The streets of Kabul were eerily quiet on Thursday, as polls for Afghanistan's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban opened to little fanfare and even smaller crowds. Children, taking advantage of the trafficless streets, flew kites. Watermelon sellers languished in the shade of their carts waiting for a sale. The only customers were police, who were stationed at every intersection to inspect the few vehicles that passed their way. Kabul residents had been spooked by Wednesday's curious lack of violence and were apprehensive that the Taliban had planned something big for voting day. They were right to worry. Not long after polls opened, reports of explosions across the capital drove even the most courageous voters indoors. Two improvised bombs went off at polling stations, with another five at important intersections, and in two other districts, gunfire among rival factions prevented voting for the rest of the day.
A government ban on reporting election-day violence only heightened tensions. Nabi Ahmadi, an election volunteer at a station in central Kabul, was receiving regular updates via mobile phone from his brother, who was in turn hearing about violence from his network of friends throughout the city. "No one knows where the attacks are happening, so no one knows where it is safe to go vote," he says, gesturing at his empty polling station. Observers and volunteers outnumbered voters 20 to 1. Early in the day, nearly 100 men and half as many women had voted, he says, but since the news of the first bombing, the number of voters had slowed to a trickle, even though the immediate neighborhood had remained untouched by violence.
In the 2004 election, when Hamid Karzai was voted President after serving two years as interim leader, Ahmadi remembers thousands of voters showing up at the very same station, which is a mosque perched on a hill with a commanding view of the city. "This time there is no one," he says. But he doesn't blame the low turnout on insecurity alone. "Over the past seven years, people have become disappointed with democracy. They don't see that it has made their lives any better."
Across town, a handful of eager voters at another polling station were met by frustrating delays as election workers struggled to set up. Materials had arrived late, and an hour after the polls were supposed to open, volunteers were still struggling to fasten shut the white plastic ballot boxes. Zahir, a 29-year-old employee at the Ministry of Finance, fumes as he stands in line. "Today everyone in Afghanistan wants to select their favorite candidates, but unfortunately they are not optimistic," he says. "Look at this place: it's chaos. Yet we are in central Kabul what hope do we have for the rural provinces?"
Outside of Kabul, the situation was indeed worse, with rocket attacks throughout the country scaring voters away from the polls. In Wardak province, next to Kabul, Taliban intimidation on the roads forced the provincial government to close all polling stations. As a last resort, soldiers from the Afghan army started going door to door with ballots, a practice that could easily be mistaken as a coercive tactic in favor of the current government. International and independent Afghanistan observers worry that the lack of voters could open the way to fraud: corrupt officials might use the names and registration numbers of voters who didn't turn up with little fear of being caught. And with such a low turnout, even clean-winning candidates are unlikely to have a powerful mandate.
There were some bright spots. Turnout in the northern provinces was extremely high some districts were reporting 100% turnout by mid-afternoon. Residents of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, which is at the center of the Taliban insurgency, defied a Taliban directive not to vote and turned out by the hundreds, according to a voter reached by phone. "Yes, the Taliban has told us that if we vote, they will cut off our fingers, but I don't care," says Assadullah, 24. Fellow voter Golalai Khan, 29, agrees, saying, "We need to vote, as it says on TV that if you don't vote, then your favorite candidate will lose." Elsewhere in the violent south, voters didn't turn out at all.
Coming up with a clear national picture is difficult, says Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute, which has sent a large contingent of election observers to Afghanistan. "If there is any trend in what we are witnessing, it is a lot of different types of elections. So that is going to be the challenge looking at how all these areas voted and analyzing the results."
One universal theme was the low turnout by women. At one station in Kabul, no women had voted, and at another, just dozens turned up, compared with hundreds of men. This raises alarm bells. Women registered to vote in higher numbers than men this year, which many observers had found hard to believe in a traditional society like Afghanistan. Many suspect that men falsely registered fictitious wives and daughters in order to collect extra voting cards that could in turn be used to stuff ballot boxes. Few of the women's stations were monitored, which raises further questions. "I think people know there will be fraud, but what can we do?" asks Zahir of the Ministry of Finance. "Even if we all have ink on our fingers, it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day, officials will be adding ballots that are not from the people." When asked why he was even bothering to vote, Zahir shrugs, saying, "As an Afghan, it is my responsibility to help choose our future. But many of my friends have already given up. They didn't even come out today."
Candace Rondeaux, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, says the insecurity and questions about the value of the vote "given the potential for fraud has kept a number of voters from the polls." A low turnout will do "little to enhance the sense that all Afghans are included in the democratic process," Rondeaux says. "It also raises the possible threat that the incumbent's main rivals will question the results and perhaps encourage a violent response, leaving open a window for the Taliban to fully disrupt Afghanistan's progress."
Zahir sighs as he shuffles forward in line. "It's always this way in Afghanistan. The powerful become more powerful, and the poor people stay poor."
With reporting by Shah Mahmood Barakzai / Kabul