Thursday, August 20, 2009

Afghanistan Elections: Polling Day - FCO Blogger - Lisa Bandari

Lisa Bandari - First Secretary Political Kabul

I’ve just returned from a visit with the Ambassador to a polling centre in an Ismaili religious compound in Taimani, an area of Kabul, feeling exhilarated. The polling centre was busy. There were long queues outside the male and female stations, and searches before they were allowed to enter. As ever, I was flattered when the policeman on the gate mistook me for the interpreter, but tried to remember the Dari for ‘international observer’, as I wasn’t sure he could read the card I handed him.

The male and female polling stations were at different ends of the compound. Male voters were queuing in the sunshine to vote in a small tent, while the women had the better deal, voting in a building.

The women’s queue was lively, with lots of chatting. Female security staff joined hands to form a kind of cordon to keep them in check. There was a slight scuffle with one woman in the queue, and some remonstrating. I flashed my international observer card to get past the Afghan police and female staff into the centre, feeling slightly nervous about not having my male Afghan colleague with me to interpret. But I needn’t have worried.

In the centre itself, everyone was very friendly, asking me where I was from, and politely answering my questions. It was orderly and well staffed, despite having twelve cardboard polling screens crammed into one room, and lots of polling centre staff. The voters queued up in two neat rows, and entered three or four at a time. They registered showing their cards and were given two ballot papers, one for presidential and one for provincial council elections. The latter was like a small book, with over 500 candidates on the ballot. The voters disappeared behind the cardboard before carefully depositing their ballots in the ballot boxes. A stern female member of staff circulated, checked who I was, and generally kept things in order.

A line of earnest candidate agents with badges drooped round their necks watched the process keenly, clutching pens and forms. Two of them told me they were representing Abdullah, and one Karzai, and three were there on behalf of provincial council candidates. A male Spanish journalist wandered in amongst the bustle, and stood looking slightly bemused. Everyone seemed to ignore him.

I found it very heartening to see the various papers and posters on voting procedures finally come to life in a real polling centre, with engaged voters, and IEC staff who seemed to know the process. The high numbers of young women were particularly encouraging.

Reports from colleagues out on the ground suggests similar impressions in Kabul – an orderly, calm, if slightly less excited atmosphere, and IEC staff following procedures. We’re hearing reports of hole punches being a problem, and some concerns about the ink, but otherwise cautious optimism on the process so far.

Am keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the day, but I feel privileged to have been a very small part of a very important process.

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