Relief after largely peaceful Afghanistan poll

Turnout estimated at 58 per cent for vote that will bring historic democratic transfer of power

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 16:31

Afghanistan’s presidential election drew to a close today 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 per cent 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 per cent, 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.“

The United States could point to the advance of democracy in one of the world‘s most violent countries as a success as it prepares to withdraw the bulk of its troops by the year-end.

Having spent $90 billion on aid and security training since helping Afghan forces to topple a strict Islamist Taliban regime in 2001, American support for Afghanistan‘s ongoing fight against the Taliban has faded.

When the last election was held five years ago, the Obama administration had viewed Afghanistan as the “good war“ - unlike Iraq - ordering a ‘surge‘ of over 60,000 additional soldiers to be deployed.

Yet as US troops get ready to go home, the abiding Taliban threat and uncertainty over neighbour Pakistan’s intentions leave the worry that Afghanistan could enter a fresh cycle of violence, and once again become a haven for groups such as al-Qaeda.

During today’s election, there were dozens of reports of roadside bombs, attacks on polling stations, police and voters. In the eastern province of Kunar alone, two voters died and 14 were wounded, while 14 Taliban militants were killed.

However, there were no large-scale attacks by the Taliban on an election it saw a US-backed sham and had vowed to derail.

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 yesterday when a policeman opened fire on the two women in the east as they reported on preparations for the poll.

Kabul sealed off

Most people had expected the election to be better run than the chaotic 2009 vote that handed Mr Karzai a second term amid massive fraud and ballot stuffing.

The constitution barred Mr Karzai from seeking another term. But, after 12 years in power, he is widely expected to retain influence through politicians loyal to him.

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