Dismay over sliding turnout for Afghan poll

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The Independent Online

The US military commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, had rashly predicted a record turn-out ahead of the polls. Some suggested the lower figure meant Afghans were growing disillusioned with democracy less than a year into the experience.

Many Afghans braved threats and intimidation from the Taliban, who vowed to disrupt the elections. Although the Talian said they would not target polling stations, they were thought to have threatened voters in their heartlands in the west and east. Afghan women faced threats from hardliners who objected to women having the vote.

Turn-out may have been lower because Sunday's election will have no direct effect on who is president or on the make-up of the government. Afghanistan's political system is based on the US, with a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. In last year's US presidential elections, turn-out was 60.7 per cent, but in 1998's election for Congress, when the presidency was not up for grabs, it was just 36.4 per cent -- far lower than in Afghanistan.

There were other factors that may have contributed to the lower turn-out. Voters in Kabul may have been put off by the sight of the election posters bearing the scowling face of Abdul Rabb Sayyaf, a warlord whose forces massacred hundreds of Kabul residents in the nineties, and who is accused of crimes against humanity by Human Rights Watch. Mr Sayyaf is the most notorious of a considerable number of former warlords who stood in the elections in provinces around the country.

Voters may also have been bewildered by the sheer number of candidates standing. In Kabul there were 340 candidates standing for just 33 seats in parliament, and voters had to wade through page after page of ballot papers to find the candidate of their choice.

It is likley that intimadation also played a part, especially in the Taliban heartlands in the south and east of the country.

Nato, which is in command of peacekeeping troops in Afghanisyan, yesterday claimed that the Taliban insurgency would decline after the elections passed without major attacks. "What I believe is the degree of violence will decrease," said Nato's assistant secretary-general, Alessandro Minuto-Rizzi.

The US made precisly the same optimistic prediction after the presidential elections last year -- and since then Afghanistan has seen its bloodiest year since 2001, with at least 1,200 people killed and the Taliban-led insurgency back with a vengeance.