Accusations of fraud and misconduct, more than scores of Taliban attacks, threatened to overwhelm the results of Saturday’s vote for the next president of Afghanistan, denying the winner legitimacy and frustrating efforts to restart peace talks to end 18 years of war.
When polls closed Saturday, Afghanistan’s Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi said there had been 68 Taliban attacks across the country, most of them rockets fired from distant outposts. At least five people were killed, including one police, and scores more were injured.
A surge in violence in the run-up to the elections which, following the collapse of U.S.-Taliban talks to end America’s longest war, had already rattled Afghanistan in recent weeks. Yet on Saturday, for those who went to vote it was the process itself that drew the greatest criticism, threatening the country’s fragile battle against chaos.
Many Afghans found incomplete voters’ lists, unworkable biometric identification systems aimed at curbing fraud, and in some cases hostile election workers.
Ruhollah Nawroz, a representative of the Independent Complaints Commission tasked with monitoring the process, said the problems were countrywide. Whether the problems were the fault of the government or the Independent Election Commission, Nawroz said Afghans will have trouble seeing the vote as free and fair.
Nawroz said he arrived at a polling center in the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, the capital, at 6 a.m. and “hour by hour I was facing problems.” Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and closed at 5 p.m. after the Independent Election Commission (IEC) extended polling by one hour.
Preliminary results won’t be out until Oct. 17, with a final vote count on Nov. 7. If no candidate wins 51 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates. Voter Hajji Faqir Bohman, speaking on behalf of disgruntled voters at the Taimani polling center, said polling was so disorganized and flawed that even if his candidate wins, “I will never believe that it was a fair election.”
The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the 5-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote earlier in Kabul, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.
A young woman, Shabnam Rezayee, was attacked by an election worker after insisting on seeing the voter’s list when she was told her name was not on the list. Rezayee said the worker hurled abuses at her, directing her insults at her ethnicity. She then punched and scratched her.
When it ended and the attacker left, Rezayee found her name on the list and voted. “I am very strong,” she said. In Kabul, turnout was sporadic and in the morning hours it was rare to see a crowded polling center. Afghans who had patiently lined up before voting centers were opened, in some locations found that election officials had yet to arrive by opening time.
Imam Baksh, a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering whom he would vote for. “All of them have been so disappointing for our country,” he said.