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More Afghan voters than ballots

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An Afghan election worker (second left) explains the process of elections on Saturday in Kabul.

MUHAMMED MUHEISEN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

An Afghan election worker (second left) explains the process of elections on Saturday in Kabul.

AFGHANS have turned out in impressive numbers to vote in their country's presidential election. The day itself, April 5, was marred by sporadic violence, allegations of fraud and other controversy, yet by some measures it was perhaps the most successful election Afghanistan has ever held.

The candidates were competing to replace Hamid Karzai. An estimated seven million citizens, a third of them women, braved long queues, rainy weather and concerted efforts at intimidation on the part of the Taliban, who tried to suppress turnout and stifle the election.

There was much that could have gone wrong. Instead, with a few exceptions to note, the early signs are that Afghanistan's voters dealt a blow to those who would have stopped them going to the polls.

Far less violence was reported than on the day of the previous presidential election, in 2009. So far as there were attacks, most voters were effectively protected from them. This is heartening for a new reason: This time, the massive security operation was manned exclusively by Afghan forces.

Before the polls opened at 7 a.m., eager voters were already queuing outside polling centres in cities across the country. Even as rain fell across much of the country, the patient and orderly queues (somewhat of a rarity in Afghanistan) were well served by election officials who handed out plastic sheets to keep them dry.

And the voters kept coming. So many came, in fact, that some polling centres had run out of ballots by midday. On early estimates, the turnout was about 60 per cent of all eligible voters -- compared with just four million in 2009, when the country's population was 25 million. Extra ballots were dispatched and voting hours were extended everywhere. But by the time the polls eventually closed, some as late as 7:30 p.m., it was clear many never got the chance to vote.

One of the leading candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, who was judged to have placed second to Karzai in 2009 (the result was contested bitterly), was the first to complain about the shortage of ballots. He also raised allegations of fraud.

Ashraf Ghani, who along with Abdullah appears to have pulled far ahead of any other candidate, made similar complaints.

Whatever the irregularities, both men seem to have done better than the other candidates, including Zalmai Rassoul, who is widely thought to enjoy Karzai's support.

Neither Ghani nor Abdullah is likely to win more than 50 per cent of the vote, which would be needed to avoid a run-off.

Outside Afghanistan's better-secured cities, the election was more of a mixed bag. There were reports of attempts at ballot-stuffing, of pre-marked ballot papers, and in the country's eastern and southern regions, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, many eligible voters never made it to a polling centre.

Those who would have wanted to go were stymied by threats from the Taliban, the closure of some polling centres and the odd firefight.

In Sangin district of Helmand province, the Taliban made good on a promise to shut down all roads leading to the district centre, where polling was scheduled to take place.

"I have been watching the road into the bazaar all day," said a local named Mohammad Tahir. "I have only seen one car and it was a police truck. The Taliban have been attacking the police checkpoints all morning. If it stops, I will go and vote."

Reached by phone the next day, Tahir said he never got the chance to make the short trip from his house to the bazaar to cast his ballot.

The contrast between the cities and the countryside, where the vast majority of Afghans still live, was as stark as ever. The economic division of the country has widened since the time of the American invasion in 2001, as growth has lifted up some parts of the urban economy while leaving the rural areas behind.

This election looks likely to be celebrated by donors in the West and also by most Afghans. It got off on the right foot by simply starting on time -- which was trail-blazing in the context of elections in Afghanistan. And by the time the counting is over, the country will be well on its way to bringing in someone to succeed Karzai as president.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2014 A9

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