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Afghan Diary

For several reasons, I decided to go to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday to watch Afghans vote.

It seemed like a good idea to get out of the capital and avoid the almost 300-strong international press pack that would be racing around the dusty city following President Karzai and his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

Since domestic air travel is all too often a hit-or-miss endeavor, with flights delayed, cancelled or just never showing up, we took the road to Mazar - one of the few relatively safe highways in the whole country. Only complete fools or those with a death wish take the road to Kandahar. The road to Jalalabad in the east is an equally risky proposition.

As well, all reports indicated that the polling in Mazar would go off relatively smoothly. I had no desire to get attacked with rockets or, even worse, have my throat slit by the Taliban.

I hooked up with two American photographers, and we left Kabul at 6am on election eve, taking the 428-kilometre paved road north. Just outside the city our fixer handed me an Afghan shawl. "Here, put this on," he said. Apparently, I looked too American. What a surprise.

The road up to and through the 3-kilometre-long Salang tunnel, sitting at 3,360 metres, is one of the most majestic in the world. If peace ever breaks out, tourists will no doubt flock here for the views. After a nine-hour haul we arrived in Mazar without incident.

On voting day - the first time in the country's ancient history the government has organised national elections on their own - we showed up at Wazir Akhbar Khan High School promptly at 7am when the polls opened.

Election officials, smartly dressed with finely wrapped turbans and well-groomed beards, sat out front of the school's mud walls exuding a seriousness fit for the occasion. They checked our Election Commission passes and welcomed us into the yard. Male and burqa-clad female voters started to enter the compound in a trickle that soon turned into a steady stream.

Inside the school building, voters - men through one end of the building and women through the other - followed a simple set of procedures: IDs checked, fingers dipped in purple ink, ballots issued, candidates ticked behind basic cardboard stands, and then ballots deposited in boxes. All smooth as Mazari silk.

Leaving the polling station, voters seemed proud to hold up their ink-stained fingers and pose for us photographers. Surprisingly, we were even allowed to go to the women's side to do the same. The men really didn't like it, but the women did not hesitate to display from behind their sparkling white burqas the purple digit.

Those of us from the West have the luxury of being cynical about democracy, but there is something rather moving about seeing a war-weary people participate in a process that they hope may lead to a better, less violent, more equitable future. Needless to say, they deserve it.

We moved on to Balkh University, where voter turnout was larger. Mr Hafiz, one of the school's administrators, was happy to exclaim: "See, no problem. Anyone can vote for anybody they want. No problem. I didn't even tell my children who to vote for."

A young student clung by my side as I strolled through the halls, happy to practise his English. "The election is very peaceful here," he said. "Only problems in the south, not in Mazar."

I asked him how old he was, and when he said 17, I asked how he could vote, thinking that the age requirement for voting was 18.
Mr Hafiz explained. "No, no, he says 17 but actually he's 20. He wants to avoid the military." I told him we were quite familiar in Cambodia with flexible birth dates to avoid conscription. He smiled.

At the Sultan Raiza High School for Girls, the women came out in droves. Once inside the main gate, burqas were pulled back, revealing made-up, excited faces rarely seen by foreign men - or locals, for that matter. An almost festive atmosphere reigned, as if this was one of the few times women could crowd together and chat up a storm in a semi-public environment.

At 5pm we went back to Wazir Akhbar Khan High School to watch the vote-counting. Election observers and party officials remained attentive as each ballot was called out.

After an hour the count was 480 for Abdullah, 56 for Karzai, with single votes for two other candidates - a veritable small sweep for the former Northern Alliance foreign minister who railed against corruption in the Karzai administration during the campaign.

So polling went smoothly in Afghanistan's major northern city. The only low point was when an Associated Press reporter asked me if I'd heard of any violence. When I said no, she replied: "Oh, that stinks. Now I don't have a story." Leave it to the Western press to wish more suffering on the Afghan people.

Initial results won't be announced until September 3. The government says there were 267 attacks by the Taliban throughout the country, and 26 people were killed. Two voters in Kandahar had their ink-stained fingers cut off.

Cries of foul play are widespread, registration cards were readily for sale, and allegations of ballot box stuffing are ubiquitous.
What's that old saw? Democracy is a terrible form of government. But everything else is worse.

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