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High turnout, low violence buoy Afghans

Elections called success; results due April 24

KABUL — After enduring months of Taliban attacks and days of security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of this weekend’s presidential 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. 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 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 the day of the election did not keep people from voting.

Kabul bore the brunt of the preelection 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.

In the northern province of Kunduz, a roadside bomb hit a truck transporting ballot boxes Sunday, killing three people, the Associated Press reported.

Afghanistan has about 20,000 polling stations nationwide, some in very remote areas. The Independent Election Commission said preliminary results were due April 24.

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

The question was how many. The 2009 election in Afghanistan was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and other fraud. Turnout that year was about 38 percent, 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.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is among the presumed top three candidates, said Sunday “the scale of fraud is not massive.”

The other top contenders are Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai’s main rival in 2009, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, said to be Karzai’s choice to succeed him.

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. But the candidates were circumspect about the scope of the fraud and declined to name specific candidates who had supposedly benefited.

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