Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power. Despite scattered attacks across the country by Taliban fighters, turnout was so high that some polling centers ran out of ballots.
With polls now closed, the excitement over choosing a new leader 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.
Despite the Taliban threat, turnout was seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or about 58 percent, 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 this time refused to be cowed by the armed group.
President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the ouster of the Taliban, is on his way out --constitutionally barred from a third term. International combat troops are leaving by the end of the year.
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
"I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote," she said. "I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election."
Results won’t be in for another six weeks. Even then, one of the eight candidates will have to score over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with his nearest rival on May 28, spinning out the process into the holy month of Ramadan, when life slows to a crawl.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday issued a statement that read: “I congratulate the millions of Afghans who enthusiastically participated in today’s historic elections, which promise to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history and which represent another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces.”
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.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners — Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister.
All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country to continue training security forces after 2014 — which Karzai has refused to do.
The candidates differ on some issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.
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.
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 March 20, Taliban fighters managed to get past strict security at a luxury hotel in Kabul. They opened fire in a restaurant, killing nine – including a prominent Afghan journalist, his wife and two of his children.
On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously, according to local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
Authorities closed 959 polling centers due to rocket attacks and gun battles, according to Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani. He said in all, 6,212 polling centers were opened on Saturday.
During Saturday's election, in the eastern province of Kunar alone, two voters died and 14 were wounded, while 14 Taliban militants were killed.
After nearly 13 years of war that has killed at least 16,000 Afghan civilians and thousands more soldiers, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of Karzai's few successes.
Karzai's relations with the United States became increasingly strained in recent years as Afghan casualties mounted, and he voiced frustrated that Washington was not putting enough pressure on Pakistan to stop the Taliban, who base themselves in borderlands.
Although his departure marks a turning point, none of his would-be successors would bring radical change, diplomats say.
"Whether the election will be the great transformative event that everybody expects is, I think, delusional." Sarah Chayes, a South Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told a media briefing on the eve of the vote.
Still, the mood on the Afghan street reflects a cautious optimism. Mohammad Aleem Azizi, a 57-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul, said he voted to re-elect Karzai in the last election in 2009 but has been disappointed.
"Security deteriorated, insecurity is getting worse day by day," he said. "I want peace and stability in this country. I hope the new president of Afghanistan will be a good person."
Al Jazeera and wire services