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Afghans Cast Ballots In Historic Election

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Kabul, 18 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of Afghan men and women traveled to polling stations across the country to vote in Afghanistan's historic parliamentary elections.

Election organizers said early turnout appeared to be low amid threats by Taliban fighters to disrupt the vote. Some 12.5 million Afghans are eligible to vote. But they said lines of voters were forming at many polling places across the country by midday. Officials said that any voters who had joined lines at polling stations by 4 p.m. local time would be allowed to cast their ballots.

Aziza Askar, a doctor in Kabul, worked today as the chief of the women's section of a polling station at the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque in Kabul.

"My wish is that the elections that are taking place today will be to the benefit of our country and our people who are trying hard and who are concerned that the elections could have negative consequences," Askar said. "May these elections open [a window of opportunity] for the people of Afghanistan."

Some 2,760 candidates are running for the 249 seats in the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), the lower house of the National Assembly. Voters are also choosing among more than 3,000 candidates who are running for seats in 34 provincial councils.

Voters interviewed by RFE/RL in Kabul say they cast their ballots with joy and hope for a better future. But some also fear that warlords and local militia commanders involved in past human-rights abuses could enter parliament.

Shirin Javid, a schoolteacher in Kabul, expressed such concerns. She told RFE/RL that she voted because she wants to have a say in the future of her country.

"I'm very happy because I voted according to my wish," Javid said. "There are people who have blood on their hands and who are running as candidates. My complaint is that [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai let them run. Their own [supporters], the murderers, will vote for them. Killers should not become candidates to represent the people."

Amannudin Temoori, a 35-year-old Afghan man, voted at Alfatha High School in Kabul early today.

"This is a day of celebration for us," Temoori said. "We are proud, and we are using our freedom to vote. We are voting for the people who will work for the people of Afghanistan and can be productive in the parliament. And they must be well-known people with an education. If these educated and well-known people enter the parliament, it will be a good parliament and [the legislature] can do good things for the country. So democracy here in Afghanistan will develop further."

The election was carried out with the help of more than 215,000 accredited observers -- including international monitors.

Somsri Hananuntasuk, an observer from the Asian Network For Free Elections, expressed concern that some of the country's 160,000 election workers did not appear to be well acquainted with voting procedures.

Hananuntasuk also told RFE/RL that she had received reports of attempted multiple voting in the southern province of Kandahar.

"We had some reports from Kandahar about a person who got more than one registration card," Hananuntasuk said. "This means that the person who got two or three registration cards can vote three times. It means that the rumors that we received in the last few days are true -- that a person can go and register in several places. So, in that case, we wonder if it happened in other areas."

But Peter Erben, the chief electoral officer of the Joint Electoral Management Body, said there were other methods to prevent multiple voting -- including an improved ink used to mark the index finger of each voter.

"The ink we are using is the strongest possible, and I have confidence it will prevent [wide]spread double voting in Afghanistan," Erben said. "Knowing that we did have problems with this issue last year [during the presidential elections of October], we are keeping a very close eye on it."

Erben also spoke of security concerns in southern provinces where U.S.-led coalition forces continue to battle the remnants of the Taliban. He said those concerns delayed the opening of a "few" polling centers -- each of which is linked to several different polling stations.

"As anticipated, out of the more than 6,200 polling centers, a few will not be able to open today," Erben said. "We have reports of one center in Oruzgan, one in Helmand, and one in Kandahar which [had] not opened [by noon Kabul time]. But we are working on opening them up before the poll closes. In the few cases where we had not opened up polling centers, this was mostly related to not having enough security staff in place -- either for logistical reasons or because the areas are considered insecure."

U.S. and Afghan security officials say clashes today with suspected Taliban fighters left three militants and two policemen dead in the eastern Khost Province. In a separate incident, the French Defense Ministry said a French special-forces soldier was killed on the eve of the election in southern Afghanistan. The soldier was fighting as part of an antiguerrilla force that includes U.S. and Afghan troops.

In Kabul, two rockets landed within the compound of the UN's Operations Center in Afghanistan shortly after polling stations opened. One rocket exploded and caused a fire at a warehouse used by UNICEF. The other rocket did not explode.

Despite such incidents, election officials say they expected a high turnout by the end of the day. Erben said initial turnout estimates would be available later in the day.

(RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this report from Kabul.)

Copyright (c) 2005 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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