Despite Fear, Afghan Voters Chose To Vote

Sporadic violence was reported throughout Afghanistan as voters went to the polls to elect a president. Election officials said voter turnout was light. Much of that has to do with whether voters feel safe enough to head to their polling stations. The Taliban had been threatening to disrupt the election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We've been listening this morning to sounds of the presidential election in Afghanistan. In Kandahar, some people voted despite reports of explosions. In the remotest parts of the country, people voted on ballots that had to be delivered by donkey. And there was also a gun battle reported in Kabul. NPR's Jackie Northam visited several polling stations in Afghanistan's capital today. She's on the line with us now. Hi, Jackie. Where are you?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Hi, Steve. I'm actually at Zaruna(ph) High School. It's a girl's school here in the center of Kabul. We've been coming here throughout the day just to check on the size of the crowds that have developed in that - and really, I don't know if you could describe it as crowds. First thing this morning when the polls opened at 7 AM, you know, there were a number of people here. And I think everybody thought that as the day wore on and if there wasn't a security problem, that more and more people would come out. But, in fact, just the opposite has happened. Every time that we've come back during the day - we came at lunch hour. There was nobody here except the election workers. And I think if this is indicative of what's happening in other parts, it's got to be a disappointment. But we really don't know how things are faring out throughout the rest of the country.

INSKEEP: Well, Jackie, when you say turnout seems low - at least apparently, based on what you've seen - was this because people were concerned that security would not be adequate?

NORTHAM: That appears to be the main reason. You know, we've talked about this throughout the day. The Afghan people - you know, I've been reporting here, as Renee Montagne has, as well. And they were excited about these elections. But there was this overriding fear that there were going to be attacks. There was a gun battle today in Kabul, and some election officials say they think that that might have kept people away from this particular vote. But you're at a point -there was a lot of security in this city today. The police and the Afghan army were all over this city, as they were in other parts of the country, as well. And there was a lot of security at the polling sites. But that doesn't seem to have helped bring people out.

INSKEEP: Well, the government was trying to keep people from being scared away from the polls by banning reporting on violence today. Did that make it hard to find out about that gun battle in Kabul, where you are?

NORTHAM: No, because the - both the foreign journalists and the local journalists collectively decided to defy that ban. So that wasn't the problem. The problem probably is more that rumors get started, as well. So, yes, the government did say that, you know, you were not allowed to report on any violence today during voting hours, but again, both international and local journalists decided to ignore that.

INSKEEP: One other thing also, because Afghans, of course, are choosing a president here. Hamid Karzai is looking for a second term. He's got a number of challengers. And as we've heard on this program in recent days, it was quite a lively campaign, especially toward the end. Now, as you watched people, those who did show up today in Kabul come out to vote, did people seem at all excited about the opportunity, excited about voting for someone or determined to vote against anybody, for that matter?

NORTHAM: Yes. The people that we spoke with today, there was a lot of excitement about this. And as we understood it, in the lead up to this election, you know, what we've been covering in, you know, in our reporting, is that people were very excited. And it was a very lively campaign. But it just didn't seem to have panned out that way so far. Again, you know, we don't have all the numbers of turnout throughout the country. We're hearing reports that, in fact, you know, it's pretty good up north, where security is much better. And as you would expect, in the south, the turnout wasn't quite as good, although some people are saying it was better than they actually expected.

INSKEEP: Well, now, that's interesting, and could actually affect the election because you do have a country with different ethnic groups predominating in different areas, and they tended to coalesce behind different candidates. You could actually have Hamid Karzai harmed by a low turnout, for example, in the south, couldn't you?

NORTHAM: You could. And, I mean, we want to very careful that we don't get too far ahead of tallies and who voted for whom. But you're absolutely right. In the north, it's more favorable conditions, actually, for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. And he's the main contender against President Karzai. If there's a low turnout in the south - which is where Karzai really has a strong political base - it's hard to say what - how this will actually end up in the final tally.

INSKEEP: When will we get official results?

NORTHAM: Well, the first indications are probably going to come out in about two days time, 48 hours after the polls close. We won't get the first official result, though, until September 3rd. So it's going to be a little while yet before we get a real clear indication of who is going to win this election and whether or not there's going to be a runoff election.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam is reporting today from Kabul, where a presidential election was underway. Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Steve.

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