a rocket attack.

One UN worker was injured in that incident.

The BBC's Andrew North in Kabul says, despite reports of queues in various parts of the country, there are signs that turn-out was lower than for last year's presidential vote.

In the 2004 polls which President Hamid Karzai won by a landslide, turn-out was 75%.

At one polling station in Kabul there were handfuls of voters where last year there had been long lines.

Our correspondent says the picture that emerged seems to be one of steady, rather than brisk voting.

There were 5,800 candidates nationwide for the two elections.

Only a few of them declared any political ties, which observers say made it hard for voters to be able to make an informed choice between candidates.

The elections were part of an international plan to restore democracy after US-led forces overthrew the Taleban in 2001 and followed presidential polls won by Mr Karzai last year. The election may well produce a fragmented national assembly focusing on local interests. Final results are due in late October.

Sporadic

President Karzai was one of the early voters in the capital, saying it was a good day for Afghanistan whatever the result.

"We are making history," he said as he cast his ballot.

Reports from Kandahar in the south say women voted in large numbers. BBC reporters in Jalalabad say more women than men voted there.

Correspondents say the sporadic violence did not appear to have deterred voters.

Attacks by militants, mostly in southern and eastern rural areas, have been largely blamed on supporters of Afghanistan's former Taleban regime who oppose the election.

Pictures and symbols

The administration of the elections was an additional headache.

Poor transport links and inhospitable terrain presented huge problems.

Illiteracy is also a factor and there were fears many people may find it difficult to choose candidates by their picture and symbol.

In Kabul, voters had to work their way through a seven-page ballot paper with almost 400 candidates for the parliament alone.

About 40,000 Afghan police and army troops were on duty, backed up by more than 30,000 US and Nato forces.

More than 1,000 people, including seven election candidates, have been killed in militant-linked violence in the past six months - the worst bloodshed since US-led forces ousted the Taleban in 2001.

Organisers and President Karzai urged voters to defy the militants and turn out in large numbers.

A spokesman for the UN, which has helped organise the foreign-funded vote, said militants had failed to disrupt preparations for the election.

The elections are being seen as another step away from years of war and turmoil and are part of a process agreed four years ago to bring democracy to Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taleban.

Final results are due in late October.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4255816.stm

Taliban fighters failed to sabotage Afghanistan's first legislative elections in decades, with millions of voters turning out for a ballot President Hamid Karzai called a defining moment for the nation.

There was no major violence against voters on Sunday, despite more than two dozen harassing attacks by the guerrillas across the troubled south and east in which 14 people died.

"We're building our country, we're making our parliament," Mohammed Twahir, 36, told Reuters after voting in the southern city of Kandahar, once a bastion of support for the Taliban.

"Before there was no democracy, now we have democracy. Democracy means freedom."

That enthusiasm was echoed by many other voters.

"I'm so happy, I couldn't sleep last night and was watching the clock to come out to vote," said Qari Salahuddin, 21, in the eastern city of Jalalabad soon after voting began.

Others were sceptical. One woman who gave her name as Simabol told Aljazeera that “Most candidates have exploited their political and material clout to be elected to the parliament.''

Aljazeera’s correspondent in Afghanistan Yousif al-Shuli said thousands of Afghan and foreign troops were on the streets in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Rocket attack

There was an early scare in Kabul when two rockets hit a UN compound near an election centre shortly after polls opened, wounding an Afghan worker, Reuters reported.

Most of the fatalities occurred in violence near the Pakistani border, just before and during the UN-organised vote.

Rockets and mortars killed at least five civilians, two of them children, and a mine blast killed a French soldier. A Taliban fighter died attacking a polling station overnight and three more were killed in a clash in which two police officers died.

But the UN-Afghan election commission said voting in the first legislative elections since 1969 had been remarkably peaceful and the government hailed a victory over the insurgents.

"It went very well, beyond our expectations. After all their boasting, it's a big failure for the Taliban," said Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.

Voting was held at more than 6000 polling sites from the deserts of the south to the towering Hindu Kush mountains of the northeast, one of the most difficult logistical operations undertaken by international electoral workers.

About 12.5 million Afghans registered to vote for a lower house of parliament and provincial councils for which about 5800 candidates sought seats. Donkeys and camels transported voting materials to some remote districts.

