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Afghanistan: Officials Praise Elections Despite Lower-Than-Expected Turnout

Officials in Afghanistan are praising yesterday's parliamentary vote as a historic step in their transition to democracy -- even though voter turnout appears to have been much lower than it was during the presidential election in October 2004. Election organizers say Taliban militants who vowed to derail the vote failed to do so. But security concerns did prevent 16 polling centers from opening in the south where fighting continues between the Taliban and U.S.-led coalition forces. Meanwhile, an attack was reported today on a truck that was transporting ballots from polling stations to a counting center in Jalalabad. RFE/RL correspondents Ron Synovitz and Golnaz Esfandiari report.

Kabul, 19 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As far as the organizers of the Afghan parliamentary elections are concerned, yesterday’s vote was an enormous success.

UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) Chairman Besmellah Besmel praised the election as a victory over Taliban fighters who had vowed to disrupt the vote.

“Despite all security concerns, fortunately the elections were held in a perfectly orderly and peaceful manner. This indicates on the one hand the efforts and selflessness of the national and international forces responsible for security. And on the other hand it indicates the high political awareness of the Afghan people [and their] political participation," Besmel said.

Praise also is coming in from the Afghan government and its Western backers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the vote a defining moment in the history of his country. U.S. President George W. Bush and the leadership of the European Union and NATO also have praised the election as a success.
Some Afghans in Kabul told RFE/RL they didn’t vote yesterday because they didn’t have confidence in any of the 400 candidates who are trying to become a member of parliament representing the Afghan capital.

Nevertheless, JEMB chief electoral officer Peter Erben says initial reports on turnout suggest only about 6 million of the 12 million registered voters had cast ballots. That is far lower than the presidential election of October 2004, when more than 8 million voters participated.

Erben’s projection supports remarks by local poll workers and independent monitors who say turnout was far lower than expected -- mostly because of security fears and frustrations about the inclusion of notorious Afghan warlords on the ballots.

Among those concerned is Horia Mosadiq, the Afghan country director of the Human Rights Research and Advocacy consortium, which groups together several different nongovernmental organizations.

“I talked to several people who did not participate in the elections. They told me that when [Afghans] voted in the [2004] presidential elections, they expected to see a series of reforms within the government. Unfortunately, these reforms did not take place. The presence of some unpopular candidates [accused of committing war crimes during the past three decades] also caused frustration among people and made them not vote,” Mosadiq told RFE/RL.

Some Afghans in Kabul told RFE/RL they didn’t vote yesterday because they didn’t have confidence in any of the 400 candidates who are trying to become a member of parliament representing the Afghan capital.

Amir, a 22-year-old student in Kabul, is among many ordinary Afghans who said the turnout seemed low. “In my opinion, the expectations that people had from their president during the presidential elections, well, their demands [were not fulfilled]," he said. "And it led to frustration. That’s the feeling I get. And this frustration has made people have a different [reaction] to these elections.”

Asadullah, a 40-year-old driver from Kabul's Paghman District, said he voted even though he was uncertain about the choices available to him. “I participated and gave my vote to [candidates] that I approve of," he said. "But [the problem is that] in Afghanistan there are not even two good candidates to vote for. Are there?”

The Afghan Interior Ministry says there were no major attacks against voters yesterday. However, the ministry has confirmed that more than two dozen attacks by suspected Taliban fighters in the south and east of Afghanistan left at least 14 people dead.

Most of the fatalities were the result of clashes near the border with Pakistan. Rockets and mortars killed at least five civilians, two of them children. A soldier in the French special forces also was killed by a land mine while conducting a security operation as part of the U.S.-led coalition on the eve of the vote.

A Taliban fighter was killed while trying to attack a polling station overnight. Three other suspected Taliban militants were killed in a clash that also left two Afghan policemen dead.

The JEMB's Erben said that security concerns also meant that 16 different polling centers were unable to open across Afghanistan for voting yesterday -- mostly across the south of the country where the U.S.-led coalition forces continue to fight Taliban militants.

“We celebrate the fact that we were capable of voting in each and every district of Afghanistan," Erben said. "We had over 6,200 polling centers. And of these, only 16 were not able to open. The provinces that were affected were Logar, Baghlan, Helmand, Oruzgan, Dai Kundi, and Kandahar. In Dai Kundi, we did have an issue in [one] district where it was not possible for us to get all the security forces in place in time. Most of the closings were, indeed, due to local security circumstances.”

Seven parliamentary candidates and six election workers were killed in violence during the two-month campaign before the 18 September vote.

The counting of ballots is due to start tomorrow. Final results are expected to be announced around 22 October, although the JEMB is hoping to have preliminary results as early as 5 October.

Before the count is complete, tens of thousands of sealed ballot boxes must be transported to counting houses in each provincial capital. Trucks and helicopters are being used to carry many of the ballot boxes. Horses, donkeys, and even camels are being used in the most remote regions of Afghanistan.

General Khalilullah Ziayee, the police chief for the eastern province of Nangahar, said today that a remote-controlled bomb exploded in front of a truck that was carrying ballot boxes near Jalalabad overnight. The truck was carrying ballots to the provincial counting center in Jalalabad. General Ziayee said the vehicle was damaged but the driver escaped unharmed.