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Afghan vote far exceeded expectations, according to early tallies

An Afghan worker of the Independent Election Commission sorted ballot boxes.

EPA

An Afghan worker of the Independent Election Commission sorted ballot boxes.

KABUL, Afghanistan — After enduring months of Taliban attacks and days of security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of this weekend’s election, as officials offered the first solid indications that the vote had far exceeded expectations.

Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between 7 million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.

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At least some of the votes are expected to be disqualified for fraud, but if the numbers hold up, they would buttress anecdotal accounts of Afghans voting in large numbers Saturday in what was the country’s first wide-open election, with at least three of the eight candidates considered contenders to replace President Hamid Karzai. Afghan and Western officials, including Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations’ top election official, had said turnout above 40 percent would be an excellent result.

High turnout would represent a sharp public repudiation of the Taliban, which had pledged to disrupt the election and had warned Afghans to stay away from the polls. Though the insurgents did manage a number of high-profile attacks in the weeks before the election — striking a voter registration center, the election commission headquarters and Kabul’s only luxury hotel, among other targets — preliminary tallies indicated that millions of Afghans ignored those threats, and that the limited violence on Election Day did not keep people from voting.

Kabul bore the brunt of the pre-election violence, and the city’s downtown emptied out in the days leading up the vote as Afghan forces set up numerous checkpoints, making it difficult for residents to go a few blocks without being questioned.

The security forces remained out in force Sunday, but the city felt transformed. Shops reopened and bazaars again bustled with commerce. Traffic was back to crawling along thoroughfares, and drivers were once again laying on their horns — an obnoxious habit in ordinary times, perhaps, but a welcome sound of normalcy Sunday.

Afghan election observers backed up the numbers offered by election officials, as did Western diplomats, though the latter struck a more cautious tone. But both said some votes would invariably be thrown out because of fraud.

The question was how many, and whether Afghanistan would see a repeat of the 2009 election, which was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and other fraud. Turnout that year was about 38 percent though some estimates put it lower, and the memory of what happened that year still hovers here, giving many reason to hesitate before declaring this weekend’s vote an unqualified success.

It took days for the full extent of the problems with the 2009 election to emerge, and the ensuing political crisis lasted months, souring relations between Karzai and the United States, embittering many Afghans and helping fuel a Taliban insurgency that was gaining momentum.

Turnout is only one part of ensuring that the events of 2009 will not be repeated. Avoiding a political crisis remains a challenge, as well: All three leading candidates asserted that fraud had been committed on behalf of their opponents Saturday and Sunday and said they were filing complaints with a commission that is charged with adjudicating electoral disputes. But the candidates and their campaign workers were circumspect about the scope of the fraud and declined to name specific candidates who had supposedly benefited.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is among the presumed top three candidates, said in an interview Sunday that “the scale of fraud is not massive.” He added: “It is concentrated in specific locations, candidate agents of specific campaigns have been captured by the relevant security forces, and evidence has been gathered by independent monitors, by the commission and by campaigns.”

He also said he believed he was leading the tally. “All indications are that we are in the lead — by how much needs to be determined by the relevant authorities,” he said.

But the focus for many people Sunday was on what had happened the day before, which seemed to surprise a country that had braced itself for a bloody day.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said that when he heard of people flocking to polling stations in the morning, his first thought was of how an attack “is going to be the end of that.”

Instead, voting persisted and large-scale attacks did not materialize, even in areas where violence and Taliban intimidation had kept many Afghans at home in 2009 and during parliamentary elections a year later, observers and officials said.

As an example, Nadery cited reports of relatively high turnout in the Andar district of Ghazni province, where only three people voted in 2010. An anti-Taliban uprising has since helped push the insurgents back from some villages, but the area is still considered far from secure.

“What we were hearing there was that 2010 was a lesson for people that if they don’t participate, they don’t get represented,” said Nadery, who was among the chief critics of the fraud that pervaded the last two elections here.

Saturday’s election was not perfect. Voting was limited or simply did not take place in many rural districts in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest. But in other areas, especially in southern provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, years of fighting by U.S.-led forces and, more recently, Afghan soldiers and police officers appeared to have paid off, at least for a day.

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