Friday, September 17, 2010

Blast rattles Kabul before Afghan poll begins

Afghanistan braced for a day of violence on Saturday as voters headed to the polls for a parliamentary election that is a crucial test of government credibility and the strength of its security forces.

A large blast rocked central Kabul about three hours before polls were due to open at 7 a.m. (0230 GMT).

An area near the U.S. embassy was cordoned off but there were no reports of damage or injury. A spokesman for NATO-led forces said the blast was being investigated.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll and urged potential voters to stay at home even as the government called on Afghans to come out to polling stations for what is their second chance to choose their own parliament.

"We should try to do our best under the current circumstances. It is very important that the Afghan people come out and vote," Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was re-elected last year in a poll marred by fraud accusations, told reporters.

Significant security failures would be a major setback, with Washington watching closely before U.S. President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December likely to examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals.

Corruption and fraud are also serious concerns after a deeply flawed presidential ballot last year. A third of votes cast for Karzai were thrown out as fake. Even though he is not standing, Saturday's vote is seen as a test of Karzai's credibility.

It will not be clear for several weeks at least who among the almost 2,500 candidates have won the 249 seats on offer in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament.

Preliminary results from Saturday's voting will not be known until October 8 at the earliest, with final results not expected before October 30.

Election observers expect thousands of complaints from losing candidates, with Afghanistan's own poll watchdog expecting a "disputatious" election, which could delay the process further.

Almost 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are providing security for the poll, backed up by some 150,000 foreign troops.


A heavy security clampdown was imposed on Kabul on Friday.

A wave of abductions spread across much of the rest of the country on Friday, however, with 23 kidnappings of people working on the elections, including two candidates.

Observers fear security worries could lead to a low voter turnout, as it did last year when the Taliban staged dozens of attacks but failed to disrupt the process entirely.

Voter turnout was very low last year in the south and east where Pashtuns, Afghanistan's main ethnic group, dominate and where the Taliban has its strongest support.

Washington believes corruption weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when Western troops in Afghanistan will be able to leave.

Voter turnout may also be hit by cynicism and disillusionment. Billions of dollars in foreign aid cash have flowed into Afghanistan over the past nine years but, for many people, have brought no real improvement in their lives.

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