Radical Islamic insurgents had vowed to try to disrupt the elections, in which Afghans cast ballots for the 249-member lower house of parliament and for 420 representatives who will serve on 34 provincial councils. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But only sporadic attacks were reported on election day. Even so, 15 people -- including a French commando who stepped on a landmine in the mountainous region along the Afghan-Pakistani border were reported killed during the 24-hour period prior to and during the elections.
Turnout was disappointingly low, with just over 50 percent of Afghanistan's approximately 12 million voters casting ballots. Election officials said the turnout for the parliamentary vote was roughly 20 percent lower than that for last October's presidential election. They offered a variety of reasons for the drop-off in voter participation, including a confusing election process and a reluctance to vote for candidates with warlord connections. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The parliamentary and provincial council elections featured more than 5,800 candidates. Over 6,000 polling stations were open on election day. Despite the significant logistical hurdles, election officials reported that the voting process itself went about as smoothly as could be expected. President Hamid Karzai, casting his ballot in Kabul, said the elections marked "a good day for Afghanistan, whatever the results."
Final election results are not expected until mid-October. Ballot boxes in many remote areas will need to be gathered by helicopter. In a few cases, ballots will be transported by donkeys and camels to collection points.
In northern Afghanistan, Tajik political leaders expressed confidence that a get-out-the-vote effort would translate into a large number of parliamentary seats, perhaps even a majority in the new legislature. At the same time, many were concerned about possible irregularities in the ballot-counting process. As he prepared to cast his ballot, Yunus Qanooni, who heads the Tajik-dominated New Afghanistan Party, repeated a call for election transparency.
Human rights activists harshly criticized the Afghan government for not developing stricter eligibility criteria that would have prevented those who had leadership roles during Afghanistan's 25-year cycle of violence from running for elected office. Election officials banned over 30 candidates for maintaining ties to warlord militias. But a significant number of individuals with violent pasts were permitted to run. The presence of such individuals in parliament could hamper its effectiveness, political analysts fear.
Mohammad Atta, a warlord based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, disputed the notion that warlords especially those associated with the Mujaheddin that fought Soviet occupiers and, later, Taliban militants constituted an obstacle to democracy. Speaking on the eve of the elections, Atta said former Mujaheddin commanders deserved an opportunity to serve in the new legislature. "Some of the Mujaheddin had militias and weapons, which they used at one point to do their duty for their motherland. ... Today the real Mujaheddin have disarmed," claimed Atta, an ethnic Tajik who has resisted Karzai's efforts to extend the central government's influence in northern Afghanistan.
In the southern city of Kandahar, considered a center of Taliban support, election day was relatively quiet. To keep the chances of violence to a minimum, officials, backed by Afghan army units, sealed off the city from outsiders on election day, and prohibited most forms of vehicular traffic in the city.
Terrence White, spokesman for the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) in Kandahar, said he was "pleasantly surprised about the state of security in town and in the rest of the province." He added that officials were now grappling with ensuring the integrity of the vote. "The great challenge now is conveying the ballots to the provincial counting centers and proceeding to count them without interferences," he said.
The task of gathering ballot boxes began immediately after polling stations closed on September 18. A bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax delayed the process for several hours overnight in Kandahar. JEMB district coordinators were guarding the ballots until they were delivered to Kandahar's counting center, where the tabulation process was scheduled to start on September 20. Helicopters belonging to both the Afghan National Army and to US-led coalition forces were helping to gather the ballots. "The JEMB's main concern at the moment is avoiding leaving ballots in rural districts, where it may be more difficult to effectively guard the votes," said Giles Pierce-Beresford, head of JEMB Security in Kandahar.
On election day, two provincial polling places reported violent incidents. Authorities also discovered explosives in a car that was trying to enter Kandahar city. White, the JEMB official, suggested perhaps the most significant problem of the day was connected with overly aggressive campaign activists, some of whom sought to distribute campaign literature inside polling stations.
Meanwhile, many voters in Kandahar complained about the unwieldy and confusing ballot. "The ballot is bigger than a newspaper and I can't find the symbols. And I can't comprehend it because I can't read a word in Pashto or Dari," said Amanullah, a 20-years old farmer who claimed to have walked several hours in order to vote.
Keeping Kandahar quiet on election day was not easy, said Pir Mohammad Khan, a security officer at a central city polling station. "Afghan security forces have informers among the Taliban and were able to prevent several attacks in the province," Khan said. "It wouldn't have been so easy otherwise."
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard has reported from Afghanistan and Iran for EurasiaNet. Claudio Franco is a freelance correspondent who covers Afghanistan.