Afghans braved threats of violence today to cast ballots in an election that may mark the nation’s first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.
Eight candidates competed to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has delayed signing a pact that’s needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond this year. At least 54 Taliban militants were killed in a clash with Afghan national police while they were trying to target some polling centers in eastern Ghanzni province, according to the interior ministry.
“The question of who wins is less important than the question of what they can do to restore order once in power,” said Anna Larson, who co-wrote a report on voter perceptions sponsored by Chatham House, a London-based research group. “For Afghans, the true test of these elections is whether they can help secure a peaceful transition, or whether in fact they contribute to future insecurity.”
Front-runners for the presidency are former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, ex-foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah, the runner up in 2009 who also served as the country’s top diplomat. All have pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the U.S.
“This is a pivotal moment after more than a decade of sacrifice and struggle,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an April 2 statement. “The peaceful handover of power will be just as important as the progress achieved over the past decade in building a stronger, more secure and prosperous Afghanistan.”
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said polling has ended and the counting process has started. “Some polling sites were running out of papers due to the wider participation of public,” Ziaulhaq Amerkhil, chief elector officer of the IEC, told reporters in Kabul.
Preliminary results will be announced on April 24, according to the IEC, with the final tally scheduled for May 14. As many as 12 million Afghans at home and 8 million living in other nations were eligible to vote.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes -- a scenario the head of U.S. forces in the country views as probable -- a run-off between the top two candidates would take place around the end of May.
The Taliban had vowed to use “all force” to disrupt the process monitored by more than 260,000 people and costing Asia’s poorest economy and its allies $136 million. Over the past month, the Taliban has killed at least 25 people in Kabul, including policemen, election officials and foreigners.
An Afghan policeman shot two female foreign journalists working for the Associated Press yesterday while they were reporting on a convoy carrying materials to a polling site, Baryalai Rawan, a spokesman for the governor in Khost province, said by phone. German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and Canadian Kathy Gannon is seriously wounded, according to the Associated Press.
More than 10,000 domestic observers and 250,000 candidate and party agents were accredited to monitor the polls, and they were to be joined by “several hundred” international observers, according to data from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
The economy has expanded eightfold since 2001 to $20.5 billion and infant mortality has declined 33 percent, while school enrollment has risen to 7.8 million from 1 million in 2002, official data and figures from the World Bank show.
“Election day will determine the fate and destiny of our country,” Karzai said in an April 3 televised address. “Wider participation reflects the people’s strong determination in continuing the democratic system of the country, and reflects a strong message of defiance to those who think violence would disrupt our people’s determination.”