Turnout appears low as Afghans vote for president

Author: Associated Press

Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai’s re-election
chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign
Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Turnout in the north appeared to be high, a good
sign for Abdullah.

International officials have predicted an imperfect election ? Afghanistan’s
second-ever direct presidential vote ? but expressed hope that Afghans would
accept it as legitimate, a key component of President Barack Obama’s war
strategy. Taliban militants, though, pledged to disrupt the vote and
circulated threats that those who cast ballots will be punished.

A voting official in Kandahar, the south’s largest city and the Taliban’s
spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40 per cent lower than
during the country’s 2004 presidential election.

Scattered reports of violence trickled in from around the country. Security
companies in the capital reported at least five blasts, and Kabul police
exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide
bombers died in the clash, police said. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid
claimed that five gunmen were fighting with police.

Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted at 7am
at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink ? a
fraud prevention measure ? and held it up for the cameras. Presidential
palace officials released a rare photo of Karzai’s wife casting her vote.

“I request that the Afghan people come out and vote, so through their ballot
Afghanistan will be more secure, more peaceful,” Karzai said. “Vote. No
violence.”

Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 by a
U.S.-led invasion, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates,
although a late surge by Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more
than 50 per cent.

Preliminary results were expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday.

The next president will lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs,
corruption and a feeble government. Violence has risen sharply in
Afghanistan in the last three years, and the US now has more than 60,000
forces in the country close to eight years after the US invasion following
the11 September, 2001, attacks.

Karzai, a favorite of the Bush administration, won in 2004 with 55.4 per cent
of the vote, riding into office on a wave of public optimism. As the US
shifted resources to the war in Iraq, Afghanistan fell into steep decline,
marked by record opium poppy harvests, deepening government corruption and
skyrocketing violence.

The top UN official in the country, Kai Eide, acknowledged scattered attacks
but said the election “seems to be working well.” A UN spokesman said there
were no early reports of widespread irregularities, though ahead of the
vote, the country had been buzzing with rumors of ballot-stuffing, bogus
registrations and trafficking in registration cards on behalf of Karzai ?
allegations his campaign has denied.

Presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, who had 10 per cent support in
pre-election polls, said he washed off the supposedly indelible ink and
called on authorities to “immediately stop this election.”

“This is not an election, this is a comedy,” Bashardost said.

Militants carried out a string of assaults around the country. In northern
Baghlan province, insurgent attacks closed 14 polling sites, and the police
chief of Old Baghlan city and several police were killed, said Abdul Malik,
the provincial election director.

“Some of the stations are open, with the presence of our personnel, but there
is no one coming to vote. I told them to wait until the end of the day
before coming back,” Malik said.

An AP reporter in southern Helmand province said more than 20 rockets had
landed in the capital of Lashkar Gah, including one near a queue of voters
that killed a child.

A blast at a high school in Kabul serving as a polling centre wounded an
election monitor and briefly shut down voting, an election observer named
Ezatullah said. Abdullah Azizi, a 40-year-old teacher, said he was at Abdul
Hai Habibi school when the explosion occurred.

“We don’t care about these blasts,” Habibi said after voting reopened. “The
women were afraid when they heard the explosion, but now I’m going to tell
them come here.”

Because of Foreign Ministry order that asked news organizations to avoid
“broadcasting any incidence of violence” during voting, Afghan officials
were reluctant to confirm violence.

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