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KABUL, Afghanistan — Despite scattered rocket attacks, kidnappings, and explosions, there was a tangible holiday feel in the air as polls opened Saturday morning in the Afghan capital. Shops and offices were closed in honor of Election Day, as the government exhorted its citizens to go to the polls to elect it second parliament since the fall of the Taliban.
“We hope nobody will be deterred by security incidents, although there will undoubtedly be some,” said President Hamid Karzai, who cast his vote early in the day. “This will take Afghanistan several steps forward into a brighter future.”
Turnout was uneven, ranging from near-empty centers in some parts of the city to throngs in the northern outskirts who had to be bused into the center due to a shortage of ballots.
“It’s very exciting out here,” said candidate Janan Mosazai, 30, who has waged a very active and visible campaign. He was speaking from his support base in the Qarabagh district of Kabul, where the Mosazai tribe had, apparently, turned out in record numbers to support their young scion. “There are more than 2,000 people waiting to vote.”
But there were no lines in Kart-e-Parwan, where a mosque stood nearly empty. “Almost no one showed up,” said a policeman guarding the center.
A rocket struck central Kabul in the early hours of the day, and reports trickled in from the rest of the country that explosions and other violence had killed at least 10 people by mid-afternoon.
In Helmand Province, one of the country’s most troubled spots, turnout was extremely low.
“Inside Lashkar Gah, the capital, most polling stations didn’t even have 150 voters,” said Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, a local reporter. “Outside the city, there is almost no one on the streets.”
In Marjah, scene of a major NATO offensive earlier this year, there were skirmishes in the major roundabouts and voting was almost non-existent, he added.
Over the past few days at least 18 campaign workers and one candidate have been kidnapped, according to Afghan officials.
Nevertheless, in Kabul the situation was calm and the mood fairly jovial.
“This is better than I would have expected,” said Glenn Cowan, chief of mission for Democracy International, which is fielding 80 observers for the election. “This is more what I would have hoped for.”
At the Nadirya High School, a large polling center in western Kabul, dozens of people were bunched outside the entrance Most of them, however, turned out to be reporters, waiting for the appearance of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, leader of the “loyal opposition,” who had just gone inside to cast his vote.
Those who did go out to vote were surprisingly upbeat, given all of the disappointments and scandals of previous elections.
“This is our choice, this is our chance to have a voice,” said one young woman, heavily swathed in a veil that covered all but her eyes. She declined to give her name.
“Parliament is very important,” said Zabiullah, a man in his 30s who works as a guard in a Western non-governmental organization. “These elections give us a chance to let the people have a role in governing the country.”
But this determined optimism flies in the face of the experience of the last several years.
Parliament has lost almost every major battle it has waged with the executive branch over the five years since it was elected in 2005.
Ministers subjected to no-confidence votes have been left in place, sometimes for years; an election decree issued by Karzai this spring was unanimously rejected by Parliament, but became law anyway.
The legislature sat all but silent during last year’s presidential elections, while the president attempted to flout the Constitution with a massively fraudulent vote.
“We have no system of checks and balances in this country,” said one Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Whatever the executive branch wants, it can do.”
Another major preoccupation among Afghans is the possibility – even the likelihood – of fraud.
The Independent Election Commission has said that it has issued 17.5 million voter registration cards – an astounding figure in a country where the highest number of eligible voters is estimated at 12.5 million. In addition, there are numerous reports, confirmed by the IEC, that millions of fake voter registration cards have flooded into the country from Pakistan. This could lead to certain members of the electorate casting multiple votes.
“I know somebody who voted 12 times for my candidate,” said one campaign worker.
The supposedly indelible ink that voters are asked to dip their index finger into has never presented much of an obstacle in previous elections; numerous reports were circulating within hours of the polls opening that this year was no different.
“You can either wipe it off or use Whitex,” said the campaign worker, naming a popular bleach in common use during last year’s ballot.
Still, election veterans like Cowan caution that issues like fake voter cards and disappearing ink are distractions from the main show.
“Every country in the world has these types of rumors during elections,” he said. “The fact remains that there was undoubtedly an electoral event in Afghanistan today.”
There are more than 2,500 candidates standing for Parliament’s 249 seats; 400 women are competing for the 68 places reserved for them. In Kabul alone, 659 names are on the ballot, which had to be printed booklet style. Luckily, all candidates had their ballot number, along with their photos and campaign symbols, on their posters and other election literature.
“My candidate in Number 538,” said one happy citizen, who was intent on delivering his whole family’s 11 votes for the candidate of his choice.
With so many people running, the margins of victory are quite small; a few dozen votes can make the difference between a seat in parliament and ignominious defeat. This has led to numerous predictions that attempts would be made to manipulate the vote.
It will be several weeks before results are announced; until the final vote is tabulated, it will be impossible to gauge the validity of the elections.
The real test, says Cowan, will come once the count begins.
“We cannot say there has been an election until the votes are counted and tabulated, and the winners are established in the legislature,” he said.
But Cowan’s generally optimistic assessment is at odds with many long-time observers of Afghan elections.
“The international community has, to a large extent, adopted a ‘see no evil, speak no evil' approach to the upcoming vote [in Afghanistan],” wrote Scott Worden, who served as deputy head of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) in last year’s presidential elections. “[They are] hoping that a lack of international media attention will minimize reports of fraud that could further sour Western public opinion on the conflict in Afghanistan and undermine support for ongoing counterinsurgency operations.”
But focusing on domestic audiences is a mistake, he added.
“Afghans, however, are paying keen attention to the upcoming polling… Any significant fraud that goes unaddressed by the electoral authorities has the chance to cause feuds among provincial factions that will reduce security even more and undermine the counterinsurgency strategy.”
Over the past several weeks, international actors such as Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG), have sought to depress expectations. “Let's remember we are not in Switzerland, we are in Afghanistan at the most critical period of the conflict,” said de Mistura, in remarks printed on the U.N. website.
Few here are under any illusions that this war-ravaged country can be compared with the bastion of European order and neutrality. Still, many observers are unwilling to echo the widely quoted remarks of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who told the media in August, apropos of attempts to reform the country, “Afghan good enough is good enough.”
“We are not doing the Afghans any favors if we let fraud go on without comment,” said one expert on Afghan elections, speaking on condition of anonymity. “These elections can’t be perfect, but they should at least be acceptable.”