Afghan Vote Marked By Light Turnout And Violence

MARJA, Afghanistan — The first voter here was Muhammad Akbar, 22, who dipped his finger in the indelible purple ink, collected his ballot and had just stepped into the cardboard box that served as a voting booth when gunfire broke out.

MARJA, Afghanistan — The first voter here was Muhammad Akbar, 22, who dipped his finger in the indelible purple ink, collected his ballot and had just stepped into the cardboard box that served as a voting booth when gunfire broke out.

“They’re right on time,” said Lt. Col. Kyle Ellison, commander of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment.

The Taliban had vowed to disrupt Afghanistan’s parliamentary election and sought to make good on that promise throughout the country on Saturday. At least 10 people were killed, scores of polling stations were attacked and hundreds of them apparently never opened.

Even where there was no shooting, turnout was light. Many polling centers were largely empty for most of the day, in sharp contrast to presidential elections a year ago, when voters waited in long lines. And where there was voting, there were numerous reports of fraud, from vote buying to ballot stuffing.

Results of the elections, a crucial measure of the government’s ability to function on its own before American troops begin to withdraw next year, were not expected for several days. But one year after the flawed and still disputed presidential vote, rampant fraud and low turnout could further undermine the government’s legitimacy.

Afghan officials insisted that in most places the election went ahead without major incident. “There is no doubt that security is better than last year,” Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said.

But the Free and Fair Elections Foundation, the independent Afghan monitoring organization, cited “widespread irregularities.”

“Insecurity and violence shaped the voting process in large swaths of the country,” the group said in a statement late Saturday.

The full extent of any fraud may not be known for some time, if ever. The election, in which 2,500 candidates ran for 249 seats, was monitored by fewer than half the number of international observers than those who observed in last year’s balloting, and they were confined to provincial capitals because of safety concerns.

The election last year was so fraud-ridden that nearly a quarter of the votes were thrown out, the recounting dragged on for months and accusations of electoral malfeasance by President Hamid Karzai’s campaign drove a rift between his government and the United States that has yet to heal.

This year, the Taliban are stronger, and their campaign of intimidation and violence appeared to have taken a toll.

Some 3.6 million votes were cast, according to a preliminary estimate by the Independent Election Commission, about a million fewer than in 2009, according to United Nations estimates.

Marja, which remains one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan seven months after a Marine Corps-led offensive to oust the Taliban from this Helmand Province stronghold, was no exception.

“The people were coming here to vote, but the shooting stopped them,” said Abdul Bari, 20, the chief election worker at a polling place in southern Marja, in a small whitewashed building that is the area’s new high school.

By 10:30 a.m., as bullets whizzed overhead and grenades exploded nearby, only 27 voters had cast their ballots there. By the end of the day, there were unconfirmed reports that 400 voters had cast ballots in southern Marja’s six polling places, none of which was directly attacked.

“A thousand people would have been a win,” said Colonel Ellison, who had walked around the deserted streets trying to encourage the few people he saw to vote. “It’s frustrating to me that people are intimidated by three or four people running around their village.”

In Kandahar Province, the other major Taliban redoubt in southern Afghanistan, explosions were heard every half-hour through the morning, and officials said there were 5 rocket attacks and 10 bombs detonated in and around Kandahar city.

Governor Tooryalai Wesa was touring polling places to encourage voters to turn out, but his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, slightly damaging his armored car but hurting no one.

Those who did vote in Kandahar were nervous. “I am so scared to come to the polling station,” said Shafiqa, 49. “My family insisted I not come, but I have to because this is my country and I want to use my vote for someone I like.”

The Taliban used every conceivable tactic to dissuade people from voting, firing rockets at polling places, kidnapping campaign workers, planting a bomb in the toilet of a mosque that was to be used as a polling place and threatening to amputate not only fingers with voting ink on them, but also the noses and ears of those who dared to vote.

Nationwide, the authorities said that 92 percent of 5,816 polling centers had opened as planned, and there was no word from the other 8 percent, raising concerns that security conditions had forced them to close, according to the election commission. An additional 1,000 polling centers had been closed before Election Day because the authorities could not secure them.

The polling places that did not report to the commission were scattered across nine provinces, in the northeast, northwest, east and south, Fazal Ahmad Manawi, the commission’s chairman, said at a news conference. He added, however, that every province had at least 50 percent of its polling places open.

Violence was also widespread, and not limited to the Taliban’s southern stronghold. In the north, 5 people were killed and 19 were wounded in a variety of attacks in Kunduz Province, according to Afghan government and hospital officials.

In Baghlan Province, also in the north, three members of a village self-defense militia were killed, the governor said. In Nangarhar Province, in the east, the bomb hidden in the mosque exploded harmlessly, but in the town of Chapayar, two people were killed by a rocket.

A statement on a pro-Taliban Web site claimed that the insurgents had attacked more than 100 polling centers.

Fraud vied with security as a major concern. In Helmand Province, an election commission official was arrested with what were said to be 1,500 fake voter registration cards she was suspected of trying to use for her mother, a candidate, and in Paktika Province, a man was arrested with 1,600 fake cards.

At a polling center at Ghazi Khan High School in Kunduz, journalists and observers watched as election officials and supporters of some candidates locked the doors for two hours and filled out ballots themselves.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundation complained that in nearly 3,000 polling centers — or more than half of the total — its monitors discovered that the ink being used to mark voters’ fingers, and prevent repeated voting, was easily washed off, even though it was supposed to have been indelible.

In Helmand, ink was the least of the Marines’ concerns as they returned to Forward Operating Base Marja, where insurgents launched a rocket into the base at noon, destroying the platform of a tent but hurting no one.

“It’s not luck, it’s God,” said Cpl. Jason Hamlet, 23, who was standing less than 15 feet from the blast site.

The Marines responded with three Hellfire missiles fired at insurgents’ positions from Reaper drones. Later, where one of the missiles had hit, they found a pool of blood, clothing and a stopped wristwatch. For one person, at least, the battle for Afghanistan’s future had ended at 1:42 p.m.