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Afghans vote amid chaos, corruption and Taliban threats
Afghans voted on Saturday in parliamentary elections overshadowed by chaotic organisation, allegations of corruption and violence that has forced a postponement of the vote in the strategic southern province of Kandahar.
With Taliban insurgents controlling large areas of the country, thousands being killed in the fighting and doubts about the success of the US strategy to force the insurgents to accept peace talks by stepping up air strikes, the credibility of the Western-backed government is at stake.
Several security incidents marred the polling day, with three police killed and at least eight people wounded by explosions in Kabul. Clashes erupted between the Taliban and the security forces in at least three provinces.
But wider election concerns so far have centred on technical and organizational problems with biometric voter registration equipment, polling stations not opening on time, missing election materials and delays forcing lengthy waits.
‘The biggest problem is with the biometric machines, there are some sites where they’re not working and a lot of voters have been discouraged and gone home,’ said Nasibullah Sayedi, a voter in the western city of Herat.
There were similar reports from other centres including the capital Kabul, while in Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan, angry voters tried to break the biometric devices because of the delays. At least 15 men were arrested over the incident.
The untried biometric technology, aimed at preventing election fraud, was rushed in at the last minute, over the objections of foreign partners who said there was not enough time to set up the system.
The organisational headaches come on top of fears of violence, particularly following the assassination of the police chief of Kandahar on Thursday, which forced authorities to delay the election in the province by a week.
Taliban militants have issued a series of statements telling people not to take part in what they consider a foreign-imposed process and warning election centres may be attacked.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed across the country but already nine candidates have been assassinated and hundreds of people killed and wounded in election-related attacks.
Widespread allegations of voter fraud present a challenge to the legitimacy of the process, seen by Afghanistan’s international partners as a vital step ahead of the more important presidential election next year.
Afghan politics is still tainted by the aftermath of a disputed presidential vote in 2014 that forced the two main rival groupings to form an unstable partnership. Both sides were accused of massive electoral cheating.
Despite the widespread problems reported at numerous sites across the country, there were still people who hoped their ballot could help improve their lives.
‘I want candidates to serve the country and hear the voices of the disabled and the poor,’ said Abdullah, a wheelchair-bound voter in Herat. ‘People ask what difference one person’s vote will make but I say, if a million disabled people come out to vote, you don’t think that will make a difference?’
In Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, men and women came out in numbers to vote and created a human chain to prevent entry of suicide bomber near six polling stations.
Some 8.8 million voters have been registered but an unknown number, by some estimates as many as 50 percent or more, are believed to be fraudulently or incorrectly registered.
About 2,450 candidates are competing for places in the lower house, which has 250 seats, including one reserved for a candidate from the Sikh minority. Under the constitution, parliament reviews and ratifies laws but has little real power.
Polls opened at 7:00am (0230 GMT) and voting is due to continue until 4:00pm. Due to the difficulty of collecting and collating results across Afghanistan, the overall results will not be known for at least two weeks.
Election authorities originally planned 7,355 polling centres but only 5,100 will be able to open due to security concerns, according to the Independent Election Commission, overseeing the vote.
Voting has also been delayed in Ghazni province, by arguments about the representation of different ethnic groups.