Turnout

Chief electoral officer Peter Erben described it as a "peaceful and good election" free of significant security incidents and said he thought turnout had been high, although election observers said it appeared fewer had voted than in last year's presidential election, which saw a 70% turnout.

A huge security operation was mounted to protect voters, involving 100,000 troops, about 20,000 from a US-led force and 10,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, after more than 1000 people died in violence in the months ahead of the election

The deaths included seven candidates and six poll workers.

The $159 million polls were part of an international plan to restore democracy after US-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and followed October presidential polls won by Karzai.

In the 249-seat national assembly, 68 seats are reserved for women, and election officials said there appeared to have been a high turnout of women in some conservative areas where their participation had been in doubt.

"I am so happy, so happy," said Khatereh Mushafiq, 18, her black veil decorated with white flowers pulled back from her beaming face as she went to vote at a girl's school in Kandahar.

"We are also now taking part in the government and in society. People must take part, people must have a say."

Karzai called it a historic day.

"The Afghan people have proven once again that they know their interest, that they can work for tomorrow, that they have a vision and that they have voted for that vision," he said.

But he warned the vote would not end the insurgency.

"The attack on Afghanistan will continue tomorrow and the day after tomorrow," he said.

Boost for US

Even so, a successful poll will be a boost for the US administration, allowing it to portray Afghanistan as a success to set against the gloom from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

The election is expected to produce a fragmented national assembly focusing on local interests, which some analysts say may be more of a help than a hindrance to Karzai.

Many Afghans have been dismayed that warlords blamed for rights abuses have been able to run in the elections.

Erben said counting would start on Tuesday and take about 16 days with final results on 22 October.

Yunus Qanuni, runner up to Karzai last year and now leading an opposition bloc, predicted before the polls that his alliance would win 50 percent of seats. Karzai, who has not campaigned, said he would welcome opposition from a new parliament.

http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/DA217754-0301-4AF2-BCF3-5815B7598D9B.htm
by IWPR (reposted)
Sunday Sep 18th, 2005 5:43 PM
Aside from isolated violent incidents, most of the noise came from the patriotic music played to stir the electorate – plus a bit of grumbling from the voters themselves.

By IWPR staff in Kabul (ARR No. 189, 18-Sep-05)

Afghans voted in their first democratic parliamentary elections in three decades, defying threats of violence to tackle the sometimes daunting task of picking out their chosen candidate amid an unfamiliar and complex voting process.

Small queues began forming shortly before polls were scheduled to open at six in the morning on September 18. At many of the country's 26,000 polling stations, officials were still setting up ballot boxes and voting booths, and putting out the bottles of indelible purple ink used to mark each voter’s thumb to prevent fraud.

An estimated 12.5 million Afghans aged 18 and over were eligible to vote in a double election – for the lower house of parliament or Wolesi Jirga, and for the country's 34 provincial councils. Nearly 6,000 candidates are seeking election as members of parliament or as councillors.

Preliminary results will not be known until around October 10, with final results expected on October 22.

IWPR reporters saw several polling stations in Kabul which did not open until after 7 am, over an hour late, with radio and television channels reporting similar delays in other parts of the country.

Throughout the day, apart from a few grumbles, the atmosphere in Kabul appeared relaxed. Reaction among voters to the nearly 400 parliamentary candidates, who were standing for the 33 Wolesi Jirga seats earmarked for Kabul province, ranged from enthusiasm to despair.

"After years of war, we have the right to vote for democracy," said 21-year-old Khazem, an early arrival who was critical of the delayed opening of polls, saying, "The trouble is, there's no management here."

One voter complained that many of the candidates on the ballot were the same warlords and low-ranking militia commanders who were responsible for years of civil war that left Kabul in ruins.

Hasrat, 52, who had arrived early at a polling station in Kabul’s 15th district, needed a cane to support him as he waited to cast his ballot.

Asked who he would pick, he said, "Out of the bad, the worse and the even worse, I will vote for the bad one, because in the present situation, the bad one's better than the rest."

Mohammad Akbar, 45, arrived at a polling station set up at the Zarghona Girls' High School in central Kabul's Qala-e-Fatullah district in an ingenious wheelchair made out of bicycle parts.

"I am very keen to vote. I was here in this [polling] centre for the presidential election and I wanted to come to the same one, because the man I voted for last year [President Hamed Karzai] won and I want my candidate to win this time," he said, after wheeling himself into the tree-lined courtyard.

