Afghans defy threat of violence to vote in historic election
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Despite isolated attacks aimed at deterring voters, an estimated seven million Afghans lined up on Saturday to cast their ballots in the country’s historic presidential election.
Fears of wide-spread violence by the Taliban failed to materialise and the biggest problem seemed to be a shortage of ballot papers that left many still waiting to cast their vote when polling was due to close.
The country’s Independent Election Commission reacted by ordering the vote to be extended by at least an hour, with ballot papers being dispatched to where they were needed.
Earlier in the day, however, a roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded two others in the southern city of Qalat as they were returning from a polling station. Four voters were also injured in an explosion at a separate polling station in the country’s south-eastern province of Logar.
Meanwhile, police in the northern province of Faryab said they had arrested a would-be suicide bomber trying to enter a polling station, while in Ghazni, in the southeast, a volley of rockets was fired but landed far from a voting centre.
Organisers appeared to have been caught by surprise by the high turnout, estimated at about 58 per cent of the 12 million eligible voters, according to election commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani.
The Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, had sworn to derail the election and branded it a US-backed sham. It warned civilians they would be targeted if they tried to vote, and at least 10 percent of polling stations were expected to be shut due to security threats.
Nevertheless, the election, in which eight candidates are standing, should result in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power in recent history, as Hamid Karzai leaves the presidency after more than 12 years. He had served two terms and was barred under the constitution from seeking a third.
“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 me.”
More than 350,000 Afghan troops were on duty guarding against attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, has been sealed off from the rest of the country by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.
Most foreign observers left Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly attack on a hotel in Kabul last month.
The day before polls opened, a veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior AP correspondent was wounded when a man in police uniform shot them as they reported on preparations for the election in eastern Afghanistan.
The National Directorate of Security intelligence agency said it had arrested a man and seized a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and police uniforms from a house in Kabul hours before the election began.
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 a Taliban attack.
“We are trying not to think about it, but it’s a bit of a concern,” she said.
Risk of delayed result
The vote is expected to go more smoothly than the country’s previous presidential election in 2009, which saw Karzai re-elected amid widespread allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing.
Even so, it could take many months – possibly until October – for a winner to be declared at a time when the country desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as foreign troops prepare to leave.
If no single candidate wins more than 50 percent, the two with the most votes go into a run-off on May 28, extending the process into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when life slows to a crawl.
A long delay would leave little time to complete an agreement between Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 US troops in the country beyond 2014, after the bulk of the American force, which stands at around 23,500, has pulled out.
Karzai rejected the agreement but the election’s three frontrunners – former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani – have said they will sign it. Without the pact, weak Afghan forces would be left on their own to fight the Taliban, which has mounted an increasingly bold campaign against the Kabul government.
Uncertainty over the outcome could also stall crucial foreign aid and economic reform, foment ethnic tensions and leave a political vacuum in which the Taliban could gain ground.
The election is a landmark after 13 years of struggle to end an insurgency that has claimed the lives of thousands.
Having been backed by the United States at the outset, Karzai’s relations with Washington became increasingly strained in later years as Afghan casualties mounted, and frustration grew over a perceived failure to put more pressure on neighbouring Pakistan to quell the Taliban insurgency.
Billions of dollars in aid have poured in, bringing fragile gains in infrastructure, education and health to one of the world’s most destitute nations. The United States alone has spent more than $90 billion on aid and on training Afghan forces.
Although Karzai’s departure is a turning-point for Afghanistan, none of his would-be successors would bring radical change, Western diplomats say.
“The only positive thing in this election is that it is necessary to save the state as it is, and therefore there is a need to transfer power one way or the other,” says Sarah Chayes, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Whether the election will be the great transformative event that everybody expects - [that] ...is, I think, delusional.”
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)