Will Afghan Voters Turnout In Taliban's Birthplace?

Under threats of violence, Afghan voters cast ballots in Thursday's presidential election. Voter turnout was reported to be light in Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan. It is also the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Afghanistan today, scattered violence and Taliban's threats are keeping some voters away from the polls. Plenty of others are braving the uncertainty and going out to cast their ballots for president and provincial councils. This morning we're checking in with our reporters around Afghanistan. And we go, now, to the South - to the province of Kandahar - the birthplace of the Taliban; also the heart of the country's largest ethnic group - the Pashtuns. The day began with explosions that could be heard in Kandahar city. Still voters started trickling into the polling centers.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kandahar. And we check in with her right now. Hello.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, how are you doing Renee?

MONTAGNE: Fine. So, at this point in the day how is the voting going? And what are they telling you - what the voters telling you?

NELSON: Well, the turnout appears light here in Kandahar. I mean, a part of that is certainly the explosions; there have been a dozen of them so far. And it sounds like rockets and roadside bombs. And they basically serve as a backdrop, this morning, to the elections here. But officials here are refusing to say much about what that noise is? But not surprisingly this is really dampening some of the turnout. And certainly we're seeing far more men than women turning up the polls. And those who are coming out are saying that they're ignoring the noise. That they feel safe, thanks to a contingent of Afghan police officers and soldiers who are out throughout the town.

And election officials say they too are heartened. I spoke with election worker Abdul Hossein(ph) at Zahir Shahi High School where most of the voters in Kandahar have turned out thus far.

Mr. ABDUL HOSSEIN (Election Official, Afghanistan): As we look to the security, the security is very good now. So, the people will come and just vote.

NELSON: So, the explosions are not worrying anybody?

Mr. HOSSEIN: No, no I'm not sure about the explosion because if you see everywhere, there are army and also Afghan National Police. They're just searching the people. If there is explosion, that will happen farther from the center.

NELSON: So, that was one election worker here in Kandahar City. But it's important to know that at least one center was attacked by grenade this morning.

MONTAGNE: And the security measures - how tight and well done is security there?

NELSON: Well, it was a little bit of a slow start this morning. Certainly when we went at 7 AM there wasn't anybody to be seen it seemed. But then, suddenly within 15-20 minutes or so, Afghan army and police started showing up. And they've been very strict about checking every car that comes through. You've to have a special document to be able to drive today, which is why so many people are going by bicycle and on foot to polling stations. And there's really very little sign of foreign troops. The thing is that foreigners want to make sure that they don't appear as being part of this election. They really want this to be about Afghans for Afghans.

MONTAGNE: Well one of the big questions going into all of this was how many voting centers and there are sort of satellite voting areas would really in fact be able to open today. What do you know of that?

NELSON: Well, election officials say that all of the 491 polling centers, in five provinces - that all of them are open. But the problem is that it's very difficult to verify this independently. And given the government has made such a strong case for not reporting any violence and having this be a positive day, some of that is suspect. Because some of these areas are certainly very much influenced by the Taliban and the Taliban is in fact present there. And so again, I mean, it's just impossible to verify independently, but officials are reporting all of them are open.

MONTAGNE: And of course, as many people as vote down there in Kandahar that would help of all the candidates, President Hamid Karzai, who is expected to take a lot of the Pashtun vote.

NELSON: Absolutely. Voters here are not very inclined to talk about who they're going to vote for. But those who were willing to discuss it indicated that they were in fact voting for President Karzai who was born in this province. I should know one other thing, the women's polling center that I went to here - there seemed to be very few people going there - very few women that I saw. And it's interesting to note that the ballot boxes were very full, which sort of raises the question of whether there's, in fact, the transparency and fairness and, you know, honesty that's certainly the Afghan government says that it wants to see with these elections. And that the international observers are hoping for.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, we'll be talking to you later in the day as the voting goes on.

NELSON: Absolutely, thank you Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kandahar City covering the Afghan election.

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