Afghan voters turned out in large numbers yesterday, braving Taliban threats, to choose a successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the country’s first democratic transfer of power as US-led forces wind down their 13-year war.
Long lines formed outside polling stations in cities across the country, despite cold, wet weather, as voters cast their ballots at about 6,000 centers under tight security.
The Taliban have rejected the election as a foreign plot and urged their fighters to target polling staff, voters and security forces, but there were no major attacks reported in the early hours of voting.
The head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, said turnout was better than expected, without giving figures, but lower in rural districts than cities.
“We have had reports of ballot papers running low in some areas and have ordered regional and provincial centers to supply extra material,” he said.
In Kabul, hit by a series of deadly attacks during the election campaign, hundreds of people lined up in the open air to vote despite the insurgents’ promise of violence.
“I’m not afraid of Taliban threats, we will die one day anyway. I want my vote to be a slap in the face of the Taliban,” 48-year-old housewife Laila Neyazi said.
Poll security was a major concern following the attacks in Kabul, most recently a suicide bombing on Wednesday that killed six police officers.
However, a fatal blast was reported in Logar Province, south of Kabul, where one person was killed and two wounded, Mohammad Agha District chief Abdul Hameed Hamid said.
Nuristani said attacks or fear of violence had forced 211 of a total 6,423 voting centers to remain closed.
The day before the poll, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot dead by a police commander in Khost Province.
She was the third journalist working for international media to be killed during the election campaign, after Swedish journalist Nils Horner and Sardar Ahmad of Agence France-Presse. Afghan Minister of the Interior Omar Daudzai said all 400,000 of Afghanistan’s police, army and intelligence services were being deployed to ensure security around the country.
Afghans have taken over responsibility for security from US-led forces and this year the last of the NATO coalition’s 51,000 combat troops will pull out, leaving local forces to battle the resilient Taliban insurgency without their help.
In the western city of Herat, a line of several hundred people waited to vote at one polling station, while in Jalalabad in the east, voters stood patiently outside a mosque.
Voters also lined up in Kandahar, the southern heartland of the Taliban, with some women among the crowd in contrast to the 2009 election, when turnout was very low due to poor security.