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Taliban fail to disrupt Afghan vote

Monday, September 19, 2005

Many people looked to a big vote to demonstrate public support for an elected government.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Some filed into schools to cast their ballots amid lessons still scrawled on blackboards. Others stepped over piles of shoes to vote in mosques. In remote areas, tents served as polling stations.

Across Afghanistan, millions of people lined up at polling stations in defiance of a Taliban boycott call and militant attacks to vote for a new parliament Sunday.

It was the last formal step in starting a democracy aimed at ending decades of rule by the gun.

"Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan," said Ali Safar, 62, standing in line to vote in Kabul. "We want dignity, we want stability and peace."

Officials hailed the polls as a major success, although initial estimates suggested voter turnout was lower than hoped for because of security fears and frustrations over the inclusion of several warlords on the ballot. Results were not expected for more than a week.

President Bush called the vote successful and a major step forward, commending the "the tremendous progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years."

Many people looked to a big vote to marginalize renegade loyalists of the ousted Taliban regime by demonstrating public support for an elected government built up under the protection of 20,000 soldiers in the American-led coalition and 11,000 NATO peacekeepers.

Washington and other governments have poured in billions of dollars trying to foster a civic system that encourages Afghanistan's fractious ethnic groups to work together peacefully and ensure the nation is never again a staging post for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

"After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions," President Hamid Karzai said as he cast his ballot nearly a year after his own victory in an election that defied Taliban threats.

He praised Afghans for going out to vote for the parliament and 34 provincial councils "in spite of the terrorism, in spite of the threats."

Fifteen people, including a French commando in the U.S.-led coalition, were killed in a spate of violence during the day. But there was no spectacular attack as threatened by Taliban militants, whose stepped-up insurgency the past six months caused more than 1,200 deaths.

Heavy security kept most violence away from polling stations. Election officials reported three people wounded and no one killed in attacks near polls and said only 16 of the 6,270 voting stations did not open because of security threats.

Vote counting begins Tuesday, and with donkeys and camels being used to collect ballots in some remote areas, preliminary election results are not expected until early October.

Even then, it likely will take time to figure out who has the power in the new Wolesi Jirga, a parliament with 249 seats, 68 of which are set aside for women. Most of the 2,775 candidates ran as independents, and Karzai was careful not to publicly favor anyone, fearing renewed tensions if any political blocs become too powerful.

Rights activists viewed the election as a big step for women in this traditionally male-dominated society. The 5,800 candidates for parliament and the provincial assemblies included 582 women, and a quarter of legislative seats are reservedd for women.

The United States started Afghans on the road toward democracy when it led a military campaign in late 2001 to topple the Taliban for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden and close al-Qaida camps. A tribal council adopted a constitution early in 2004, followed by Afghanistan's first presidential election last fall and then Sunday's parliament ballot.

At least 190 U.S. military personnel have been killed in or near Afghanistan during that period, and Washington hopes the strengthening Afghan democracy will calm the insurgency and let American troops start to withdraw.

U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann called the elections a "great success," putting an optimistic cast on reports that voter turnout appeared lower than for October's presidential election.

"In America, only half of the people vote," Neumann said. "If people are getting a little more used to elections, then maybe Afghanistan is turning into a normal country."

Election organizers said voter turnout figures would not be known until Monday.

Karzai said large numbers of women voted in several areas wracked by violence, including in the southern city of Kandahar, a former stronghold of the repressive Taliban regime.

"Their participation in the election is a very, very positive step," he said.

But entrenched attitudes were still evident. At a Kuchi nomad voting center east of Kabul, an Associated Press Television News cameraman saw women in all all-encompassing burqas handing their ballots to men to fill out as electoral officials watched without intervening.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the election showed "the clear determination of the Afghan people to pursue the peaceful and democratic development of their nation."

Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote, up from 10 million for the presidential election.

Chief electoral officer Peter Erben called turnout "extremely healthy," but some officials and independent election monitors were disappointed.

The Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a monitoring body partly financed by the U.S. government, estimated 30 percent to 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots, based on observations from 7,500 monitors across the country. Turnout last fall was about 75 percent.

"People were scared of suicide bombings, rocket attacks, shootings and all the other violence we've seen in recent months," said foundation spokesman Farid Farhangfar.

Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, which had 14 observers in the field, said the inclusion of several notorious candidates, such as warlords responsible for much of the bloodshed during the 1990s civil war, disenchanted some Afghans.

Abdul Makin, a state prosecutor doubling as a polling organizer in Kabul, agreed.

"Warlords destroyed our country and now the ballot is full of them," he said. "I didn't vote because I wasn't sure any of the candidates are honest. Last year, there were long queues of people waiting to vote. Today we're seen none of that."


Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Steve Gutterman in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.


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