Aug 21, 2009
QALA CHA, Afghanistan — Shershad Muhammad almost didn’t get to vote.
As the 60-year-old baker pedaled his bike toward a polling station in this village on Kabul’s outskirts early Thursday, a group of police officers forced him to dismount, tackled him and nearly arrested him. His offense: carrying a large black bag. It was full of bread to give to election workers, but anxious police mistook the bag for a bomb.
“I decided to give the bread to the police officers instead, and they were happy and let me go,” he said.
Afghans went to the polls for their second presidential election with their country on edge. Those who exercised their democratic rights had to defy Taliban threats and hew closely to the social mores of this conservative Islamic country, which, for one, dictate when and how females leave their homes.
Once they arrived at polling stations, voters had to contend with jittery security. Hundreds of police checkpoints were established throughout the capital of Kabul.
Building a democracy in the midst of a war has proved to be difficult. The Taliban carried out a spate of deadly attacks just before the election. As polling centers opened Thursday, voters heard reports of bombs in Kabul and a number of cities in the south, where the Taliban are strong. At least two would-be suicide bombers engaged Kabul police in a firefight — both were killed.
The result: Kabul streets were nearly deserted on Election Day. Polling-center workers reported a slow start to the voting, as many waited to see how insurgent threats played out. By afternoon, the voting picked up in the capital and kept a steadier pace until the 5 p.m. closing of the polls.
The Taliban made good on their promise to attempt to disrupt the elections. In Qala Cha, insurgents put a bomb in a toilet early in the morning, tearing a hole in the side of the polling center. The blast injured one poll worker.
“I think some people have stayed away from here because of the attack,” said Farida, a polling-center worker who goes by one name. “Men have been telling their women to stay home and not vote after they heard the blast.”
Poll workers in the provinces said turnout dropped in the afternoon in many places because of the attacks.
Here in Qala Cha, officials turned a school’s classrooms into voting stations using large pieces of cardboard for voting booths. A steady trickle of people voted through the morning.
Almost all of the voters interviewed at four polling centers said they would vote for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.
Afghans head to the polls amid tight security as incumbent President Hamid Karzai encourages everyone to come out and vote. Courtesy Reuters
“We trust our elders to tell us whom to vote for,” said a student who gave his name as Humayoun. “They all asked us to vote for Karzai,” he said.
The perception of a Karzai victory may have fueled voter apathy. A group of men sat idle outside the Qala Cha polling site. “There is no point to vote,” said one. “Karzai is going to win.” The others nodded in agreement.
Other factors could skew the vote in unpredictable ways. At Qala Cha, election officials said turnout was low because of the lack of women. Some women — wearing burqas — were arriving at the polling center periodically throughout the morning, but most refused to be interviewed. “My family does not allow me to talk to strangers,” said one.
“Most women are busy cooking and cleaning in the morning,” added Farida, the polling-center worker.
In Ut Khel, a village on the eastern edge of town, hundreds of turbaned and bearded men began to fill the polling center by midday.
“We were waiting to see how the situation is, and in this village things seem peaceful,” said Murad Dawood, 33, a driver. “So now we have come to exercise our right.”