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Sound Of Gunfire Adds To Afghan Voters' Fears

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hardin Lang is an election observer in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He works for Democracy International, which is a partner with USAID. And Mr. Lang, we heard from Jackie Northam that turnout was light in Kandahar. That conforms to what you've seen there?

Mr. HARDIN LANG (Election Observer, Democracy International): Yes. It's still early days for us to actually have a final count. But anecdotally, turnout was indeed light. A little heavier in the morning, but by the afternoon there were very, very few voters in the polling centers, and the streets were largely quiet and empty.

SIEGEL: And as for safety and, as best you can determine, fairness, what are your preliminary grades for the vote there?

Mr. LANG: On safety and security, that clearly was an issue in terms of turnout on the part of the population. Starting around 3 AM in Kandahar, we'd begun to hear everything from rocket fire to heavy machine-gun fire to potential mortar rounds coming in, and these came in at a fairly regular rhythm every 45 minutes or so and then sped up a bit at certain periods of time. So there was a general sense of tension in the city that lasted for a good chunk of the day. There was an assault on the governor's compound at one point with RPGs. So there was a palpable sense of tension in the city.

To give you one anecdote here, in almost every polling center we visited - and there were a total of about 17 - very few people queued actually outside of the center. They would be rushed inside of the center, which are - were walled, usually. And after having cast their vote, would leave the center and not mill around the streets and sort of discuss results in a sort of traditional Afghan way.

SIEGEL: You're saying because it was presumed to be dangerous to be doing that.

Mr. LANG: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Given what you and other observers have actually been able to observe, the turnout and the security situation that you've described, on balance, how do you describe this election or the part of it that you've seen? Is it a reasonable test of what the people of Kandahar want to see or is it under too much stress to pass for that?

Mr. LANG: Well, it would be difficult for me to speak on behalf of the people of Kandahar at this point. And I think we'll need to wait and see for the results to come out how the people of Kandahar city react.

But today's event stand in marked contrast to those of 2004, where the turnout throughout the city was quite strong. If I were a citizen of Kandahar, today would have been a day that I would have hoped to have been in the streets with the ability to move about freely and fairly without concern for my own personal security, vote, and then return to my home. And that's not the ambient environment that one sensed on the street today in Kandahar.

SIEGEL: Do you get the sense, and perhaps this is speculative, that people will see legitimacy in the result of this election in the same way that they did the last time around given the different situation?

Mr. LANG: Again, here, it's difficult in terms of making a definitive characterization - but the true test of legitimacy here will be whether or not people feel as though they had an opportunity for their voice to be heard. And if there is a sense that the security situation precluded the population from having an opportunity to express that voice, relative to other parts of the country, then we get into some reasonably dangerous territory, regarding the sense of legitimacy of the local population here in Kandahar with respect to the elections. And if you look at voter turnout here in Kandahar, if what we saw today anecdotally on the streets plays itself out in the final count, one can only imagine the situation was, in all likelihood, much less generous in the countryside where the security situation is still more severe.

SIEGEL: Hardin Lang, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LANG: My pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: Hardin Lang is an election observer in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He works for the group Democracy International, which is a partner with USAID. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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