KABU, Afghanistan —Afghanistan's presidential election drew to a close on Saturday amid relief that attacks by Taliban fighters were fewer than feared for a vote that will bring the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country plagued by conflict for decades.
"I congratulate all Afghans for this successful and historic election," said Election Secretary Zia-ur-Rahman, as counting got underway. "People participated beyond our expectations."
Due to Afghanistan's rugged terrain it will take six weeks for results to come in and a final result to be declared in the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai. Even then one of the eight candidates will have to score over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with his nearest rival.
Despite the Taliban threat, turnout was seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or about 58 percent, according to preliminary estimates, election commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani said. That was well above the 4.5 million who voted at the last election in 2009, as voters refused to be cowed by the militants.
"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."
Voting was largely peaceful with only isolated attacks on polling stations as a country racked by decades of chaos embarked on its first ever democratic transfer of power.
A roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded two others in the southern city of Qalat as they were returning from a polling station, while four voters were wounded in an explosion at a voting center in the southeastern province of Logar.
There were no reports of more serious attacks on an election that Taliban insurgents had vowed to derail, branding it a U.S.-backed sham, and many voters said they were determined to make their voices heard despite the threats.
The United States, having spent $90 billion on aid and training for Afghan security forces since it helped vanquish the Taliban in 2001, could point to its success promoting democracy as a major step towards leaving a more stable country.
But the abiding Taliban threat and uncertainty over neighbor Pakistan's intentions leave the worry that Afghanistan could enter a fresh cycle of violence, and once again become a haven for groups like al-Qaida, after the bulk of U.S. troops leave by the year-end.
Most people expect the election will be better run than the chaotic 2009 vote that handed Karzai, a second term amid massive fraud and ballot stuffing.
The stronger the next president's mandate, the less vulnerable Afghanistan could be to instability. One major concern is that it could take several months 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.
KABUL SEALED OFF
There are eight candidates, with former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul, and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani the favorites.
Karzai is barred by the constitution from running for the presidency again. But, after 12 years in power, he is widely expected to retain influence through politicians loyal to him.
The Taliban warned civilians ahead of the election they would be targeted if they try to vote, and dozens died in a spate of attacks in the preceding weeks.
A veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and a senior correspondent of the same news agency was wounded on Friday when a policeman opened fire on the two women in eastern Afghanistan as they reported on preparations for the poll.
"The people of Afghanistan must answer the enemy's violence by using their vote. By casting your vote you reject fighting and confirm the peace," Interior Minister Umer Daudzai said on Twitter as the election began.
More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed, guarding against attacks on polling stations and voters. The capital, Kabul, was sealed off by rings of roadblocks and checkpoints.
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 an attack by the Taliban.
"We are trying not to think about it," she said, only her honey-brown eyes visible through her black niqab.
Raising questions about the legitimacy of the vote even before it began, the election commission announced that at least 10 percent of polling stations were expected to be shut due to security threats, and most foreign observers left Afghanistan in the wake of a deadly attack on a hotel in Kabul last month.
In some areas of the country voters complained on Saturday that polling stations had run out of ballot papers. The interior ministry said six officials — including an intelligence agent — were detained for trying to rig the vote, and elsewhere several people were arrested for trying to use fake voter cards.
RISK OF DELAY
If none of the candidates wins over 50 percent of Saturday's vote, the two frontrunners would go into a run-off on May 28, spinning out the process into the holy month of Ramadan when life slows to a crawl.
A long delay would leave little time to complete a pact between Kabul and Washington to keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014, after the bulk of the American force, which currently stands at around 23,500, has pulled out.
Karzai has rejected the pact, but the three frontrunners have pledged to sign it. Without the pact, far weaker Afghan forces would be left on their own to fight the Taliban.
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 that has killed at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more soldiers. Nearly 3,500 members of the U.S.-led coalition force have died since deployment in the country over a decade ago.
Karzai's relations with the United States became increasingly strained in recent years as Afghan casualties mounted, and he voiced frustrated that Washington was not putting enough pressure on Pakistan to stop the Taliban, who base themselves in borderlands.
Although his departure marks a turning point, none of his would-be successors would bring radical change, diplomats say.
"Whether the election will be the great transformative event that everybody expects is, I think, delusional." Sarah Chayes, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told a media briefing on the eve of the vote.
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