Afghans defy Taliban threat in droves to vote in crucial presidential election

The Associated Press

Afghan men line up for registration process before they cast their votes at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

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By AMIR SHAH and MIRWAIS KHAN, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power. The turnout was so high that some polling centers ran out of ballots.

The excitement over choosing a new leader for the first time appeared to overwhelm the fear of bloodshed in many areas, as Afghans embarked on a major transition nearly 13 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the rule of the Taliban.

President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the Islamic movement was ousted, is on his way out, constitutionally barred from a third term. International combat troops are leaving by the end of the year. And Afghans are left largely on their own to face what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power, even as authorities face higher public demands to tackle entrenched poverty and corruption.

Men in traditional tunics and loose trousers and women clad in all-encompassing burqas waited in segregated lines at polls under tight security. At a Kandahar hospital-turned-polling station, the men's line stretched from the building, through the courtyard and out into the street. In Helmand province, women pushed, shoved and argued as they pressed forward in a long line.

The vote is the first for Afghans in which the outcome is uncertain. Voters are choosing from a field of eight presidential candidates, as well as selecting provincial council members. With three front-runners in the presidential race, a runoff was widely expected since none is likely to get the majority needed for an outright victory.

"I went to sleep with my mind made up to wake up early and to have my say in the matter of deciding who should be next one to govern my nation," said Saeed Mohammad, a 29-year-old mechanic in the southern city of Kandahar. "I want to be a part of this revolution and I want to fulfill my duty by casting my vote so that we can bring change and show the world that we love democracy."

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country, searching cars at checkpoints and blocking vehicles from getting close to polling stations. Some voters were searched three times in Kabul, and text messages were blocked in an apparent attempt to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centers and election workers, and in the past weeks they stepped up attacks in the heart of Kabul to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas.

On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously, said local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.

Rocket attacks and gunbattles forced authorities to close an additional 211 polling centers, raising the total number that weren't opened because of security concerns to 959, said Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani. He said in all, 6,212 polling centers were opened on Saturday.

Nouristani also confirmed that some polling centers had run out of ballots but said authorities were addressing the shortfall. They also extended voting by an hour, to 5 p.m. local time (1230 GMT) to accommodate everybody standing in line.

"We have received complaints about it and we have already sent ballot papers to wherever needed," he said.

Most polling stations closed as planned after nearly 10 hours of voting.

Electoral workers wearing blue vests with the logo of the Independent Election Commission pulled the paper ballots out of boxes and carefully showed them in footage shown live on national television.

Partial results are expected as soon as Sunday.

Karzai cast his ballot at a high school near the presidential palace.