Afghan President Hamid Karzai holds up his inked stained finger after voting in the presidential election in Kabul. Photo by Reuters
Afghanistan's presidential election has closed amid relief
that attacks by Taliban fighters were fewer than feared for a
vote that will bring the first-ever democratic transfer of
power in a country plagued by conflict for decades.
It will take six weeks for results to come in from across
Afghanistan's rugged terrain and a final result to be
declared in the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai.
This could be the beginning of a potentially dangerous period
for Afghanistan at a time when the war-ravaged country
desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as foreign
troops prepare to leave.
"Today we proved to the world that this is a people driven
country," Karzai, wearing his trademark green robe and a
lambskin hat, told his nation in televised remarks.
"On behalf of the people, I thank the security forces,
election commission and people who exercised democracy and
... turned another page in the glorious history of
One of the eight candidates will have to score over 50
percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with his nearest
Thankfully, the Taliban threat to wreck the vote through
bombings and assassination failed to materialise, and violent
incidents were on a far smaller scale than feared.
Turnout was seven million out of 12 million eligible voters,
or about 58 percent, according to preliminary estimates,
election commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told
That was well above the 4.5 million who voted at the last
election in 2009 which was marred by widespread fraud.
"I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks," said
Haji Ramazan as he stood in line at a polling station in
rain-drenched Kabul. "This is my right, and no one can stop
The United States could point to the advance of democracy in
one of the world's most violent countries as a success as it
prepares to withdraw the bulk of its troops this year.
It has spent $90 billion on aid and security training since
helping Afghan forces to topple a strict Islamist Taliban
regime in 2001, but U.S. support for Afghanistan's fight
against the Taliban has faded.
When the last election was held, the Obama administration had
viewed Afghanistan as the "good war" - unlike Iraq - ordering
a 'surge' of over 60,000 additional soldiers to be deployed.
Yet as U.S. troops get ready to go home, the Taliban threat
and uncertainty over neighbour Pakistan's intentions leave
the worry that Afghanistan could enter a fresh cycle of
violence, and once again become a haven for groups like al
During Saturday's election, there were dozens of reports of
minor roadside bombs, attacks on polling stations, police and
voters. In the eastern province of Kunar alone, two voters
died and 14 were wounded, while 14 Taliban militants were
Interior Minister Umer Daudzai said nine policemen, seven
soldiers, 89 Taliban fighters were killed in the past 24
hours across the country, adding that four civilians were
Dozens died in a spate of attacks in the preceding weeks. A
veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior
correspondent of the same news agency was wounded on Friday
when a policeman opened fire on the two women in the east as
they reported on preparations for the poll.
KABUL SEALED OFF
Most people had expected the election to be better run than
the chaotic 2009 vote that handed Karzai a second term.
The constitution barred Karzai from seeking another term.
But, after 12 years in power, he is widely expected to retain
influence through politicians loyal to him.
Former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay
Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani were
regarded as the favourites to succeed Karzai.
More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed, guarding
against attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital,
Kabul, was sealed off by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.
In the city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency,
the mood was tense. Vehicles were not allowed to move on the
roads and checkpoints were set up at every intersection.
Hamida, a 20-year-old teacher working at a Kandahar polling
station, said more than a dozen women turned up in the first
two hours of voting and added that she expected more to come
despite the threat of an attack by the Taliban.
"We are trying not to think about it," she said, only her
honey-brown eyes visible through her black niqab.
Raising questions about the legitimacy of the vote even
before it began, the election commission announced that at
least 10 percent of polling stations were expected to be shut
due to security threats, and most foreign observers left
Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly attack on a hotel in
Kabul last month.
In some areas of the country voters complained that polling
stations had run out of ballot papers. The interior ministry
said six officials - including an intelligence agent - were
detained for trying to rig the vote, and elsewhere several
people were arrested for trying to use fake voter cards.
RISK OF DELAY
If there is no outright winner, the two frontrunners would go
into a run-off on May 28, spinning out the process into the
holy month of Ramadan when life slows to a crawl.
A long delay would leave little time to complete a pact
between Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops
in the country beyond 2014.
Karzai has rejected the pact, but the three frontrunners have
pledged to sign it. Without the pact, far weaker Afghan
forces would be left on their own to fight the Taliban.
The election is a landmark after 13 years of struggle that
has killed at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands
more soldiers. Nearly 3,500 members of the U.S.-led coalition
force have died since deployment in the country over a decade
Karzai's relations with the United States became increasingly
strained as Afghan casualties mounted. He also voiced
frustration with Washington over a lack of pressure on
Pakistan to do more to stop the Taliban based in the
Although his departure marks a turning point, none of his
would-be successors would bring radical change, diplomats
"Whether the election will be the great transformative event
that everybody expects is, I think, delusional." Sarah
Chayes, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace told a media briefing on the eve of the
vote. (Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and
Sarwar Amani in KANDAHAR; Writing by John Chalmers and Maria
Golovnina; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)