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Afghanistan votes as 'the time of the gun is over'

Mir Zaman, brother of Commander Deedar, a jihadi leader who was disqualified from the election, led dozens of the warlord's followers in a charge against a line of police protecting the Electoral Complaints Commission on Wednesday. 2005

Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail

Afghanistan elected a parliament for the first time in a generation as sporadic violence, disappointing turnout and logistical challenges failed to stop the war-ravaged country's unsteady transformation into a democracy.

Millions of people yesterday ignored threats from the old warlords and Taliban chiefs who once ruled this place at gunpoint, often braving minefields and walking for hours through the dust to cast a ballot.

Though there were reports of violence flaring across the country, the incidents were no worse than on a typical day. "The time of the gun is over," said Malik Mohammed Ismail, 63, a farmer wearing a turban and a long, white beard, as he emerged from a polling station in the village of Kamari, on the outskirts of Kabul.

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Statistics about the number of people who voted won't be available until today at the earliest, officials say, and final results aren't expected until late October. Last night, about 1,200 of the country's 6,200 polling centres still hadn't reported whether they even opened their doors.

But organizers were already calling the day a success.

"We have today taken another great step toward a good democracy," said Peter Erben, chief electoral officer for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body.

Insurgents who continue to fight for the fundamentalist Taliban regime, toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001, promised to disrupt the elections and warned people to stay away from the polls. Some of the disgruntled warlords who fought the Taliban and later refused to give up their guns also threatened to sabotage the vote.

Gunmen shot at 19 polling centres, mostly in the early morning when polls were preparing to open. Three people were injured in those shootings, while at least 10 others reportedly died in other attacks. A three-hour gun battle erupted near the Pakistan border, two rockets hit a UN warehouse and a large clock packed with explosives was found in a desert north of Kabul, apparently part of a foiled plan to blow up a voting centre.

Logistics added to the day's problems, with scattered reports of glitches, but officials expressed pride at the smoothness of an operation that involved 5,800 candidates, difficult terrain and an electorate in which four out of five people can't read. Transporting the paper ballots, which were oversized to accommodate pictures and symbols to represent the many candidates, required a fleet of modern vehicles as well as 1,247 donkeys, 300 horses, and 24 camels.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundations of Afghanistan, the largest observer group with 7,000 trained people across the country, said the election was mainly fair but had lower turnout than last year's presidential election.

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Last October, 70 per cent of eligible voters endured long lines to vote for president. These elections were generally considered less compelling, as voters faced ballots filled with names of warlords, drug dealers, former communist leaders and leftovers from the Taliban regime. At stake were 249 seats in the parliament, called the Wolesi Jirga, and positions on councils in each of the 34 provinces.

It also remains unclear how much power the parliament will have, under a system controlled largely by President Hamid Karzai, who is backed by the United States.

"Last time, I voted for Karzai but with no result," said Mujib Tanha, 25, one of Afghanistan's many unemployed. "This time, I'm not voting."

To motivate voters, candidates such as Arif Zarif turn to local strongmen. Usually that means relying on village elders, business owners and tribal leaders to tell their people to get out and vote. Yesterday morning, however, that meant the candidate's son Mohammed Nabi, 34, visited the strongmen at a bodybuilding club in a suburb of Kabul.

Coach Hamayoun Sakhi Zada and manager Mushtaq Kasimi greeted the candidate's son with smiles and bone-crushing handshakes. "We are picking people up, delivering them to the polling stations in our cars," Mr. Kasimi said. "We give you 300 votes, at least."

Mr. Nabi's father built a fortune by selling rawhides and sausage casings, he said, and he spent a good chunk of money yesterday to hire 60 buses for transporting voters to the polls.

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Bumping around the rutted roads of Mr. Zarif's district, Mr. Nabi passed several of his competitors mounting ferrying operations in beat-up sedans and pickup trucks.

His father has put a lot of effort into the campaign partly because he wants to defeat the unsavoury candidates, Mr. Nabi said.

"The Communists were looters and murderers," he said. "So our people went to the mountains and fought them. Then those people came back, and they looted and murdered. Now the people are ready for something new."

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