Low turnout, technical glitches mark Afghan presidential election

Kabul, Afghanistan – Millions of people in Afghanistan have once again braved persistent Taliban threats to cast their ballots in the country’s fourth presidential election.

Saturday’s polls saw the incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, make a bid for a second and final five-year term in a crowded pool of more than a dozen other candidates weeks after peace talks between the Taliban and the United States over ending the 18-year war broke down.

Though the voters were once again commended for their willingness to head to the polls amid violence – including bombings and rocket attacks – in the provinces of Helmand, Nangarhar, Ghor, Kandahar and Maidan Wardak, the process seemed to be plagued with logistical problems.

In polling stations across the country, voters were outraged to find their names missing from the voter rolls, even though several of them had just cast their ballot in those very stations during the parliamentary elections in October last year.

Dr Shahla (who did not give her last name), a resident of the Kartei Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul, was particularly incensed that she was accused of employing two national IDs in an attempt to vote twice.

“I’ve voted here before with the same ID. If I had already voted once today, why isn’t my finger marked with the indelible ink,” she said, holding up her hands to election workers at the Naderia High School.

“I’m not illiterate, why would I do such a thing? They are trying to take my vote with a ridiculous, baseless claim,” Shahla said as she tried to cast her ballot.

Shahla’s sentiment was shared by Yar Mohammad, 25, who spent more than three hours trying to convince election workers that he could vote at the Naderia High School after being told his name was not on the voter roll.

Angered by having to run up and down the halls of the school, Mohammad turned his frustration on the Independent Election Commission, the body responsible for overseeing the polls.

“They keep saying ‘fraud, fraud fraud’, but if this isn’t systematic, planned fraud, I don’t know what is. It seems like the commission itself is the one trying to make fraud,” said Mohammad, trailed by several others allegedly facing the same issue.

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An election official scans a voter’s finger with a biometric device at a polling station in Kabul Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Elsewhere in the capital, election workers accused voters of trying to pass off fraudulent documents to vote.

At the Habiba High School in West Kabul, where presidential candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was accused of casting his ballot without the required sticker on his national ID, an election commission worker who did not want to be identified took an equally angry tone with voters.

He referred to the voter rolls and the biometric devices – which were first employed during last year’s parliamentary elections – as valuable tools in preventing fraud.

“Listen, if your name isn’t on the voter rolls and you don’t appear on the biometric machines, it’s clear you have a fake sticker. There are so many of them floating around these days,” he said to half a dozen angry voters crowding around him.

Such problems were not limited to the capital Kabul.

In the southern province of Kandahar, media reports said a bomb attack near a polling station left at least 15 people injured.

Elsewhere in the province, voters had to contend with non-functioning biometric devices in the high-end township of Aino Mena just outside the provincial capital.

Voters in Kandahar’s Sayed Jamaluddin High School had to wait for more than three hours due to the glitches with the biometric devices.

Low turnout

In the eastern province of Nangarhar, the early hours of the day saw another problem: low voter turnout.

Nabiullah Baz, a member of parliament representing the district of Chapliyar, said it took several hours before the number of voters in the provincial capital, Jalalabad, picked up.

“The turnout was low in the morning until at least 10am. In the districts too, there were fewer people than in the previous elections.”

The 26-year-old, who was voted in during October’s parliamentary polls, said initially, Nangarhar was facing the same technical issues as Kabul and Kandahar, but that was resolved quickly.

He hoped that as the day went on and the temperatures cooled, more people would turn out.

“The day is still young and I’m hopeful that people will continue to come out to the polling stations as the hours go by,” Baz said two hours prior to the polls closing.

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Men line up outside a polling station in a western neighbourhood of Kabul Rahmat Gul/AP

The central province of Bamiyan, considered one of Afghanistan’s safest provinces, suffered from both technical issues and low turnout, Sayed Reza Mohammadi, who was speaking to voters in the province throughout the day.

Mohammadi said one reason for the low voter turnout could be that unlike in previous elections, no provincial council polls were happening simultaneously, which earlier helped drive more voters to the polls.

Baz, the Nangarhar MP agreed, saying: “In the previous elections, provincial council candidates pushed people to vote, and so people voted for the president as well. This time, we don’t have that.”

Elections under scrutiny

Technical glitches and a low turnout could be a blow to Afghan officials, including the Independent Election Commission, which wanted to prove that the polls would not be mired in the same accusations of fraud and logistical issues that plagued the last two presidential elections and last year’s parliamentary election.

During the 2014 presidential polls, accusations of widespread government-assisted fraud were so contentious that the then US Secretary of State John Kerry had to make two trips to Kabul and order a 100 percent audit of every vote cast in the second round runoff that saw President Ghani face-off with Abdullah Abdullah, who is once again seen as Ghani’s biggest rival.

Eventually, after more than a month of negotiations and audit, the current national unity government was formed with Ghani as president and Abdullah given the new position of Chief Executive.

However, following accusations of infighting and overstepping of power, both Abdullah and Ghani have said they would not accept another unity government.

Despite the problems, some Afghans remained hopeful about the democratic process in their country.

Najmia Popal, a first-time voter, was brought to the Zarghuna High School in Kabul by her mother, a teacher at a local private school.

The 18-year-old said she wanted to make sure she took advantage of her first chance to vote.

“I voted because I want to see a peaceful Afghanistan, a place with no more terrorist attacks, no more bomb blasts. I want to live in a secure country, something new and great,” she said.

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