Afghans live out democracy dream
Mohammed Umar yesterday returned to his alma mater, the Alam Faizad School in central Kabul, for the first time since the ousting of the Taleban to cast his vote in Afghanistan's landmark National Assembly and Provincial Council elections.
'When I was studying here, even in my wildest dreams I hadn't imagined that one day I would come to my school as a free person to cast my vote in an election,' said the unemployed 24-year-old.
Mr Umar had no qualms about revealing his choice of candidate - the 25-year-old basketball player Sabrina Saqeb - even though his companions announced they had voted for opposition leader Yunus Qanooni.
Despite accusations by Mr Qanooni that his supporters were not being allowed to vote, the polls appeared free, fair and orderly.
Mr Umar explained his choice of candidate. 'She's young, she has new ideas, and she will help the younger generation,' he said. 'If she gets into the National Assembly, she's someone I can approach and talk to about my problems.'
This first-time voter's immediate need, like so many other Afghans, was to find work. 'Unless you know someone important, you don't get a job, you just keep wandering around,' he said.
But he also has greater expectations from the National Assembly, which was the main reason he disregarded neighbourhood talk that the election was a sham.
'People said the voting is just a charade, that the United States military has already decided who will get into the National Assembly,' he said. 'But this is our first-ever legislature, so we must vote and find out if it functions according to our expectations.'
Mr Umar said he would like the assembly to ensure Afghanistan becomes a sovereign state, and that there is no return to bloodshed.
'Mr Karzai's government is too much under US pressure, we want genuine freedom and peace,' he said.
He also dreams of economic sovereignty for the nation. 'We must build factories, not like now where most of the goods being sold in shops are from China or Pakistan,' he added.
Even though polling stations across Afghanistan opened at 6am, the voter turnout remained uneven, and some polling stations that had witnessed long queues in the presidential poll last October looked almost deserted.
Women voters appeared especially scarce. Five hours after opening time, for instance, two women's polling stations at the Ministry of Women's Affairs that had recorded a heavy turnout last year had polled only six and eight votes respectively this time.
Was it disinterest or fear that kept the voters away? The night before the poll, Kabul was eerily quiet. Even on voting day there was hardly any traffic on the roads.
Rumours had circulated that the Taleban would chop off all 'blue fingers', the right-hand index finger marked with indelible ink at polling stations that were meant to prevent fraudulent voting.
People outside one polling centre watched bemused as a bearded motorcyclist slowly puttered past shouting: 'These are all gangsters, traitors; they're all puppets of the US and the UN.'
Ingila, a 12th-year school student who had just cast her vote, tried to explain voters' sentiments.
'No one in this country is without worry,' she said. 'Politicians promise a lot, but do not fulfil their promises. [President Hamid] Karzai said he would build homes, increase teachers' salaries, but he has done nothing.'
Less than a year after the presidential election, a degree of disillusionment with democracy appears to have affected Afghan voters.
Much will depend now on whether the National Assembly can become a credible institution that gains people's trust.
Hope has not been fully forsaken.
Ingila's companion, Gulalay, a housewife draped in the all-enveloping blue burqa that was mandatory for women during the days of Taleban rule, said: 'We came to vote because we feel the National Assembly will make a difference.'
Neither Ingila nor Gulalay though attached much significance to the fact that a quarter of the seats in the new legislatures were reserved for women.
'Women aren't going to be able to do very much in the assembly,' said Gulalay. 'This country has always been governed by men.'