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Leading article: Still far from representative democracy

It is early days yet; elections in Afghanistan – at least the counts – have a habit of going on and on. But the initial signs from the country's second parliamentary election are not encouraging. Compared with the first parliamentary election, five years ago, or the presidential election last year, the cause of electoral democracy has hardly advanced. Indeed, it may have taken a step back.

The level of participation, estimated at around 40 per cent, was not as low as had been feared, but it was down by a fifth on 2005. The palpable enthusiasm for voting that was so uplifting then was almost completely absent this time around. More dispiriting still was the extent of alleged fraud and the evidence of incompetence in the way the vote was run.

There were reports of many polling stations, even in Kabul, not opening on time; one in six did not open at all. The ink used to ensure people voted only once was ineffective in many places, prompting claims of multiple voting. There were also reports of forged voting cards, bribery and votes being bought, plus the suggestion, in advance of the election, that among the increased number of women candidates were some standing as "puppets" for powerful male patrons.

There was also violence. The bodies of three members of the Independent Electoral Commission, kidnapped in Balkh province, were found yesterday, bringing to 17 the number known to have been killed on election day. More than 20 people, including four candidates, were killed during the campaign.

All that said, there were positive aspects, including the fact that the violence and intimidation was less than many had predicted and that the election was held at all. Polling day had originally been set for May, but was postponed for security and financial reasons. For all their threats to derail the process again, the Taliban failed to prevent the election taking place, except in some of their known strongholds, while the turnout overall makes the vote just about legitimate. And more candidates – around 2,500 – contested the 249 seats on offer than last time around.

That polling day has been and gone without as much disruption as had been feared, however, does not mean that all the dangers inherent in this election are in the past. The extent to which voters sense the election to have been fraudulent will largely determine whether the results are accepted or not. A long and divisive stalemate would carry almost as many risks as if the election had not been held at all.

The other imponderable – which, in a way, is a positive sign – is the result. Distorted by fraud or not, the final tally will demonstrate the relative strength or weakness of President Hamid Karzai and the stability, or otherwise, of the Afghan state. And the unpalatable truth is that a relatively good result for democracy might be a relatively bad result for state stability. For while more votes for opposition candidates could suggest progress towards a more representative political system, a result that strengthened Mr Karzai's position might be more likely to hasten the necessary talks with the Taliban than one that left him weak and fearful for his authority.

Audible since voting ended have been international efforts to reduce expectations. The UN special representative in Afghanistan said that the election was still an election, even if it might well not "fit in with the Western ideal of democracy", while the Nato representative and former British ambassador in Kabul said "the future of Afghanistan remains one where violence cannot overthrow the democratic will of the people". Behind these modest aspirations lies the hope that Afghanistan will soon be stable enough for foreign troops to leave without precipitating a bloodbath. Unfortunately, the passage of these elections suggests that the time may be several years, not months, away.