U.S., Candidates Call Afghan Election A Success

Preliminary results in Afghanistan's presidential election aren't expected until Saturday. Still, campaign teams for President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah insist their candidate won. And though intimidation by the Taliban kept turnout low, almost all the country's polling places stayed open Thursday. Which allowed the candidates, and the U.S., to pronounce the election a qualified success.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On a Friday morning, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The campaigns of both top candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election are claiming victory this morning. It will be weeks before an official winner is named or a run-off called - what with some votes still to be counted and challenges resolved. Still, both Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah are insisting their own tallies give them more than 50 percent of the votes.

INSKEEP: Can't both be right? But the verbal disagreement is an improvement on the rockets fired during yesterday's voting. And though intimidation by the Taliban kept turn out low, almost all the country's polling centers opened and stayed opened throughout the day, which has allowed the candidates and the U.S. to pronounce the election a qualified success.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following the election in the southern City of Kandahar. And she joins us now. Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, Kandahar would have been one of the most difficult places to vote because there's a huge Taliban presence and there were lots of threats. What's the scene now - day after, after at least, you know, a percentage of the people there managed to get to the polls?

NELSON: Well, it's a completely different scene today. The streets are packed with people again. There are cars and there are no rockets, which, of course, were a very frequent companion for voters yesterday in terms of the outskirts of the city. And so, it seems like life is sort of coming back to normal here. But certainly what's going on inside the polling centers is anything but.

MONTAGNE: How so?

NELSON: Well, while the counting has actually ended, supposingly, in the 66 centers here in Kandahar, there's been a lot of confusion. I mean there were supposed to be pink slips on the outside of the buildings that announced the results for each of the centers. So that communities could sort of see right away what some of the preliminary results were and how their community voted, as well as keeping the process somewhat honest. But all those pink slips were missing. And apparently campaign observers were ripping them down because they weren't getting their own copies from election officials or something to that effect. And so, there's a little bit of chaos today at the centers.

MONTAGNE: And the chaos of course feeds into real concerns about fraud in this election.

NELSON: Yes. Certainly the election officials are saying very little about fraud. The only incident they would basically talk about was a woman at the Zarona High School where we were - where I had mentioned that yesterday that we had seen stuffed ballot boxes that looked like they were stuffed before anybody showed up. Basically, there they said, there was one female election worker who was apparently guiding people to vote for a particular candidate. And they wouldn't name who. And they said that once they figured this out, they got rid of her and replaced her with someone else. But what we're hearing from one election expert in particular, who is out here - who spoke on the condition of anonymity - they're saying that five districts at least in Kandahar - that there were allegations of ballot box stuffing there, and two polling centers here in Kandahar City itself. And so, it's really creating some confusion as to, you know, who is actually going to be declared the victor here.

I mean, by all accounts, it's probably going to be Mr. Karzai. But again, you know, is this a fair election, is this a transparent election. Many people here don't feel so.

MONTAGNE: Any particular scenes come to mind over the last couple of days for you that would give us a picture of what Election Day was like?

NELSON: There was one particular story - or one particular person that I met that really struck me. And this was a young woman in a burqa who was accompanied by her two young sons. And she was clasping a voter registration card in one hand. And she had snuck out, despite her husband saying she shouldn't go out because it was insecure, you know, with all the rocket fire. She was determined to vote. And she was basically going from polling center to polling center trying to find a place where she could cast her ballot. And because she is a woman, they had designated centers for women. So she was being turned away from the male centers. And she was complaining, you know, about the fact that it was so hot out - it was around lunch time that she was running with all these boys and she can't catch a rickshaw anywhere.

But she was determined to vote. And it's therefore the defiance, you know, in the voters that I did speak to yesterday, as few as they may have been that turned out. I mean they were determined not to give up their right that they won, you know, more recently.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from the southern city of Kandahar, the day after Afghanistan's presidential election.

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