Page last updated at 19:14 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 20:14 UK

Herat voters unswayed by threats

Voters in Herat (20 August 2009)
People came out in droves to cast their votes in the western city of Herat

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Herat

Election day in western Afghanistan started on a high note, but apprehensions about the future were already creeping in by the time voting ended.

Much of this had to do with the low voter turnout in southern, eastern and south-central regions of the country, which many believe may weaken the government that comes into power.

The rush of women voters came as a surprise, given the oft-repeated cliches of Afghanistan being a 'conservative' nation

Within the city of Herat, not far from the border with Iran, not only was voter turnout very high, the security was also up to the mark.

According to officials, three security cordons were thrown around the city: an outer ring was formed by troops from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf); the Afghan army held the middle; and the police force were on the inside.

In an area where the Taliban have no significant presence, this was reassuring for the people who came out in droves to cast their votes.

Little anxiety

I left my hotel about half an hour before polling stations opened, and was surprised to find dozens of people already queuing up outside the Jamia mosque, one of the main election sites in the city.

I have covered elections in neighbouring Pakistan, but have never seen the first voter submit his ballot exactly five minutes after the opening time - in this case 0700 local time.

Voters in Herat (20 August 2009)
Afghanistan's media created patriotic euphoria about the elections

The rush of women voters at Mehri Heravi girls' school also came as a surprise, given the oft-repeated cliches of Afghanistan being a "conservative" nation.

Perhaps Herat is not as conservative as the rest of Afghanistan. Or, perhaps, the feeling of security here was stronger than in the rest of the country.

Reports of a clash and some arrests in Herat province's southern district of Sheendand came through at around midday, but caused little anxiety because many considered it an isolated incident in a remote area.

There were rumours about other incidents in Ghowr and Badghis provinces to the east, but officials were unusually tight-lipped, and the security forces did not seem nervous.

Stability versus change

Journalists moved around freely inside polling stations, interviewing officials and voters.

A majority of them said they had voted for the incumbent President, Hamid Karzai, but many also voted in favour of his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Reshtin Qadri of Radio Free Europe talks to a voter in Herat
A majority of people said they had voted for President Karzai

The choice seemed to be one of stability versus change.

A woman reporter for Radio Free Europe, who roamed the compound of one polling station wearing a fashionable gown and no veil, had an interesting encounter with one of the voters she was interviewing.

"Who did you vote for?" she asked.

"Karzai," the voter replied.

"Why did you vote for him?" she asked.

"Because he is a liberal. Without him, you wouldn't be here without a burka."

Women outnumbered the men at a polling station in Herat city's Jibrail neighbourhood, where many ethnic Hazara migrants live. The Shia Hazara are Afghanistan's third largest ethnic group after Pashtuns and Tajiks.

A polling officer in the area told me that women had been responsible for 60% of the total votes by late on Thursday afternoon.

Fraud allegations

The night before, Afghanistan's electronic media had been creating a patriotic euphoria about the elections, playing national songs and urging people to do their duty by voting.

Halfway through Thursday, I almost believed that people had been taken in by this propaganda.

Voter holding registration card in Herat (20 August 2009)
We did not come across a case in which a voter's card had not been punched

But then came the allegations of electoral fraud, with Mr Abdullah saying that ink provided to some polling stations in Herat was not indelible.

Polling officials used two methods to prevent voters from casting ballots more than once - dipping their index fingers in a bottle of supposedly indelible ink, and by punching a hole in their voter registration cards.

Some local journalists tried different methods to remove the ink from the fingers of some voters, but failed.

As for the hole-punching machines, they somehow refused to punch holes in the cards in many of the polling stations we visited.

In some places, the electoral officials used scissors to cut holes in them; in others they used nails and hammers. But we did not come across a case in which a voter's card had not been punched.

Another thing that dampened the mood in Herat were the reports of low voter turnout in various parts of the country.

Everybody around here knows that a dismal turnout combined with allegations of election fraud will most probably lead to a second round of elections, more controversy and further instability.

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