KABUL: Millions of Afghans turned out to vote yesterday in a presidential run-off election despite Taliban threats and violence that killed nearly 50 people ahead of the withdrawal of Nato troops later this year.
Officials said more than seven million people voted, a higher than expected turnout of 52 percent based on an estimated electorate of 13.5 million voters.
The result, due out next month, will decide whether former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani leads Afghanistan into a new era of declining international military and civilian assistance.
On the campaign trail, both candidates offered similar pledges to tackle rampant corruption, build much-needed infrastructure and protect citizens from violence.
The high turnout may lend legitimacy to the winner if the gap between the two candidates is clear, but Abdullah and Ghani immediately raised fraud allegations after the polls closed and a close count could mean a contested outcome.
A smooth handover in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power would be a major achievement for the 13-year US-led effort to establish a functioning state after the depredations of the Taliban era.
The polling day saw no major attacks in cities, but at least 150 security incidents including a Taliban rocket that hit a house near a polling station, killing five members of the same family.
“Eleven police, 15 ANA (Afghanistan National Army) and 20 civilians were martyred,” Interior Minister Omar Daudzai told reporters, adding that about 60 militants were also killed in fighting. “Election security was better than the first round despite level of threats being higher,” he said. “People voted to reject the militants. There were some casualties on our side, but the enemy has failed.”
Eleven voters in the western province of Herat had their fingers — which were dipped in ink to register their ballot — cut off by insurgents, Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi said on his Twitter account.
Afghan officials said the day was proof that the security forces, who have been trained by the US-led military coalition, will be able to protect the country when all foreign combat troops exit Afghanistan this year.
“I am not making any prediction, but initial study looks very good for us,” Abdullah said after polls closed, adding: “We know there has been fraud, you have seen it, we have seen it.”
Ghani, who also stuck a confident note, called for a full investigation into vote-rigging, saying “unfortunately there were cases of security forces involved in fraud, we have the evidence.”
On the eve of the run-off, UN head of mission Jan Kubis had issued a stark warning to candidates’ supporters not to resort to the ballot-box stuffing that marred the 2009 election when President Hamid Karzai retained power.
Karzai is due to step down after ruling since 2001, when a US-led offensive ousted the austere Taliban regime for sheltering Al-Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks.
US Ambassador James Cunningham congratulated voters, but warned “allegations of fraud need to be addressed”.
The two candidates came top of an eight-man field in the April first-round election, triggering the run-off as neither reached the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory.
Abdullah secured 45 percent of the vote with Ghani on 31.6 percent. “I want someone who can improve our economy, create jobs and improve our lives,” said Janat Gul, 45, a shopkeeper voting in Kabul.
“If the economy is good there will be no insurgency, everyone will be busy working, not fighting.” Harsh terrain and poor roads make holding an Afghan election a logistical challenge, with thousands of donkeys used to transport ballot boxes to remote villages.
Counting the ballot will take weeks. The preliminary result is due on July 2 and a final result on July 22.
Ahead of the vote, the Taliban had threatened to kill voters and officials, saying the election was an American plot “to impose their stooges”.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office, has fulfilled his pledge not to interfere in the election — in public at least — though he is tipped to retain influence after handing over power. His relationship with the US soured badly, and the next president is likely to reset ties by signing a long-delayed pact for some US troops to remain on a training and counter-terrorism mission after this year.
Last month US President Barack Obama said that if the pact is signed, 9,800 of the 32,000-strong US deployment would stay in 2015.
Priorities for the incoming president will be to stabilise the faltering economy as aid falls, and a fresh attempt to bring peace after decades of war by exploring peace talks with the Taliban.