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Under a cloud of violence and fraud, Afghans head to polls

From Ivan Watson, CNN
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Fraud and violence threaten Afghan election
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 40 percent of voters turn out to cast 3.5 million ballots
  • Violence is reported throughout the nation
  • More than 2,500 candidates are competing for 249 seats
  • Election observers report fake voter cards and poor quality of ink

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Afghans voted in the fourth post-Taliban-era national election Saturday, though it was not without the violence promised by militants or myriad procedural challenges.

Voters trickled into polls under a dark cloud of Taliban threats to disrupt the parliamentary election and the legacy of fraud that undermined the credibility of the last election, held just over a year ago.

A predawn earthquake shook the Afghan capital Saturday, but did not significantly impact the election.

Despite Saturday's violence, about 40 percent of voters turned out, casting more than 3.5 million ballots, said Faizal Ahmad Manawi, chairman of the Independent Election Commission.

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With the polls officially closed, the vote count will begin Sunday, though it is not expected to be completed until the end of October.

More than 2,500 candidates were competing for 249 seats in Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament.

Early in the day, Afghan and foreign military officials reported scattered rocket attacks and roadside bombs nationwide. The interior ministry reported 63 artillery attacks, 13 ambushes, 33 makeshift bombs and 29 other direct attacks over a 24-hour period.

A rocket landed outside the Kabul headquarters of the NATO-led military force and two roadside bombs exploded in the eastern city of Jalalabad, NATO and Afghan officials said.

Five people were killed and 17 others -- including women and children -- were injured in Kunar province in heavy weaponry blasts, said Dr. Farooq Sahak, head of the central provincial hospital.

Another three people died and four others were injured when their taxi hit a roadside bomb in Balkh province. Balkh's chief of police Sherjan Durani blamed the Taliban for the attack.

In Nengrahar province, police were able to defuse 16 remote-controlled mines but 13 others exploded, said Gen. Ayoob Salangi, the chief of police there. He said Taliban fighters fired on people walking to the polls. In all, five people died in Nengrahar.

Meanwhile, the Afghan police in northern Kunduz province announced 18 militants had been killed overnight in a joint NATO-Afghan "clearing" operation.

Still, insurgents fired several rockets in the predawn hours at the city of Kunduz. And Saturday morning, a provincial official reported a hand-grenade attack on a school serving as a polling center in the eastern city of Khost.

"People are still going to that voting center and voting for their candidate," Mobariz Zadran, a spokesman for the governor of Khost, told CNN by phone.

Despite the deployment of hundreds of Afghan and NATO-led coalition forces, Afghanistan's election officials announced earlier this week that at least 1,030 out of more than 6,800 polling centers would be closed because of security threats. Another 8 percent that were supposed to open Saturday failed to do so.

While casting his ballot in Kabul on Saturday morning, Afghan president Hamid Karzai urged citizens to go to the polls to "take the country forward."

But on the eve of the vote, Karzai lowered the bar for success, conceding it was likely there would be irregularities.

"The elections ... are going to be facing difficulties and especially in Afghanistan under [these] circumstances we must expect there will be irregularities, there will be problems and there will be allegations," he told journalists outside the rock walls of the presidential palace in Kabul.

"We should try to do our best under the circumstances to make the elections a success," he said.

Before noon, officials from the Electoral Complaints Commission were reporting widespread complaints from across the country.

Afghan security officials said they seized tens of thousands of fake voter registration card and arrested 86 people suspected of committing fraud.

Observers from the Kabul watchdog Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan reported 224 acts of voter intimidation during the first four hours voting and 643 cases of candidates campaigning on election day, which is banned by law.

Other problems were posed by the poor quality of the ink used to prevent duplicate voting the election observers said. In almost 3,000 polling centers, voters were able to easily wash the ink off their fingers.

And more than 1,000 polling centers lacked female election officials to help women vote.

Election monitors were keenly aware of problems after the massive fraud that tainted presidential elections in August 2009.

More than 1 million ballots were disqualified in that election, which after months of acrimony, led to a second electoral victory for Karzai.

Even candidates are skeptical about whether this election will be free and fair.

"If the election is really an election ... then maybe in sha'allah I will be a success in this parliament," said Zabiullah Jawanmard, a singer running for parliament, who wears his hair in the feathered style of one of Afghanistan's biggest pop stars from the 1970s.

"[But] if the election is a selection, maybe I cannot go there."

Officials from the Independent Electoral Commission said they have taken major steps to clean up the electoral process.

The commission blacklisted some 6,000 workers from the 2009 election in an effort to prevent them from working on Saturday's parliamentary election.

And the agency said this year it would publish results at every polling station in a bid to prevent fraud.

Voter participation has plunged since Afghans enthusiastically flocked to the polls in 2004 for the country's first historic presidential election after the fall of the Taliban regime.

Free and Fair Elections for Afghanistan said voter participation plummeted from 75 percent in that 2004 election, to 35 percent in the much-criticized 2009 presidential election.

"A lot of credibility as far as the electoral process has been sucked out by last year's fraud," said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"I think it would be difficult to then say 'go out to the polls and risk your life' for an exercise that will ultimately result in massive fraud."

In the southern city of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold plagued by daily assassinations and clashes between militants and NATO forces, residents said the situation was tense and voter turnout was sparse.

To avoid being identified by militants, "people are asking polling station workers to only paint the back of their pinky fingers with ink," shopkeeper Nader Jan told CNN by phone.

"Because in the previous election, the Taliban cut off the fingers of some voters in the south."

In another part of the city, the governor of Kandahar narrowly escaped a roadside bomb that blew out the glass on his vehicle, as he was heading to the opening of a polling station Saturday morning.

No one was injured in the blast, said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the governor.

Afghan election officials predict it will take at least a month before final results of Saturday's election are announced.

CNN's Matiullah Mati, Najib Sharifi and Mila Sanina contributed to this report.

 
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