More than 7 million Afghans voted to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai yesterday, braving attacks that killed at least 46 as the war-torn country strives to complete its first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.
Abdullah Abdullah, who won the most votes in the first round of the election on April 5, is trying to stave off ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in a runoff. Voting ended at 4 p.m. local time, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, told reporters in Kabul. Partial election results will start to be released from July 2, with final results announced July 22.
The winner faces the challenge of boosting growth in one of Asia’s poorest economies while fighting Taliban insurgents as the U.S. reduces troops in the country.
“The courage and resolve of the Afghan people to make their voices heard is a testament to the importance of these elections to securing” the country’s future, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration said in a statement, calling the vote “a significant step forward on Afghanistan’s democratic path.”
‘Peace and Stability’
Twenty civilians, 15 soldiers and 11 policemen were killed in at least 150 militant attacks throughout the country that wounded more than 40 others, Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai told reporters in Kabul. Dozens of militants were killed and wounded, he said.
Abdullah survived a recent suicide attack in Kabul that killed six people, underscoring the risk of violence after the Taliban vowed to disrupt the vote.
Some of the attacks targeted polling stations, while others consisted of rocket launches and roadside bombs, according to Daudzai. About 400,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces were deployed to help with security.
The Taliban in a June 11 statement called for “nonstop” attacks on election day “so that the enemy is paralyzed and this process is aborted.” Fresh elections must be held if a presidential candidate dies before the declaration of election results, according to the constitution.
Karzai, constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term, called the election “successful” while offering condolences for victims of the violence.
“Afghans once again moved Afghanistan towards stability and prosperity by casting their votes,” Karzai said in an e-mailed statement.
More than 23,000 polling stations were open and at least 140 remained shut due to security challenges, he said.
“The challenge for the government is how to safeguard the vote from fraud,” said Shukria Barekzai, a member of parliament.
Abdullah won 45 percent of more than 7 million votes on April 5, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Turnout was twice what it was in the previous presidential election in 2009. A runoff was necessary because no candidate took more than 50 percent of votes.
“We can only hope that the losing party accepts the outcome of the election with responsible behavior,” Abdullah Ahmadzai, deputy country representative in Kabul for the Asia Foundation and former chief of Afghanistan’s election commission.
Abdullah and Ghani have vowed to sign a security pact with the U.S. immediately after taking office. Karzai has delayed signing the deal, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, which is needed to keep U.S. troops in the country beyond this year and secure billions of dollars in pledged aid.
Obama said last month that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year, with only a small security assistance force at the embassy by the end of 2016, when he will be preparing to leave office.
Ghani and Abdullah have picked up endorsements from other candidates after the first round and both say they are confident of winning. Abdullah received the backing of third-place finisher Zalmai Rassoul, whose vice presidential candidate is backing Ghani.
Abdullah, 53, is half Pashtun and half Tajik. As foreign minister under Karzai, he was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero for fighting against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.
Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002-2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.
Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“Ethnicity plays a critical role in determining the fate of a candidate,” Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said in a phone interview. “Votes could be split among ethnic lines.”