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Low vote turnout raises questions of legitimacy

As the results in Afghanistan's bitterly contested election trickle out, Afghans are caught in a complex guessing game about who will be their next president and how solid his mandate will be.

world Updated: Aug 27, 2009 08:07 IST

As the results in Afghanistan's bitterly contested election trickle out, Afghans are caught in a complex guessing game about who will be their next president and how solid his mandate will be.

The gap between the main rivals in the race for the top job -- President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah -- appears to be widening in the incumbent's favour, though observers insist it is still too close to call.

The figures appear to suggest however that turnout was low -- around 30-35 percent -- raising questions about the legitimacy of the man who is declared president when final results are known in mid-September.

Afghanistan's second presidential election and a parallel vote for provincial councillors were held on August 20 under the shadow of scores of Taliban attacks, suicide bombings and, later, amputation of some voters' inked fingers.

Just two hours after the first results were released in Kabul on Tuesday, the southern city of Kandahar was rocked by a horrific suicide car bomb that killed more than 40 people and bore all the hallmarks of a Taliban attack.

Views on the legitimacy of the vote are mixed, with some commentators insisting such low turnout raises serious questions about what mandate a president with 50 percent of around five million votes can claim.

Others are as adamant that turnout of around five million -- of 17 million registered -- is proof Afghans are engaged in the democratic process and sent a clear message to the Taliban that their intimidation tactics were futile.

"I think Afghans have shown very clearly to the Taliban that despite the fear that was created before the election -- which was massive, with night letters, threats, attacks -- despite all of that they wanted to vote," said Nader Nadery, of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

"Even in very volatile environments, where there was fighting -- Baghlan, Logar, Paktia, Zabul, Helmand -- when the fighting stopped people went to polling stations and asked to be able to vote.

"Compare that response proportionately to the level of threat and fear from the Taliban, and the message to the Taliban is that your tactics haven't worked," he said.

In some areas of the country, however, the campaign of intimidation worked well enough to keep voters away almost entirely. In some militant strongholds, including Logar province south of Kabul, residents said turnout was negligible.

"In my village there are more than 6,000 people. Only seven voted," mechanic Mansour Stanikzai told AFP in the provincial capital Pul-i-Alam.

Analyst Haroun Mir said the Taliban's tactics successfully derailed the election and undermined the democratic process, which the international community has been eager to promote as suitable for the feudal, war-ravaged nation.

"The reason we had the election was to give legitimacy to the government, and we have failed in that goal," Mir said.

"The Taliban has cancelled it out, they forced people to remain in their homes, and "he said, adding the legitimacy of the final result" is put in question."

He said the slow release of the results, daily for 10 days, should give Karzai and his international backers -- the US and European Union, NATO and the United Nations -- time to cut a compromise with Abdullah.

"We could end up with a power-sharing situation, something like Lebanon. It is not healthy, because we don't have political parties," he told AFP.

"It is segregated -- Abdullah in the north, Karzai in the south, the Hazara and Uzbek votes up for grabs.

"This election has shown that Afghanistan remains strictly divided," he said, adding: "We are heading for political crisis."

Yet Nadery said the laborious process of releasing the results allowed Afghans to build confidence in a thorough and transparent counting process.

As the number of complaints -- 790 on polling day alone -- was being used by Abdullah to lambast the whole process as fraudulent in favour of his opponent, ordinary Afghans said they expected some problems in one of the world's most corrupt countries.

"There is no doubt that there would be a lot of fraud but a lot of the people I know and work with said they were supporting Karzai," said 28-year-old Kabul telecommunications engineer Mohammad Akbar.

Time spent waiting for the results was "extremely boring," he said, but added: "There is a lot of concern and worry that when the election result becomes final, whether or not it will be accepted."