SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan | In the months leading up to Afghanistans second presidential election, there was growing optimism the country was shifting away from ethnic patronage toward a newer kind of issues-based politics.
As Afghans went to the polls Thursday amid reports of low voter turnout, sporadic violence and fraud, anecdotal evidence suggested that former warlords still wield heavy-handed influence that could ultimately decide who wins.
Taliban threats kept many voters away, especially in the south, and insurgent attacks killed 26 people across the country. After 10 hours of voting, including an hourlong extension, a top election official told the Associated Press that about 40 percent to 50 percent of the country’s 15 million registered voters cast ballots. Seventy percent voted in the 2004 presidential election.
The Afghan people braved “rockets, bombs and intimidation and came out to vote. We’ll see what the turnout was, but they came out to vote. That is great,” President Hamid Karzai said. He said militants carried out 73 attacks in 15 provinces, the AP reported.
A U.S. service member was killed in a mortar attack in the east Thursday, bringing to at least 33 the number of U.S. troops killed this month.
Moments after casting his vote for Mr. Karzai, 72-year-old Qari Maqsud, an Afghan Uzbek stone mason in Shiberghan, said he did so because of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. The notorious militia leader called on all his supporters to vote for the incumbent at a homecoming rally earlier in the week.
On Sunday, Gen. Dostum returned from a months-long exile in Turkey, to the dismay of the United States and human rights groups who say he is responsible for brutalities.
“I would vote for that tree over there if the general asked me to,” Mr. Maqsud said, without a trace of humor in his voice.
Similar sentiments were echoed by dozens of residents interviewed around the predominantly ethnic Uzbek stronghold, which accounts for about 9 percent of the countrys total population. “We only vote with Dostum,” said Khodaie Berdeh, 34, a shopkeeper.
His burly image omnipresent in shops and city walls, Gen. Dostum claims he can deliver at least 500,000 votes to Mr. Karzai. If true, this would make him the single most influential of Mr. Karzais heavyweight backers.
According to Gen. Dostum, an agreement to support Mr. Karzai was hammered out over two months of talks with the Hezb-e-Wahdat, a mainly Hazara Shi’ite party led by Mohammad Mohaqiq, a mujahedeen commander.
Gen. Dostum would not elaborate on what kind of guarantees he was given, but many suspect hell receive a Cabinet post and the cancellation of an inquiry into purported political violence against a rival.
Mr. Mohaqiq, for his part, has been very public about his deal in exchange for top jobs and a redrawing of provincial borders in central Afghanistan in favor of the Hazara.
With exit polls showing Mr. Karzai six points shy of the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a run-off, their combined vote banks could prove critical to his re-election prospects.