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Afghanistan's Long-Delayed Parliamentary Elections Off To Chaotic Start

Elderly Afghans voting in the parliamentary elections in Kabul on October 20, 2018.
Elderly Afghans voting in the parliamentary elections in Kabul on October 20, 2018.

By RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

KABUL – Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections descended into chaos with many polling stations hit by technical and organizational problems as incidents of violence were reported across the country.

Voting in the October 20 elections was extended by one day in some constituencies after voters were unable to cast their ballots, with Afghan expressing frustration over polling stations not opening on time, absent election staff, missing election materials, and technical glitches with biometric voter verification devices.

The chaos at the polls came as several dozen people were killed across the country in attacks on polling stations and security forces, although there had yet been no major attacks.

Multiple blasts struck polling stations in the capital Kabul, leaving at least three dead and over 30 wounded, health officials said. In the central province of Ghor, 11 police officers were killed while three people were killed in the northern province of Kunduz.

Almost 9 million people have registered to vote in the parliamentary election, which are seen as a key test of the government’s ability to provide security across the country.

Abdul Badi Sayad, the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), said voting hours would be extended in some polling stations where election officers or election material arrived late and some polling stations, which had not opened at all, would be open on October 21.

Sayad also pleaded for patience with the new biometric system and said that dozens of teachers who had been trained in the system did not show up for work at the polling stations.

The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, a civil action group, said its team of observers found almost a third of polling centers in Kabul were not in a position to use biometric equipment.

The new technology, aimed at preventing election fraud, was rushed in at the last minute.

Mohammad Mohaqiq, a deputy to Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, told a local television station that he waited hours to vote and feared frustrated voters would abandon the polling stations without marking their ballots.

"More than three thousand men and around two thousand women are standing on the streets outside this polling station,” a resident of the western city of Herat told RFE/RL. “They don’t know what to do. The election officials say the voter registration lists haven’t arrived.”

Khaled Haq Parast, a police official, said two police officers were wounded when they tried to defuse an improvised explosive devise found near a polling station in the capital, Kabul. He said two civilians were also injured.

Jan Agha, a Kabul police official, said a "sticky bomb" placed beneath the vehicle of an intelligence official exploded in the capital but did not result in any casualties.

Officials said two people were wounded in the western province of Farah after a mortar landed in a residential area. In the eastern province of Kunar, gunmen fired on polling stations, leaving two injured. Seven people were wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Interior Ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said several "plots" in Kabul had been "neutralized." "Several plots in the [provinces of] Kabul, Takhar, Badakhshan, and Jowzjan have been exposed and neutralized," he said.

The Interior Ministry announced that an additional 20,000 security personnel had been deployed to protect voters and polling stations, bring the total number to around 70,000.

Election authorities originally planned to use around 7,000 polling stations but only some 5,000 were open due to security concerns, according to the IEC.

Despite the risks, President Ashraf Ghani urged "every Afghan, young and old, women and men" to exercise their right to vote, after casting his ballot in Kabul.

Photos posted on social media showed scores of men and women holding their identification documents lining up outside polling stations across the country amid a heavy security presence.

Ahmad Hanayesh, a RFE/RL correspondent in northern province of Parwan, said despite worries over low turnout many people had turned up to cast their ballots in the face of insecurity and technical problems at polling stations.

“The queues are long and they show peoples’ interest in the election," he said.

Shamila Jawed, a RFE/RL correspondent in Kabul, said there were “extreme irregularities in the voting process” at a polling station she visited in the capital.

Originally scheduled for 2015, the parliamentary vote was delayed for three years amid disputes over electoral reforms and because of the instability following NATO’s handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.

In a fresh warning issued on October 20, the Taliban urged voters to boycott the "sham and theatrical process to protect their lives."