Afghanistan's Anticlimactic Presidential Elections

Listening to Pashtana Wardak talk just after she cast her ballot in today's presidential election, you'd think she voted for anybody but incumbent President Hamid Karzai. "Karzai has a lot of faults, made a lot of mistakes, and hasn't lived up to his promises," she says, standing in the courtyard of a girls' school where she voted, in a western suburb of Kabul. "His cabinet is corrupt, most ministers are opportunists, not professionals, and violence has increased." It's a stinging indictment.

But then suddenly the mother of six—and wife of a police officer—quietly makes a confession: she voted for Karzai. "Karzai seems independent, not favoring any tribe or political party," Wardak says, wearing a purple headscarf and long brown robe covering a purple dress. "Let's pray he improves his performance or we will sink further into misery and war."

Wardak's view seems to echo general voter sentiment that two NEWSWEEK reporters heard while visiting several polling stations in Kabul and in the western foothills of nearby Paghman province today. Most voters we interviewed voted for Karzai not out of any enthusiasm for the man or his job performance over the past nearly eight years—he has been president since December 2001—but rather out of resignation that there's no one else whom they trust to keep the country from sliding further toward becoming a failed state.

The good news for voters across most the country is that an offensive the Taliban claimed it would unleash did not materialize. There was a two-hour shootout between two Taliban gunmen and security forces in eastern Kabul, but both insurgents were killed and the violence was contained. In the provinces, there was a suicide bombing or two, several gun battles, and some rocket attacks. (In Paktia province, insecurity prevented the opening of some 30 polling stations. In Taliban-infested Zabul province, one Western poll observer said things were "eerily quiet.") But overall there wasn't a truly significant disruption of the election. In Kabul, the streets were quiet because Election Day is a national holiday. Traffic was light, and children flew kites—a favorite pastime that was banned under the Taliban regime—high into the bright blue sky.

Even so, it remains to be seen how many Afghans turned out to vote. Many may simply have stayed home to be on the safe side after insurgents said they would place land mines and IEDs on the roads. The attitude in much of the hotly contested south and east, where the Taliban is strongest, may have been to err on the side of caution and not vote. In Kabul, at least in the several polling stations that NEWSWEEK visited, the turnout seemed respectable but certainly not as heavy as during the 2004 presidential vote, which saw nationwide voter participation of 70 percent. (By contrast, turnout in last year's U.S. presidential election, the highest in recent history, was 61 percent.) "There are fewer voters than we expected," says one Afghan security officer who declined to give his name and who is in charge of security at five polling stations. His foot was in a cast, the result of an IED blast eight days ago that wounded him and killed five Afghan policemen in an insurgent ambush near a mosque west of Kabul serving as a polling station today.

A lower-than-expected voter turnout could seriously hurt Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun. (Pashtuns are the country's largest ethnic group.) His most serious challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is favored by the Tajik ethnic minority, can count on the votes of most Tajiks—roughly one third of the population. Karzai received 55 percent of the vote in 2004, enough to give him outright victory. But a strong showing by Abdullah and other challengers today could deprive Karzai of the 50 percent he needs to win. If he falls short, and is forced into a runoff with his nearest challenger, Karzai would be wounded and weakened politically. A low Pashtun turnout in the south and east could also throw the legitimacy of the election into question.

A few Afghans also complained of alleged electoral irregularities. Abdul Hamid, 47, a Paghman malik, or tribal elder, insisted that 40 to 50 percent of eligible Paghman voters didn't receive voting cards, and therefore couldn't cast a ballot. A handful of voters at other polling stations in Paghman and Kabul quietly said they thought the government's administrative machine would engage in electoral fraud to boost the president's vote total, though they offered no evidence.

Few Afghans rushed to the polls when they opened. In Kabul most voters listened to the radio, watched television, and talked to friends and neighbors before deciding that it was safe enough to go to vote. Mirwais Amani, a 29-year-old economic expert who works for USAID, said his mother wouldn't allow him to vote until she was satisfied that relatives and neighbors were heading out to vote. He was keen to cast his ballot. "Small drops of water make a river," he said at a western Kabul polling station. "If I don't vote, then I can't complain about how our country is run." He was disappointed that his younger brother, a student at the University of Kabul, refused to vote—not out of fear, but because he didn't believe his vote would matter. "He told me that the Americans had selected the winner already. So why vote?" said Amani, whose father is an officer in the Afghan National Army. "That's just stupid." Amani was heading home to bring his mother out to vote. "Our family will be voting for three different candidates," he said.

Some voters were enthusiastic Karzai supporters. A blind man who voted at the western Kabul girls' school was full of praise for the president. "Karzai has done a great job, God bless him," said the man wearing a gray turban and being led by his son. "I hope he will now bring us peace and reconstruction." "Karzai is the best," said a small shopkeeper in Paghman. "Ninety percent of the people will vote for him around here." Prominently displayed on the wall of his shop is a picture of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the local strongman and former mujahedin warlord who is close to Karzai.

Others don't have any confidence that whoever wins will do improve their lives. Baz Mohammad, a 65-year-old with a long white beard, leads a group of refugees who have lived in the squalor of a tent camp in western Kabul since they were expelled from Afghan refugee camps in neighboring Iran three years ago. He voted, but without any hope for change. "I have only a 10 percent hope that our lives will change for the better," he says. He adds that 500 young men living in the refugee camp near the polling station are unemployed and depressed. "No one cares for the poor and the displaced," he says—proving that caring for the plight of Afghans will be the new president's biggest task.