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Afghan turnout high as voters defy the Taliban

Election officials counted paper ballots at the end of voting in Kandahar, as Afghans flocked to the polls.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Election officials counted paper ballots at the end of voting in Kandahar, as Afghans flocked to the polls.

KABUL — Defying a campaign of Taliban violence that unleashed 39 suicide bombers in the two months before Election Day, Afghan voters on Saturday turned out in such numbers to choose a new president and provincial councils that polling hours were extended nationwide.

Militants failed to mount a single major attack anywhere in Afghanistan by the time polls closed, and voters lined up despite heavy rain and cold in the capital and elsewhere.

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“Whenever there has been a new king or president, it has been accompanied by death and violence,” said Abdul Wakil Amiri, a government official who turned out early to vote at a Kabul mosque. “For the first time, we are experiencing democracy.”

After 12 years with President Hamid Karzai in power, and decades of upheaval, coup, and war, Afghans on Saturday were for the first time voting on a relatively open field of candidates.

Election officials said that by midday more than 3.5 million voters had turned out — already approaching the total for the 2009 vote. The election commission chairman, Mohammad Yusuf Nuristani, said the total could reach 7 million. “The enemies of Afghanistan have been defeated,” he declared.

But even as they celebrated the outpouring of votes, many acknowledged the long process looming ahead, with the potential for problems all along the way.

International observers, many of whom had fled Afghanistan after a wave of attacks on foreigners during the campaign, cautioned that how those votes were tallied and reported would bear close watching.

It is likely to take at least a week before even incomplete official results are announced, and weeks more to adjudicate Election Day complaints. Some of the candidates were already filing fraud complaints Saturday.

With eight candidates in the race, the five minor candidates’ shares of the vote made it even more difficult for any one candidate to reach the 50 percent threshold that would allow an outright victory. A runoff vote is unlikely to take place until the end of May at the earliest.

The leading candidates going into the vote were Ashraf Ghani, 64, a technocrat and former official in Karzai’s government; Abdullah Abdullah, 53, a former foreign minister who was the second biggest vote-getter against Karzai in the 2009 election; and Zalmai Rassoul, 70, another former foreign minister.

Both Ghani and Abdullah praised the vote. “A proud day for a proud nation,” Ghani said.

Still, a shortage of ballots at polling places was widespread across the country by midday Saturday, and some voters were in line when polls closed.

More worrisome, the threat of violence in many rural areas had forced election authorities to close nearly 1,000 out of a planned-for 7,500 polling places, raising fears that a big chunk of the electorate would remain disenfranchised — although in at least some of those areas voters were able to seek more secure voting places.

But when it came to attacks on Election Day, the Taliban’s threats seemed to be greatly overstated. Only one suicide bombing attempt could be confirmed — in Khost — and the bomber managed to kill only himself when the police stopped him outside a polling place.

In three scattered attacks on polling places, four voters were reported killed. Two rockets fired randomly into the city of Jalalabad wounded three civilians, none of them even voting age. One border police officer, in southern Kandahar province, and another officer in Farah province were confirmed killed in Taliban attacks.

Overall, it was a lower casualty toll than a normal day in Afghanistan.

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