An Afghan policemen conducts a security check outside a polling station… (Manan Vatsyayana, AFP/Getty…)
Kabul, Afghanistan — Scattered violence and a seemingly low turnout marked Afghanistan's vote to elect a new parliament Saturday, despite a heavy security presence and appeals from Afghan and Western officials for people to come out and vote.
The governor of Kandahar, the province where the Taliban movement was born, escaped a bombing as he traveled from one polling center to another, seeking to demonstrate it was safe to cast a ballot. Dozens of rockets fell on Kandahar city throughout the day, and also hit near polling centers in the country's north and east.
Before dawn, a rocket landed in Kabul, not far from the presidential palace and the U.S. Embassy, but it caused no injuries or serious damage. Later, as the polls were closing, a loud blast echoed through the capital, but police later determined it was a "noise bomb" that rattled nerves but did not hurt anyone. Throughout the day, helicopters circled overhead and police were stationed every few yards along major thoroughfares.
"I was afraid to come out, but I came anyway," said Abdul Raouf, a rheumy-eyed 60-year-old in a tattered turban, emerging from a polling place at a girls' high school in the capital. "I came to vote for a peaceful country."
Election observers reported widespread complaints that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' index fingers washed off fairly easily. The finger-marking was intended to prevent people from casting a ballot more than once.
Afghan police and soldiers, by design, were the most visible security presence, with nearly 300,000 of them deployed to protect polling places and other sensitive sites. Troops from the NATO force were also on alert, but deliberately hanging back to put a more "Afghan face" on the vote.
About 2,500 candidates competed for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament. The summer-long campaign was an almost clandestine affair, with few candidates daring to hold public events. Many campaigned mainly by telephone or by appearing at small gatherings organized only a few hours in advance for safety reasons.
At some locations, voting was brisk. At a landmark mosque near the city center in Kabul, a line snaked outside in the morning hours.
But at other sites, the threat of violence -- or disillusionment with the government and the prospects for fair balloting -- kept people away.
"The people I know are not voting," said an aid worker in the eastern city of Jalalabad, who gave only his first name, Ataullah. "The Taliban are scaring people."
At least two dozen people were killed in the run-up to the vote, including four candidates, and a number of campaign workers were abducted. Preliminary results will not be available for about two weeks, with a final certified tally due in late October.