Taliban warnings defied as Afghans flock to vote

Women help to swell the presidential election turnout to seven million, despite violence and reports of fraud and threats in the countryside writes Emma Graham-Harrison (The Observer, Saturday 5 April 2014)

In anxious preparation for a historic presidential election, Afghanistan
fortified its cities against attack, primed observers to detect fraud …
then was blind-sided by a problem no one had even dared to imagine ­
unprecedented voter enthusiasm.

Defying Taliban threats and the more mundane challenge of rainy weather,
Afghans flocked to the polls in such high numbers that ballots were
running out in some places by midday. Soon, more than a third of provinces
were reporting shortfalls, and as the scale of the problem emerged
election organisers scrambled to respond.

“I don’t know how I will bear it if I don’t get to vote,” said 22-year-old
Atifa Sultani, who had her finger marked with indelible ink ­ designed to
stop repeat voting ­ at a station in west Kabul before being told that
ballots had run out. “As a citizen it’s my right to choose our leader, but
I can’t try anywhere else, because from my finger it seems I already
voted.”

Afghans are choosing a successor to President Hamid Karzai after 12 years,
and if the handover is smooth it will be the first peaceful, democratic
transfer of power their country has ever seen.

For months Kabul was filled with rumours that Karzai would seek to delay
or cancel the vote so that he could hold on to power. But he kept his
promises to hold the poll on time with an early-morning trip to a polling
station near his palace.

“Today is a vital day for us, the people of Afghanistan, that will
determine our future,” he said after casting his ballot and urged other
voters to come out . They did so in numbers and with a determination that
surprised even optimists, and even after ballots ran out. Seven million
Afghans cast votes, said election organisers, nearly two and a half
million more than the last presidential poll, and about 60% of all
eligible voters.

In the Kabul station that ran out of ballots, Sultani waited three hours
until a last-minute batch arrived, sending organisers who had been
muttering darkly about government conspiracies scrambling to reassemble
the polling station.

A 77-year-old man who had ignored family warnings about going out in the
rain was first in line. “It is my joy to vote,” Qamber Ali said, echoing
the sentiments of thousands who stood patiently in well-disciplined lines
even through downpours. Younger voters posed for photos with their inked
fingers and uploaded them to Facebook and Twitter. “Have voted for the
future of my country,” wrote artist Shamsia Hassani. Hassani was joined by
hundreds of thousands of other women, many students and professionals who
have come of age during Karzai’s rule and were voting for the first time.
Ballots ran out particularly fast at voting centres for women, who also
made up more candidates than ever before.

Male and female polling stations are separate because many in the
conservative country frown on the mingling of the sexes in any context
outside of the family. “Of course the massive turnout of women voters is a
big slap to all those who want to block us to contribute. Feeling proud to
be a woman,” said activist Samira Huria, who had returned to Afghanistan
to take part in the poll.

It was not all good news. The election in some rural areas dominated by
insurgents sounded like another vote entirely, with villagers steering
clear of voting stations after the Taliban warned them to stay away,
commanders taking ballot-boxes to stuff at their leisure, and rocket, bomb
and gun attacks.

At least one person was killed, several others injured and more than 200
polling stations closed at the last minute because of security threats.
But multiple rings of tight security, with Kabul virtually shut down for
days before the election, appear to have prevented any major Taliban
attacks.

The insurgents had denounced the elections as a sham, warned that anyone
who worked on them or took part was risking their lives, and mounted a
high-profile campaign of attacks in the runup to the vote. The bloodshed
cut short some international election monitoring missions and prompted
many foreigners to evacuate ahead of the poll. In Kabul a lone gunmen shot
dead nine people, including a prominent Afghan journalist and his wife and
two young children as they ate dinner in a city centre hotel, stormed the
guesthouse of a landmine removal charity, and attacked two election
offices and a ministry in less than two weeks.

Afghan intelligence sources said several squads of suicide attackers were
preparing more spectacular attacks on polling day. In response the
government declared four days of holiday, sent workers home, shut down all
roads into the city and promised people it would guarantee their safety
with more than 300,000 police and soldiers deployed around the country.
Kabul voters spooked by the string of attacks said they were unsure if the
security cordon would hold but had come to the polls anyway. “I am 100%
worried about security, but this is about the destiny of our country,”
said 23-year-old Aslan, an election monitor who by 10am had already
spotted a man who had scrubbed his inked finger and was trying to vote
twice.

He was part of a 200,000-strong squad of election observers, mostly tied
to individual candidates, who kept a far closer eye on polling than five
years ago when the vote that returned Karzai to power was marred by
widespread fraud and more than a million ballots were thrown out.
It would be foolish to call the election overall a success at this stage.
Reports of fraud in 2009 trickled in slowly at first, and even if this
poll proves cleaner there is certain to be controversy about which areas
were short of ballots, and whether it affected some candidates more than
others.

Election organisers reacted fast to the high turnout, extending voting
hours, sending out more ballots, and trying to explain their
miscalculation to the angry masses of would-be voters. “We surveyed each
area, and sent ballot papers based on population,” said Ziaul Haq
Amarkhil, chief electoral officer for the Independent Election Commission.
“If we had sent more papers everywhere [to start with], it could have
offered opportunity for fraud.”

Not all the shortages were resolved, though, and monitors said they would
investigate whether any stations ran out because of early-morning
ballot-box stuffing. Any complaints will certainly be joined by other
cases of abuse. Officials have already made arrests for attempted
ballot-box stuffing and voter fraud, when four people were found with over
1,000 voter identity cards.

Even if results are declared clean, they will only be final if one
candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Anything lower triggers a second
round runoff, and with strong competition between the top three candidates
another polling day seems more likely than not.

Still, Afghans celebrated their extraordinary success in holding a day of
voting where the focus stayed mostly on people casting their ballots, not
the ones trying to stop them.

“Huge, huge day for Afghanistan. A historic event ends peacefully with
millions casting their votes,” said Saad Mohseni, the businessman owner of
Tolo TV, one of the country’s biggest channels. “A massive victory for our
people, and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban.”

Mokhtar Amiri contributed to this report in THE GUARDIAN. Click HERE to read.