KABUL, Afghanistan — Deep-seated voter discontent, calculated attempts to rig the vote and widespread Taliban intimidation Saturday marred Afghanistan's parliamentary election, which was considered a bellwether for America's troubled campaign to stabilize the war-weary nation.
While Taliban attacks killed at least 14 people across Afghanistan, international observers and top Afghan officials praised the imperfect election as a tentative sign of progress one year after widespread fraud tainted Afghanistan's presidential vote.
However, amid reports of widespread voter fraud, the nation's leading election watchdog group said that it had "serious concerns about the quality" of the election and called on the country's leaders to investigate.
Many disillusioned Afghans ignored Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plea to take part and said their political system isn't working.
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"This has a negative impact on democracy," said Mir Usman, an election observer for one of the 2,500 Afghan politicians taking part in the vote to select 249 lawmakers for the country's largely ineffectual lower house of parliament.
Major polling places in key parts of the country appeared empty throughout the day.
Elections officials estimated that 3.6 million Afghans took part in the election, down from about 6 million who turned out for last year's more significant presidential election.
Afghanistan's Free and Fair Election Foundation, an independent watchdog group that sent 7,000 observers to polling sites around the nation, said there'd been serious security problems at nearly 400 of the country's 5,300 polling places that were open.
The group's observers reported ballot stuffing in most provinces and "a worrying number of instances" of government officials interfering with voting to try to help their allies. Polling centers were blown up in three provinces and captured by militants in three others, the group said.
Despite the problems, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Fazil Ahmad Manawi, declared that for the most part, "I would rate this election successful."
Karzai's contested victory last fall created a crisis of confidence in Afghanistan that Saturday's vote was meant to help the country transcend.
Western officials leading efforts to quash the Taliban-led insurgency were hoping that a credible election process would provide a boost for their efforts to shore up the shaky Afghan government.
Nearly 140,000 U.S.-led forces are stepping up their fight against the Taliban as an increasing number of Americans are questioning the country's leading role in the nine-year-old war.
President Barack Obama has pledged to begin bringing U.S. troops home next July, and Saturday's election comes three months before Obama is due to receive a new review of his Afghan strategy that could dictate the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul praised Afghans for taking part in the election amid the Taliban threats, but said that "the results and quality of the election will not be immediately evident."
"The United States will support the Afghan independent electoral institutions as they do their work in the coming weeks, including carrying out thorough measures to detect and adjudicate fraud."
On Election Day, Afghanistan's independent Tolo TV station released a poll showing that less than 20 percent of the country's residents thought the vote would be transparent.
International election observers said that the process still faces another critical test as the Independent Election Commission counts the votes and releases final results in six weeks.
"What we observed today, in terms of the integrity of that institution, it seems that they've taken a step forward, but they still have a large task ahead of them, so the coming weeks will be very telling," said Jed Ober, the chief of staff in Afghanistan for Democracy International, an international elections monitoring group that dispatched 80 observers to 14 of the country's 34 provinces.
One of the most closely watched provinces was Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan — and site of an escalating U.S.-led military campaign to break the insurgency's resolve.
Karzai's polarzing half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was accused last year of helping his brother rig the vote in Kandahar, where he serves as the head of the provincial council.
This year, Kandahar officials set up one polling place in President Karzai's old elementary school in the village of Karz, a stronghold for his Popalzai tribe.
Even there, however, there was little enthusiasm for democracy or politicians.
Last year, more than 4,000 people from the area were reported to have turned out to vote in the fraud-tainted presidential race, said polling station manager Agha Sherin.
This year, Sherin said at midday, fewer than 400 people voted at the polling station, including nine women who were all either election officials or independent monitors.
The low turnout "is because of the gap between the local people and the government," said 67-year-old Karz voter Amanullah Main. "Nothing was done by the government for these people. The government never kept its promises."
Fraud took place on at least the scale of the discredited presidential election of last year, according to independent election monitors in Kandahar who requested that they not be named for fear of their safety.
They said that they'd witnessed the observers of candidates at voting centers bargaining to buy the observers of other candidates, and also making deals to buy votes.
In several districts, ballot boxes were taken to private houses after the vote, depending on who had influence in that area.
In Spin Boldak and some other districts, several polling stations didn't exist at their official addresses.
McClatchy reporters were shown a jerky video taken on a mobile phone, taken at the Taimoor Shah High School, in central Kandahar, which appeared to show an election official helping himself to around 10 ballot papers, which were individually torn off from the ballot book and given to him.
After voting closed Saturday, McClatchy reporters tried to enter the school but was denied entry by the police present, saying they had no permission to let anyone in.
Another widespread problem arose when Afghan voters discovered that the indelible ink meant to deter fraud was easy to wash off.
"I washed my finger with bleach and the ink is gone," said Gul Mohammad, 25, an English teacher in Kabul, holding up a clean index finger. "If I had a fake voter card, I could have voted again."
Officials in neighboring Helmand province said they arrested one Afghan woman with more than 1,500 fake voter ID cards. In nearby Paktia province, officials arrested another man with an equal number of fake voting documents.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article from Kabul, Afghanistan and Muhib Habibi from Kandahar.)
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