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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Puzzle of the stay-away voters

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kabul

Voting station
Officials wait - but no voters come
The turnout in Afghanistan's parliamentary and provincial elections on Sunday was down by more than 20 points compared to last year's presidential elections, officials say.

Hamid Abdullah supervised one of Kabul's largest polling centres during Afghanistan's landmark parliamentary and provincial elections.

Bu he himself decided not to cast his ballot.

"I simply did not find a good candidate... so I am not voting," Mr Abdullah told me at the city's sprawling Idgah mosque, home to 10 polling stations.

The sluggish voting here mirrored Mr Abdullah's sentiments - only 1,000 people, including 100 women, had cast their ballots in the first seven hours of voting, even though the mosque was geared up to deal with 6,000 voters.

"I personally feel that the turnout is low because people don't like the candidates. Anybody and everybody is vying for political power," said Mr Abdullah.


His cynicism may be overstated, but the polling pattern in Kabul and areas north of the capital pointed to the flagging enthusiasm of the voters when compared to the whopping 75% turnout in last year's presidential elections.

Across the city, in another large polling centre at the Abul Qasim Firdausi High School in eastern Kabul, a steady trickle of voters early in the morning had dried up by midday.

Shahnaz Hakim Kohistani
Shahnaz Hakim Kohistani - women 'have an important role'

"This is very low polling. Maybe its true for all of Afghanistan. I think people are confused about the profusion of candidates and don't quite know who to vote for," the centre's election supervisor Abdul Ali Rezah said.

In another polling centre reserved only for women Kuchi nomad voters, not a single voter had cast her ballot seven hours after polling started.

Miles away from Kabul in northern Afghanistan in Baba Quchqar village, a Tajik-dominated warren of high-walled mud homes with sewage trickling down the narrow lanes, there were more security men and election workers than voters in the polling stations.

"I got 3,000 ballot papers for this centre, I thought there would be lines of voters. This is very disappointing. I don't expect more than 800 people by the end of the vote," Shah Wais Zenar, the centre supervisor said when I visited.

Unknown faces

So if this pattern turns out to reflect the whole country, that begs the question of why the turnout was so much lower after a frenetic month-long campaign.

Some say voters were simply bewildered by an array of unknown faces who cropped up as candidates - in the Kabul province, for example, some 400 candidates slugged it out for just 33 seats.

The four-page ballot paper would not have helped many voters to make their choice.

Hamid Abdullah
Hamid Abdullah - 'people didn't like the candidates

Some people argue that many people stayed away because they felt let down by the pace of reconstruction of their war-ravaged country by the government and the international community.

"They may have lost all faith in politicians and leaders and decided not to vote," says Shah Wais Zewar, a polling station supervisor.

There is a growing perception too, that corruption is now a growing problem, adding to a sense of disenchantment.

A substantial number of candidates have, as many voters say, "blood on their hands", running rampaging militias during the civil war - the jangsalaaran (warlords), in local parlance.

Many Afghans feel that President Karzai's government has been soft on the warlords.

There are still others, in a minority, who feel that security fears - the Taleban had threatened attacks ahead of the polls and killed some voters in Oruzgan province earlier this week- may have kept some voters away.

If the turnout finally turns out to be substantially lower than last year's presidential polls, all the three factors may have played a role.

Women enthusiastic

After the colour of the campaign, the atmosphere on election day in Kabul and some of the northern provinces was surprisingly downbeat.

Many streets were almost completely deserted apart from the bored-looking security men. Most shops were closed.

But there was a marked enthusiasm among women to exercise a new-found right.

At a polling station in Kabul, a sudden queue of women appeared an hour before voting ended as they rushed to cast their ballots.

Shahnaz Hakim Kohistani, a senior government official, turned up to vote, her six-year-old daughter Kawsar Sana in tow, after finishing her chores at home.

"Women have been left behind in this country from the beginning of history. With a new government, we have an important role, and this can only grow after the present election," she said.

Most voters said they had voted for candidates who were "good Muslims and educated", not necessarily in that order.

Some of them said they had picked on a couple of candidates and followed their speeches through the campaign to make a final choice.

Women candidates seemed to be getting support from men voters too. An Afghan army man Sultan Ahmed Warasi said he had voted for two women - one for the parliament, one to the provincial council -because they "seem sensible and very educated" to handle problems.

"You need to carefully scrutinise and follow some candidates consistently through the campaign to make an informed choice. It was not easy. I had to work on it a lot," he said.

It is not something many voters may have relished doing. And that, in the end, may have been the biggest dampener for a lower than expected turnout.

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