Afghan parliamentary polls underway despite threats

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Some Afghans lined up for hours to cast their vote Saturday in a chaotic start to parliamentary elections that are being protected by tens of thousands of security forces on alert nationwide following a campaign marred by relentless violence.
In some parts of the capital Kabul, voters waited for polls to open five hours after the official opening time of 7 a.m. In some of the city’s western neighborhoods, voters were posting pictures of closed polling stations hours after they were scheduled to open.
Afghans hoping to bring change to a corrupt government have in the eight years since the last elections endured a resurgent Taliban that have carried out near-daily attacks on security forces, seizing large swathes of the countryside and threatening major cities.
The Islamic State affiliate, meanwhile, has launched a wave of bombings targeting the country’s Shiite minority, killing hundreds. Both groups have threatened to attack anyone taking part in the vote.
Poll workers struggled with a new biometric system and in several polling stations workers took an extraordinary amount of time to locate names on voter lists. In some polling stations in Kabul, voting started considerably late leading to small disturbances by frustrated voters, some of whom had come to vote nearly two hours before polls opened.
The new biometric machines meant to curtail fraud were late additions to Afghanistan’s elections and had not been tested in the field and workers had not had more than a few weeks to learn the system. Even the Independent Election Commission chairman, Abdul Badih Sayat, warned ahead of polling that the system might experience glitches and asked for voters’ patience.
The chaos at the polls could compromise the legitimacy of Saturday’s vote in the minds of many Afghans, who have already expressed fears of fraud aimed at keeping the warlords and politically corrupt who currently dominate Afghanistan’s Parliament in power.
As the extent of the delays began to be known, Sayat went on national television to promise that everyone who wanted to vote would have an opportunity. He extended voting till 8 p.m. at those polling stations which opened as many as six hours late. For those polling stations that were still closed six hours after the 7 a.m. polling start, Sayat said they would vote on Sunday.
North of Kabul, thousands of outraged voters blocked a road after waiting more than five hours for a polling station to open, said Mohammad Azim, the governor of Qarabagh district where the demonstration took place.
Sayat said dozens of teachers who had been trained in the new biometric system had not shown up for work at the polling stations. It wasn’t clear whether that was related to a Taliban warning directed specifically at teachers and students telling them to stay away from the polls.
It also wasn’t immediately clear how many of the 21,000 polling stations across the country would be affected by the new closing time.
Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqiq expressed outrage at the chaotic start to polling and assailed election preparation by the country’s Independent Election Commission.
“The people rushed like a flood to the polling stations, but the election commission employees were not present, and in some cases they were there but there were no electoral materials and in most cases the biometric systems was not working,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said it had increased its deployment of National Security Forces to 70,000 from the original 50,000 to protect the country’s 21,000 polling stations.
Elections in the two provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni have been delayed as well as in 11 of the country’s nearly 400 districts.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on another election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan’s remotest corners. He also reminded those elected to Parliament that they are there to serve the people and ensure the rule of law.
The Independent Election Commission registered 8.8. million people. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters “very, very brave” and said a turnout of 5 million would be a success.
At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.
“We don’t care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time,” said 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan’s 249-seat Parliament. He bemoaned the current Parliament dominated by warlords and a corrupt elite. “They have done zero for us.”
Within hours of the start of polling, several minor incidences of violence had occurred in Kabul as well as several provinces as both the upstart Islamic State group affiliate and the Taliban have vowed to disrupt elections
In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In the capital of Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested city.
Commission deputy spokesman Aziz Ibrahimi said results of Saturday’s voting will not be released before mid-November and final results will not be out until later in December.
Ghani said Afghans alone are carrying out elections as he praised the millions of voters who registered, defying threats from insurgents.
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Kazbul contributed.

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