KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan and Western officials painted the second parliamentary election since the fall of the Taliban as largely successful, but security fears and disenchantment kept voter turnout low Saturday and election-related violence was blamed for at least 15 deaths across the country.
The Taliban, despite claiming responsibility for about 150 separate attacks, proved unable to derail the voting altogether, or even to stage a single dramatic strike. And vote fraud, though clearly present to some degree, appeared less pervasive than in last summer’s presidential balloting.
The election seemed in some ways emblematic of the grinding 9-year-old conflict: small triumphs co-existing with an uneasy sense of both the insurgency’s growing reach and the depth of public anger over what is widely viewed as a corrupt political class.
The fact that millions of people cast ballots, even if the preliminary tally indicated a significant drop-off from the number who voted in last summer’s presidential election, was portrayed by Western officials as a potent sign of hope.
“The people of Afghanistan sent a powerful message today,” said U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top Western commander. “The voice of Afghanistan’s future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks. It belongs to the people.”
The U.S. Embassy and the United Nations commended voters’ courage. But the embassy, perhaps mindful that the massive fraud in the August 2009 presidential vote took some days to emerge, noted that “the results and quality of the election will not be immediately evident.”
As is the case on the battlefield, violence was concentrated in Afghanistan’s south, the insurgency’s main stronghold. But it boiled over as well in parts of the country that not long ago were considered peaceful.
The governor of Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace, narrowly escaped a roadside bombing as he traveled from one polling center to another, seeking to demonstrate that it was safe to cast a ballot. Dozens of rockets fell on Kandahar city throughout the day, and also hit near polling centers in the country’s north and east.
“I was afraid to come out, but I came anyway,” said Abdul Raouf, a rheumy-eyed 60-year-old in a tattered turban, emerging from a polling place at a girls high school in Kabul. “I came to vote for a peaceful country.” The day began in the capital with a predawn rocket strike that jolted many residents awake but injured no one.
Election observers reported widespread complaints that the supposedly indelible purple ink used to mark voters’ index fingers washed off fairly easily. The finger-staining was intended to prevent people from casting a ballot more than once, and with thousands of false voter-registration cards in circulation, its alleged shortcomings raised fears of fraud.
“It will take time to know if the problem with the ink affected things,” said Ahmad Zia Rafat, a member of the Electoral Complaints Commission, which is fielding reports of vote manipulation and will try to resolve disputes.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force was on high alert, but placed nearly 300,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers at the forefront of security efforts – a symbolic boost for the Obama administration’s goal of eventually turning over responsibility for safeguarding the country to Afghan forces.
Afghan and Western officials said they disrupted many planned attacks. In Kunar province, in the country’s northeast, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force reported killing one insurgent with a precision airstrike as he was about to attack a polling center.
It was unclear how many insurgents were killed during the day; reports indicated that at least 15 civilians, police officers and soldiers died.
About 2,500 candidates were competing for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament. The summer-long campaign was an almost clandestine affair, with few candidates daring to hold public events because of safety concerns. Many campaigned mainly by telephone or by appearing at small gatherings organized only a few hours in advance.
At some locations, voting was brisk. At a landmark mosque near the city center in Kabul, a line snaked for 50 yards outside in the morning hours. But at many other sites, the threat of violence or disillusionment with the government and the prospects for fair balloting kept people away.
“The people I know are not voting,” said an aid worker in the eastern city of Jalalabad, who gave only his first name, Ataullah. “The Taliban are scaring people.”
Kabul shopkeeper Mohammad Ehsan said he was boycotting the vote because he believed politicians wanted only to enrich themselves.
“They’re just thinking how to get themselves a villa in Dubai,” he said, referring to the glittering United Arab Emirates city. “They don’t care about the people.”
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative, acknowledged the difficulties of staging a vote in wartime. “It’s not that everything is fine,” he said as he visited a string of polling places in the capital. “This election is being held in the most challenging circumstances imaginable.”
Still, by day’s end, observers and officials were striking a hopeful tone. The Free and Fair Election Foundation, the main Afghan monitoring organization, said the vote met a reasonable standard of safety.
“Though there were numerous attacks, none were severe enough to disrupt voting on a wide scale,” the group said in a statement.
Preliminary results will probably take about two weeks, with a final tally due in late October.