"As you can see, I'm disabled in both legs so I came early to avoid the rush and the crowds," he said. The steps up to the 15 classrooms reserved for men to vote meant he could not use his wheelchair, so he shuffled in on hands and knees

At the back of the school, near the eight voting rooms for women, chaotic heaps of desks testified to the rushed transformation of classrooms into voting areas.

Once the polls opened, it was evident that the process was considerably more cumbersome than had been anticipated.

Officials from the Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, had estimated that the procedure would take no more than two to three minutes per person. But IWPR timed a woman taking exactly 20 minutes to complete the process of checks, examine the complex ballot papers, and finally cast her vote.

At a polling station in north Kabul, 23-year-old Sarfraaz said after casting his ballot, "Finding the candidate I wanted was very hard. There was a terribly long list, and I can't read. I spent five minutes going through the symbols and photos to look for my candidate, but they were very small."

Radios blared out patriotic music throughout the day, perhaps in an attempt to encourage people to vote. However, the impact of this was unclear.

With communications difficult in parts of this mountainous country, it was not immediately possible to assess overall voter participation. However, an IWPR reporter who covered the 2004 presidential election, where turnout was put at 70 per cent, said there appeared to be many fewer voting on this Sunday.

At a mid-afternoon news conference, chief electoral officer Peter Erben described the poll as peaceful and said that in Herat, Ghazni and Kunduz, the numbers of women voters equalled those of men.

Erben said voting started slowly in many districts but picked up later. He could not give an exact turnout figure but warned against making comparisons with the presidential poll, saying that any lack of voters at polling centres could be attributed to the fact that there were 30 per cent more places to vote than last October.

He added that only 15 polling stations had remained closed because of security problems, and the voters affected by this had opportunities to use other sites.

In the eastern province of Kunar, armed men tried to disrupt voting at several centres. They exchanged fire with police before the army arrived and the gunmen fled. There were no casualties and the polling stations quickly reopened, said Erben.

Armed troops checked all vehicles on roads leading into Kabul, but in the city itself, there was no sign of the tight controls evident at last October's presidential election, when there was an inner ring of police and an outer cordon of troops around each polling station.

IWPR's visits to a number of Kabul polling stations revealed only a handful of armed police guarding each, with a unarmed police - one man and one woman - searching voters as they entered before directing them to segregated voting areas.

United States and Afghan officials had warned that the Taleban would seek to disrupt the elections, although Lutfullah Hakimi, a spokesman for the group, said that polling stations would not be attacked, so as to avoid harming innocent people.

There were reports of sporadic attacks and violence around the country.

Two rockets hit a compound of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, at 7.40 am, setting an office ablaze. There were conflicting reports on casualties. Radio and television reports said one person was wounded, while officials on the spot told IWPR that no one was hurt. It was not clear whether the rockets had been aimed at a nearby girls' school being used as a polling station in the Bagrami district of east Kabul.

One hour before voting began, security forces in Baghlan province north of Kabul found three kilograms of primed explosives linked to a remote control device planted at the Khost-e-Fering high school, also being used as a polling centre.

And late on September 17, unidentified attackers threw a grenade into the home of a candidate in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar province, wounding five people.

In the run-up to the elections, at least six candidates and five election workers have been killed. Officials have blamed most of the killings on the Taleban, who have accepted responsibility for some of them.

The death of candidates, and the elimination of some others by the Election Complaints Commission, ECC, have added to the confusion at polling stations.

In its September 17 "Notice to Voters", only hours before voting was to begin, JEMB issued a list of six candidates who had died and 29 disqualified since July 12.

"While their names remain on the ballot papers, these candidates are no longer standing … and votes cast for these candidates will be invalid," the JEMB statement said. "Voters are being informed through public service announcements on radio of which candidates are no longer eligible for election."

However, not everyone will have been listening to the radio, and at polling stations visited by IWPR reporters, there was no sign of any list alerting those voters who could read that some candidates were out of the race.

In Parwan, a province just north of Kabul, anyone who has heard that Samia Sadat, one of the most popular candidates in the region, has been disqualified by the ECC, will still have got it wrong – the JEMB announced at the eleventh hour that she had been reinstated.

http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/arr/arr_200509_189_1_eng.txt