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Voting brisk in Afghan north but optimism tempered

Even in one of Afghanistan's safest, most progressive regions, the men and women who lined up to vote in Thursday's presidential election kept a check on their optimism.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even in one of Afghanistan's safest, most progressive regions, the men and women who lined up to vote in Thursday's presidential election kept a check on their optimism.

There was broad agreement that the insurgency that has infected other parts of the country, especially the south, could soon reach Afghanistan's north without proper leadership from the central government.

"We're afraid," said Umaira Abdul-Fatah, a 32-year-old woman voting in Mazar-i-Sharif. "Hopefully, God will bring peace to our country."

The voters came in steady numbers, though an Associated Press team stopping at several polling sites did not see large crowds. Men generally outnumbered women.

As voting wound down, polling site officials said the process been peaceful, but turnout was lower than they had hoped.

Breshna Keramat, the top election official at a girls' high school in the northern city said voters had arrived in a steady stream in the morning, but many fewer came in the afternoon.

"I expected more. I am disappointed," Keramat said. She estimated about 3,000 people voted at her site, where she had planned to receive about 10,000.

Nearly every voter who was willing to divulge their chosen candidate Thursday mentioned Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and President Hamid Karzai's chief rival. The north is considered Abdullah's stronghold.

The candidate's Tajik ties and his background as a member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance fighters gives him a leg up in this city and surrounding Balk province, where many Tajiks live. The governor of the province, Atta Mohammad Nur, is popular and a Tajik.

However, officials and experts are reluctant to predict which way the city or even the north will swing — partly because of the return last weekend of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Karzai ally who has strong backing among Uzbeks — also numerous in the north

Still, voters interviewed Thursday dismissed fears that a win by Karzai — or allegations of fraud that would undermine Abdullah — could prompt violent reactions.

"If there is fraud, the people might do something — they'll defend their rights, but not with violence," said Fereshteh Ahmadi, a 20-year-old Abdullah-backer.

Exact figures are difficult to nail down, but officials and observers say that relative to other parts of the country, the north has flourished in many ways since 2001.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, especially on the outskirts, construction is proceeding at a rapid pace. The city is lively at night, and men and women — plenty of the latter in fashionable, though still modest, clothing — walk easily through the streets.

Alexandre Brecher, a U.N. spokesman in the region, said there's significant private investment from nearby countries such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Criminality is more of a problem than militancy, Brecher said.

"The north, for many people in Afghanistan, is the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. Northerners "know there will be some corruption in this election, but they believe in democracy."

Several voters on Thursday said that while they were grateful there was progress in their region, they felt the central government could have done much more for the north.

"We have a lot of resources," said Ahmad Fahim, a 25-year-old schoolteacher, as he lined up minutes after polls opened at Balkh University. "The next president needs to pay more attention to the north."

Najib Paikan, a prominent radio journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif, said many people he'd spoken to in the area believed they must vote to prove to the rest of the world that Afghans can develop a healthy democracy.

"The northerners have to do it because the south can't," he said.