KANDAHAR - In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, peaceful streets and long voter lined on Saturday stood in stark contrast to the violent 2009 election, when residents cowered indoors fearful of Taliban attack.
The city where the Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s has been the scene of much insurgent unrest since 2001, and was the nadir of the much-criticised poll five years ago. But voters turned out in droves on Saturday to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, many taken aback by how peacefully the poll passed off.
"There were still worries about the militants but everyone was keen to get out and experience this day," said Abdullah, a 23-year-old university student. "It was good to see so many people wanting to vote compared with before. This was an important personal decision for me." Only a few men, and almost no women, went to the 2009 polls due to Taliban threats to target polling stations and to cut off anyone's finger dipped in ink to show they had voted.
Kandahar remained a dangerous city with a huge police and army presence, but security has improved in recent years with sharp drops in both bomb attacks and targeted killings. "I have voted in a peaceful environment without any threats from the Taliban and I was not pressured by anyone telling me how to cast my ballot," Shah Bibi, a 20-year-old woman, told AFP after emerging from a polling station. "I am very happy today that I cast my vote for my favourite candidate."
Many were surprised at the length of polling queues and at the number of women, who wore all-encompassing burqas as they clutched their voting cards. "I voted for Karzai last time, he promised us electricity and jobs, but he did not fulfil his promises," Jawed Ahmad, 27, told AFP. "This time I voted for Ashraf Ghani because I hope he gives us these things." Many residents expressed concern over long waits and a shortage of ballot papers at polling stations -- a worry repeated elsewhere in the country.
"Officials and the people have been complaining about lack of ballot papers," Dawa Khan Meenapal, the provincial governor's spokesman, told AFP. "In some places the ballot papers were finished before lunch." The UN and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission report into the 2009 election detailed how Kandahar was awash with corruption and violence. Intimidation tactics included roadside bombs, abductions, illegal checkpoints and threatening "night letters", while government officials and police stuffed ballot boxes with bundles of vote. There were no reports of major violence in Kandahar on Saturday. Official turnout figures are expected in the coming days but it will be weeks before fraud and corruption allegations are fully analysed. The head of the European Union's Afghan election observer mission condemned the suspension of mobile text messaging services across the country Saturday, saying it threatened the transparency of the poll.
Cellphone users were able to make calls but not send SMS messages in an apparent effort to prevent candidates transmitting campaign messages on polling day. EU chief observer Thijs Berman wrote to election officials to warn the move would "seriously handicap" the work of candidates' agents, who monitor polling stations, and could even affect their safety. If the suspension lasted until after polls closed, he warned, "the very valuable work of the thousands of observers would also be severely affected". "This worries me enormously because observers in polling centres in regions and towns cannot communicate easily among themselves what is happening," Berman told AFP.
"It's a risk to their security and also a risk to the transparency of the vote." The 2009 vote in which President Hamid Karzai was re-elected was marred by massive fraud. A repeat would undermine the credibility of his successor as he leads Afghanistan at a testing time, with NATO forces pulling out and Afghan troops fighting a still-resilient Taliban insurgency.
An official at the Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority said suspension came after an Election Complaints Commission (ECC) complaint saying around a million text messages had been sent after campaigning had officially closed.
But the ECC denied asking for SMS services to be suspended and called for them to be restarted. Afghans voted on Saturday for a successor to Karzai, who has led the country since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, in an election seen as a major test of the troubled country's stability after a 13-year US-led military intervention.