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Are Afghanistan's Voters Prepared To Vote Again?

An Afghan man inks his finger while voting in the first round of the presidential election. Can he be convinced to vote again?
An Afghan man inks his finger while voting in the first round of the presidential election. Can he be convinced to vote again?
SHARAN/PRAGUE -- Few places in Afghanistan are as remote and insecure as Bermal.

This vast district, located in the country's southeastern Paktika Province, borders neighboring Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal district and is symbolic of what went wrong in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Bermal residents are routinely attacked by insurgents coming from across the border, and often find themselves caught in the crossfire between Taliban forces and the coalition troops pursuing them. Considering locals' familiarity with the threat of violence in the region, venturing out to participate in a second round of presidential polls would not appear to be high on their wish list.

Nevertheless, Bermal resident Habibur Rahman tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that locals indeed plan to be on hand when polls open again on November 7.

"The people of Paktika and Bermal went out to vote for their preferred candidates during the first round under a lot of pressure in very difficult circumstances," Rahman says. "So, in the second round, they are ready to bravely vote for their favorite candidate."

As the international community and Afghan government scramble to arrange the runoff vote, Afghan voters and influential voices from across Afghanistan have expressed mixed views about the process.

Many Afghans, like Rahman, are eager to vote to complete the process of determining whether Hamid Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah will be Afghanistan's next president.

But the motivation of many others has been tempered by their disillusionment with the voting process, the prospects of another round of fraud, and the possibility of more election-day violence.

Confusing Developments

The Independent Election Commission on October 20 called for the second round after taking into account the findings of a UN-backed panel investigating voter fraud.

Workers load election materials into a truck to be sent to the provinces.
After throwing away more than a million fraudulent votes, revised figures officially dropped Karzai's tally -- which preliminary figures placed at about 55 percent -- to 49.67 percent, just below the outright 50 percent majority needed for a first-round victory. Abdullah's preliminary tally of 28 percent jumped to 31.5 percent.

Ghazi Nawaz Tanai, the head of the Tribal Solidarity Council in the southeastern Afghan city of Khost, says the developments have left people confused.

"We are unable to understand the situation and it is like people have lost their way. Now the world is involved in this and our political leaders are confused too. So we cannot decide now," Tanai says from his hospital bed in Khost, where he's being treated for injuries suffered in a bomb attack three weeks ago.

"But the situation we see on the ground in our southeastern region, [sometimes called] Grand Paktia, is that people are not willing and won't go to polls in the outlying districts. In some cities though, security measures would help," Tanai adds.

"People are not satisfied due to the prospect of fraud and insecurity. As long as people are not content, they won't participate on a large scale."

Fighting Fraud

In preparation for the new round of voting, the United Nations and the Independent Election Commission are already sending election materials to remote parts of the country.

UN officials have announced that 200 district election chiefs, out of 380, will be replaced. And Afghan election officials are expected to close hundreds of polling stations where fraud was uncovered in the first round, leading to votes from those stations to be thrown out.

In the majority Pashtun-populated regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan, residents are dismayed that many of the votes cast in that region were eventually declared invalid.

Helmand residents face some of the greater security threats to vote.
Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a Pashtun tribal leader who heads the local tribal shura, or council, in the Nad Ali district of the volatile southern Helmand Province, says that Helmandis braved rockets, bomb attacks, and Taliban ambushes to vote on August 20. But many of them, he says, are now disappointed following the drawn-out election drama that resulted in so many votes being thrown out.

Helmandwal says that the issue of whether or not to participate in the next round is hotly debated within families, mosques, bazaars and in tribal councils.

"A majority of the people are saying that if we vote today, again our votes will be invalidated tomorrow. And there will be an international controversy around it," Helmandwal says.

"Our people are tired and out of every 100 or 80 people more than 55 are saying that they are not prepared to go out to vote."

The northern regions of Afghanistan were generally spared the hundreds of election-day attacks that left 26 civilians and security-force personnel dead. But northern voters, too, are upset with the way the first round was conducted.

"Our nation badly waited for the election results during the past two months. Despite the high levels of fraud, it is good for our nation that it was uncovered," says Obaidullah Hamid, a resident of the northeastern Konduz Province.

"Those who engaged in fraud should not be allowed to go into the second round. Instead they should be taken to the court because fraud is a crime and anybody who commits it should face a court of law."

Questions Of Security

In the southwestern Herat region, some voters acknowledge the positive changes that have taken place over the past eight years. Farid Ahmad, a resident of the western city of Herat, says that he has good reason to vote once again for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.

"I voted for this government because it served us well. There was fighting and killing but this government brought back some peace," Ahmad says. "I voted for them in the first election and will vote for them now."

In the Gulistan district of neighboring Farah Province, tribal leader Haji Saidullah Jan Agha suggests his people, too, are ready to vote again, saying, "If the second round of election benefits our nation, we are ready to participate in that vote."

Middle-aged doctor-turned-politician Ghulam Faruq Mirranay represents the eastern province of Nangarhar in the lower house of the Afghan parliament. He says that he expects the second-round vote to be more transparent than the first one.

Mirranay says that while turnout might be lower than it was in the first vote, it shouldn't be taken as a sign that Afghans place less importance on the second round and its role in determining their future course.

He says they will be primarily thinking of their security. "If there are a lot of security threats and pressures, naturally people won't go to ballot boxes at the cost of threats to their lives this time around," he says.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Amir Baheer, Noor Mohammad Sahim, Rishteen Qadiri, and Sharafuddin Stanekzai contributed reporting to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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