AFGHANS have flocked to polling stations nationwide, in defiance of a threat of violence by the Taleban, in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.
The turnout yesterday was so high some polling stations ran out of ballot papers.
Excitement over choosing a new leader for the first time appeared to overcome the fear of bloodshed, as Afghans embarked on a major transition nearly 13 years after the United States-led invasion toppled the tyranny of the Taleban.
President Hamid Karzai, the only leader Afghanistan has known since the hardline Islamist movement was overthrown, is on his way out, barred by the constitution from a third term.
International combat troops are due to leave by the end of the year, leaving Afghans largely on their own to face what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taleban to regain power.
Men in traditional tunics and loose trousers and women clad in all-encompassing burqas waited in segregated lines at polls under tight security. At a Kandahar hospital-turned-polling station, the men’s queue stretched from the building, through the courtyard and out into the street.
In Helmand province, women pushed, shoved and argued as they pressed forward in a long line.
The vote is the first for Afghans in which the outcome is uncertain. Voters are choosing from a field of eight presidential candidates, as well as selecting provincial council members.
With three front-runners in the presidential race, a run-off is widely expected since no-one is likely to get the majority needed for outright victory.
“I went to sleep with my mind made up to wake up early and to have my say in the matter of deciding who should be next to govern my nation,” said Saeed Mohammad, a 29-year-old mechanic in the southern city of Kandahar.
“I want to be a part of this revolution and I want to fulfil my duty by casting my vote so that we can bring change and show the world that we love democracy.”
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country, searching cars at checkpoints and blocking vehicles from getting close to polling stations. Some voters were searched three times in Kabul, and text messages were blocked in an apparent attempt to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning. The Taleban has vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centres and election workers, and in the past weeks has stepped up attacks in the heart of Kabul.
A bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province yesterday, wounding two men, one seriously, according to local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
Rocket attacks and gun battles forced authorities to close an additional 211 polling centres, raising the total number shut because of security concerns to 959, according to the Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani. He said a total of 6,212 polling centres were open yesterday.
Karzai cast his vote at a high school near the presidential palace in Kabul.
“Today for us, the people of Afghanistan, is a very vital day that will determine our national future. We the people of Afghanistan will elect our provincial council members and our president by our secret votes,” he said.
After almost 13 years of war, Afghanistan is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of Karzai’s few successes. He has been heavily criticised for failing to end the endemic poverty or clean up the government in a country that Transparency International last year ranked among the three most corrupt in the world, alongside Somalia and North Korea.
Electoral officials have taken extra measures to prevent fraud after widespread vote-rigging in 2009 marred Karzai’s disputed re-election.
Strict protocols include barcodes on the ballot boxes delivered by lorry and donkey caravans to all 34 provinces, and plans to tally the results immediately after the vote closes and post a copy of the results at each centre.
The Taleban’s bloody campaign is a sign of the importance of the election. If turnout is high even in risky areas and Afghans participate in a successful election, the Taleban’s appeal could be undermined.
On Friday, veteran photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and reporter Kathy Gannon was injured when an Afghan policeman opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan.
The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners – Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister.
All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States which will allow thousands of foreign troops operating under the Nato banner to remain in the country to continue training security forces after 2014.
Women have played a more visible role in this election than in the past as concern is rising that women will lose many of the gains they have made after international forces withdraw, reducing the ability of the US and other western countries to pressure the government to work for equality.
Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, one of the presidential candidates, cast his ballot at a high school with his wife at his side – a rare occurrence in a country where male and female voters are segregated and where men rarely appear in public with their wives.
“It is a big honour that I have participated in this process and I ask all Afghan mothers, sisters and daughters to participate in this political process and have an active role,” said Sultanzai’s wife, Zohra.
Eight in the frame to succeed Karzai
Having gained 31 per cent of the vote as runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections, Abdullah has an advantage in being a recognised name with a political organisation behind him.
He was a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance commander famed for his resistance to Soviet occupation and the Taleban.
Abdullah has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks in the north, but his perceived weak support among Pashtuns – the largest ethnic group at 42 per cent – could keep him from gaining a majority, even though he is half-Pashtun.
A former foreign minister, Rassoul has been national security adviser and is seen as close to Karzai. He could end up being a consensus candidate among many political factions. A Pashtun, as is Karzai, he has a medical degree and is fluent in five languages, including French, English and Italian. He lived in Italy for many years with deposed king Zahir Shah, who died in Kabul in 2007.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Ghani is a former finance minister who ran in the 2009 presidential elections but drew just 3 per cent of the vote. A well-known academic with a reputation as a temperamental technocrat, Ghani chairs a commission in charge of helping transfer responsibility for security from the US-led coalition to Afghan forces. He also worked at the World Bank.
Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf
An influential former lawmaker and religious scholar, Sayyaf is one of the more controversial candidates among Afghanistan’s foreign allies because of his past as a warlord during the 1990s civil war and allegations of past links to jihadists including Osama bin Laden. As a Pashtun and charismatic speaker, he may appeal to the large number of religious conservatives.
Hedayat Amin Arsala
Born in Kabul to an influential family, Amin was the first Afghan to join the World Bank, in 1969. He worked there for 18 years before joining the fight against Soviet occupation.
Arsala later served as finance minister, briefly as foreign minister, and after the collapse of the Taleban was made commerce minister.
He also headed the Independent Commission of Administrative Reforms, the National Statistics Commission and the Economic Co-operation Committee. For years, he served as a senior adviser to Karzai.
An engineer by training with experience in Afghanistan’s defence ministry, Hilal once headed a military commission tasked with uniting jihadi organisations.
He twice served as first vice-president – in 1993 and 1996 – and also served as deputy prime minister. He has been endorsed by the leader of Hezb-i-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, considered a terrorist by the US and a target of the US-led coalition.
Gul Agha Sherzai
Earned the nickname of “the bulldozer” as public works and transport minister. Previously a mujahideen commander in Kandahar, he also has served as governor of Kandahar and later governor of Nangarhar. He was the only governor to meet US President Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai
A pilot by training, Sultanzai defected to Germany after the Soviet invasion and then settled in the US. He returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taleban and went on to serve as an MP. Sultanzai is also known as an Afghan political commentator and talkshow host.