KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan election observers said they had serious concerns about the legitimacy of this weekend's parliamentary balloting as officials began Sunday to tally the results — a process that could take months.
The vote holds a chance of redemption for a government that lost much of its credibility both with Afghans and its international backers due to a fraud-tainted presidential election a year ago. But charges that anti-fraud measures broke down mean the vote counting and investigation of complaints will have to be particularly rigorous to guarantee a legitimate outcome.
The country's international backers rallied around the government as polls closed Saturday, offering praise for those who voted despite bomb and rocket attacks and hoping for a democratic result, but the main Afghan observer group said the quality of the balloting was questionable.
The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said it “has serious concerns about the quality of elections,” given the insecurity and numerous complaints of fraud. FEFA, which is an independent group, deployed about 7,000 people around the country, making it the largest observer of the parliamentary vote. Many international observer groups scaled back their operations from last year because of security concerns.
At least 21 civilians and nine police officers were killed during the voting, according to the election commission and the Interior Ministry, amid 43 bomb explosions and 78 rocket strikes nationwide. In addition, two pollworkers were kidnapped in northern Balkh province and their bodies were discovered Sunday, Afghan election commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi told reporters.
The attacks appeared to have the desired effect, as many polling sites had light turnout. A number of polling stations were closed because of security problems, causing some in safer areas where voters went instead to run out of ballots.
The election commission has yet to provide an overall turnout figure but said Sunday that at least 4 million people voted, though they were still waiting for reports from some voting centers. That puts turnout at at least 24 percent of the country's 17 million registered voters.
Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in the presidential vote last year, though the widespread ballot-box stuffing means it was difficult to know how many people actually voted. The election commission said before Saturday's vote that its plan would allow a maximum of 11.4 million voters — an acknowledgment that turnout was not expected to be high.
Throughout Saturday's balloting, complaints that anti-fraud measures were being ignored or weren't working poured in from across the country. People said the indelible ink that is supposed to stain voters' fingers for 72 hours could be washed off. In some polling stations, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with obviously fake voter cards.
“Ballot stuffing was seen to varying extents in most provinces, as were proxy voting and underage voting,” FEFA said.
At a polling station in Sancery village in southern Kandahar province, one man said hundreds of people in his village of about 600 gave their voting cards to the village elder, who cast their ballots for them.
“My father asked me to give the card,” said Matiullah, who only gave one name. “This is what we did last time. Everyone submitted their card to the elder.” It was not possible to verify if the elder had been allowed to vote for the village.
Individual polling sites started counting ballots as soon as polls closed Saturday and 95 percent of them had completed that process by early Sunday, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the election commission. As they complete their counts, the tallies are sent to a center in the capital that will compile and release results over coming days.
Full preliminary results are not expected until early October, and then there will be weeks of fraud investigations before winners are officially announced for the 249 parliamentary seats, which were contested by about 2,500 candidates. The commission has said it hopes to release final results by the end of October.
There are likely to be a host of fraud complaints in each province — which could drag the process on even beyond that target date.
If the people don't accept the results of the vote, it could have a profound effect both inside the country and with Afghanistan's international backers, who have 140,000 troops in the country and have spent billions trying to shore up the administration of President Hamid Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency.
Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 poll, said violence was a possibility if voters feel disenfranchised. But he said he was also worried about the administration pushing through candidates regardless of accusations of fraudulent voting, which could lead to a rubber-stamp parliament in the hands of the government.
Violence continued on Sunday, with three rockets fired a meeting of senior officials in southern Kandahar province which was intended to rally support against the Taliban. The closest landed about 45 yards away from the meeting in Arghandab district, attended by the provincial governor and Karzai's brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who chairs the provincial council. No one was hurt.
In the north, an insurgent rocket attack killed six children in Ali Abad district of Kunduz province, the Interior Ministry said without providing further details.
Meanwhile, NATO forces said they killed seven insurgents in an attack Saturday targeting a Taliban commander at a village compound in volatile Nangarhar province in the east.
Ghafor Khan, the district police spokesman, said five people were killed and two wounded in the attack. He said investigators were determining whether the casualties were insurgents or civilians. NATO said its initial reporting was that no civilians were killed or hurt.
Afghan officials have repeatedly warned that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts.
NATO said three of its service members died in attacks in Afghanistan on Saturday. Two died in a bomb attack in the south and another in an insurgent attack in the north. Their nationalities were not disclosed.