KABUL: Millions of Afghans turned out to vote Saturday in a presidential run-off election despite Taliban threats and violence that killed nearly 50 people ahead of the withdrawal of NATO troops later this year.
Afghan officials said more than seven million people voted, a higher than expected turnout of 52 percent based on an estimated electorate of 13.5 million voters. But fraud allegations were likely from both campaign teams after the election, and a close count could lead to a contested result as the country undergoes its first democratic transfer of power.
The election will decide whether former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani leads the country into a new era of declining international military and civilian assistance. On the campaign trail, both candidates had offered similar pledges to tackle rampant corruption, build much-needed infrastructure and protect citizens from violence. Polling day saw no major attacks in cities, but at least 150 other incidents including a Taliban rocket that hit a house near a polling station in the eastern province of Khost, killing five members of the same family.
“Eleven police, 15 ANA (Afghanistan National Army) and 20 civilians were martyred,” Interior Minister Omar Daudzai told reporters, adding that about 60 militants were also killed in fighting.
“Election security was better than the first round despite level of threats being higher,” he said. “People voted to reject the militants. There were some casualties on our side, but the enemy has failed.”
Independent Election Commission chief Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani admitted there had been problems with ballot paper shortages, as in the first round election in April. President Hamid Karzai is due to step down after ruling Afghanistan since 2001, when a US-led offensive ousted the austere Taliban regime for sheltering Al-Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks.
“We are very proud to be choosing our favourite candidate,” he said after voting. “Today Afghanistan goes from a transition period towards long-lasting peace.”
A smooth handover would be a major achievement for the international effort to establish a functioning state after the depredations of the Taliban era.
Afghan officials said the day was proof that the security forces, who have been trained by the US-led military coalition, will be able to protect the country when all NATO-lead combat troops exit Afghanistan this year.
Both candidates cast their ballots in Kabul, dipping a finger in ink to register that they had voted. “We do not want even one fraudulent vote for us,” Abdullah told reporters, while Ghani said via Twitter: “We ask everyone to prevent, avoid and discourage people from rigging.”
On the eve of the run-off, UN head of mission Jan Kubis had issued a stark warning to candidates’ supporters not to resort to the ballot-box stuffing that marred the 2009 election when Karzai retained power.
The two candidates came top of an eight-man field in the April election, triggering the run-off as neither reached the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory. Abdullah secured 45 percent of the vote with Ghani on 31.6 percent, after investigations into fraud claims from both sides.
“I want someone who can improve our economy, create jobs and improve our lives,” said Janat Gul, 45, a shopkeeper voting in Kabul. “If the economy is good there will be no insurgency, everyone will be busy working, not fighting.”
Harsh terrain and poor roads make holding an Afghan election a logistical challenge, with thousands of donkeys used to transport ballot boxes to remote villages.
Counting the ballot will take weeks. The preliminary result is due on July 2 and a final result on July 22.
Ahead of the vote, the Taliban had threatened to kill voters and officials, saying the election was an American plot “to impose their stooges”.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office, has fulfilled his pledge not to interfere in the election - in public at least - though he is tipped to retain influence after handing over power.
His relationship with the US soured badly, and the next president is likely to reset ties by signing a long-delayed pact for some US troops to remain on a training and counter-terrorism mission after this year.
Last month President Barack Obama said that if the pact is signed, 9,800 of the 32,000-strong US deployment would stay in 2015.
On Saturday the US-led NATO military mission said it provided one medical evacuation and several “shows of force” after requests from Afghan forces.
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