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Voters head to the polls in Afghanistan

April 5, 2014 at 6:19 PM EST
Millions of voters came out for the presidential elections in Afghanistan on Saturday in the country’s first democratic transfer of power since the Taliban were ousted from power. The scene varied throughout the country with violence reported in some areas and ballot shortages in others. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Kevin Sieff, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Kabul.
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HARI SREENIVASAN:  Millions of voters came out for the presidential elections in Afghanistan on Saturday in the country’s first democratic transfer of power since the Taliban were ousted from power. The scene varied throughout the country with violence reported in some areas and ballot shortages in others. What was it like at the polls today? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Kevin Sieff, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Kabul, about what he observed on the ground and the candidates vying to replace President Hamid Karzai.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about today’s voting in Afghanistan we’re joined now from Kabul by Kevin Sieff; he’s the Washington Post’s bureau chief there. So you were out at the polls today, what were the scenes like?

KEVIN SIEFF: You know I think it depends where you were in Afghanistan today. In Kabul the lines were very long, lots of men and women voting. In some places they actually ran out of ballots there were so many people who wanted to vote. But where I spent most of the day, in Wardak Province about 70 miles south of Kabul, there were very few voters, quite a bit of sort of small scale Taliban violence and people worried about the insurgence potentially punishing voters after casting their ballots. So I think it really varied across the country pretty wildly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about the leading candidates?

KEVIN SIEFF: Leading candidates are Ashraf Ghani who’s a former World Bank official, Johns Hopkins professor, Ph.D from Columbia University who ran in 2009 and I think got around 3 percent of the votes, did very very poorly. But this time has managed to really galvanize a huge number of Afghan voters, in part by choosing a very controversial vice president — a warlord named Dostun — who is very, very popular with certain ethnic groups, but has a sort of sketchy history. The other candidate who is doing very well is doctor Abdullah Abdullah who also ran in 2009, did very well, came in second to Karzai. And Abdullah is the most prominent Tajik candidate, maybe the most prominent Tajik in the country at this point and will do very well in the first rounds. But the question is in a country where the majority of the population are ethnic pashtuns, will Abdullah an ethnic Tajik be able to win the election — that seems unlikely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so you have one candidate that is favored by Hamid Karzai and he’s the one that’s trailing in the polls and has a vice presidential candidate that’s a women.

KEVIN SIEFF: Yeah, I mean Karzai has not publicly articulated any kind of preference. There is widespread perception that he’s favoring Doctor Zalmai Rassoul, his former foreign minister. But it’s unclear exactly what that preference would mean if it in fact was true. But yeah, Rassoul is a French educated physician, he has a female vice president which would obviously be very historic thing in Afghanistan. But according to the polls which of course aren’t precise in Afghanistan, he is in a distant third.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If one of these candidates comes into power, is there a difference in policy likely that will keep U.S. troops on the ground longer?

KEVIN SIEFF: You know it’s been a bit of a guessing game from at the U.S. embassy to figure out you know would there be a real difference in the way these guys would govern, the way they would deal with the U.S. and the international community. At this point they’ve all said almost exactly the same thing, which is that they understand that a good relationship with the U.S., with the West, is actually crucial to the future of Afghanistan. Of course, we heard Hamid Karzai say that a few years ago, and obviously he speaks very differently now. So the question is once these guys are elected, will they sort of change their tune. I think it’s very hard for an Afghan leader because you have to balance the sort of the importance of stressing Afghan sovereignty, which Karzai has done, with the recognition that this country will actually implode without foreign funding, especially without American funding.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright Kevin Sieff, Washington Post bureau chief in Kabul. Thanks so much.