Afghan Elections Under Way Despite Violence

Afghans vote today in parliamentary elections amid fears of widespread violence and fraud. Guest host Robert Smith talks with NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith in for Scott Simon.

Parliamentary elections are underway in Afghanistan - at least in the areas of the country that election authorities consider safe enough to conduct the vote.� ��

Scattered attacks across Afghanistan have targeted election workers and voters. Security forces have killed at least nine people. Still, Afghan and international officials say they're holding the best election they can under the circumstances. For the latest, NPRs Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence joins us.�

Quil, what have you seen out at the polls today?

QUIL LAWRENCE: I saw some long lines early in a few of the polling stations. But even before midday the stations were down to fairly moderate turnout. I went to a few places in west Kabul where I actually saw more observers, more official observers than voters.

Certainly the people who I talked to who came out were kind of a self-selecting group who do believe in the political process here. They thought it was worthwhile to turn out to vote today.

I also spoke to some people in the street who said that they didn't think it was worth bothering with, that they don't believe that the past politicians or anyone else who's running has their interest in mind. They said that the politicians they've seen so far are just selfish enough for their own interests.

I also saw some busloads arrive at one polling station, a couple of buses full of women who didn't seem terribly sure about the issues of the day. And when I talked to the bus drivers it turns out that one candidate near Kabul was busing people in specifically to vote for him.

SMITH: Well, low turnout in Kabul is somewhat disturbing, because that's the most secure part of the country. What are you hearing from, you know, say, the insurgent-controlled areas in the south?

LAWRENCE: That's right. I mean, over a thousand polling stations didn't even open. Over a week before the election, authorities decided that of those almost 7,000 polling stations across the country, 1,000 of them were in areas that were simply too dangerous to even open a polling station. They couldn't guarantee the security of the people voting or that the ballots would make it to Kabul without being intercepted, tampered with, etcetera.

So I have heard from some areas in the south that there's voting going on. We've had scattered attacks, actually, in the north and some areas in the south. Attacks on polling station and security forces.

SMITH: Well, violence is only one of the challenges there in Afghanistan. There's also corruption. Any signs of irregularities today?�

LAWRENCE: It doesn't seem to be on par with the election a year ago, where many observers concluded that the government itself of President Karzai had perpetrated a massive fraud to ensure his own reelection. We haven't seen anything on that scale.

But there have been complaints that the ink that people famously dip their fingers in to keep people from voting twice is very easy to wash off. I've seen people with the finger that's supposed to be painted black already faded quite easily.

Many more issues, I think, before the election, where campaigning was very limited because of the security situation. And these contests are so small and it's such small communities - we have 2,500 candidates running for 249 spots -it was very easy for there to be low-level coercion of voters out in the provinces especially.

SMITH: So when are we going to know who wins?

LAWRENCE: We'll have an idea of the turnout tonight, and then we're expecting it to take a couple of days for all of the tabulations. And one election observer pointed out to me that we're going to see many more losers than winners, as with thousands of candidates and such a small number of spots. So there might be quite a lot of people who have a definite motive to dispute the results.

SMITH: Quil, one last questions, quickly. The parliament's considered rather weak in Afghanistan. Why is this an important election?

LAWRENCE: We've been talking to both Afghan and international observers who said that they're trying to have the best election they can under the circumstances, just to keep the process of democracy rolling.

In the past year, we have seen the parliament sometimes challenge the president. Unfortunately, what it looks like might happen with this one - we have to wait for the results - is that President Karzai might actually increase his power in the parliament. And we may, in fact, see a parliament that's much less of a check to balance his power in the government.

SMITH: NPRs Quil Lawrence in Kabul. Quil, thanks.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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