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Afghan voters defy Taliban to vote for new president

Sydney Morning Herald - April 6, 2014

Joshua Partlow, Kabul They huddled in the rain under plastic sheeting. They ignored death threats and rattling fire fights. After weeks of violence and tension, Afghan men and women turned out in larger numbers than expected to choose a new president.

Conducted under armed guard, the country's third presidential election since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 unfolded without the large-scale attacks or major disruptions that many Afghans had feared. As the process now moves to a vote count that could take weeks and, potentially, to a second-round run-off, voters and observers expressed relief that Saturday had ended in relative peace.

"Today we proved to the world that this is a people-driven country," outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, wearing his trademark green robe and a lambskin hat, told his nation in televised remarks. "On behalf of the people, I thank the security forces, election commission and people who exercised democracy and... turned another page in the glorious history of Afghanistan."

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 which was marred by widespread fraud. "The turnout was far beyond what we had imagined," senior Afghan election official Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail said.

The election brings Afghanistan a step closer to the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the modern history of the country, where presidents and kings more often leave dead or deposed.

And for the first time since September 11, 2001, the incoming leader will not be Mr Karzai. Whoever takes over the presidential palace, however, will face a thriving Taliban insurgency, deeply ingrained government corruption and the need to negotiate a future relationship with the departing US, which has propped up and paid for the Afghan government and its soldiers and police for a dozen years.

The most obvious early problems in Saturday's election were that some polling stations appeared to run out of ballots and that in rural areas where the insurgency is strong, many people were too frightened to vote.

Election day dawned cold and drizzly in Kabul. Residents made their way to ballot boxes in schools and mosques, navigating desolate streets guarded by thousands of police officers and soldiers across the city.

More than 350,000 Afghan troops were deployed. The capital, Kabul, was sealed off by rings of road blocks and checkpoints. In the city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban insurgency, the mood was tense. Vehicles were not allowed to move on the roads and checkpoints were set up at every intersection.

In some locations, the polls opened as much as an hour late, but voters soon assembled in long, orderly lines to drop their ballots in plastic tubs and then dip their fingers in blue ink.

Afghan voters who have lived through decades of war spoke of their hopes for peace, better schools, more jobs. Using a side entrance reserved for female voters, Zakia Raoufi, a 45-year-old housewife, voted at the same school where her son graduated three years ago, and Mr Karzai years before that. She had left the house for the first time in three days, worrying about the near-daily bombings in Kabul ahead of the election.

"I was wondering whether I will come back home alive or not," she said. "What I'm hoping for from the next president is someone to stop the bloodshed in this country, to provide us peace and stability and education and opportunities for our children."

"I am here to vote and I am not afraid of any attacks," said Haji Ramazan as he stood in line at another polling station in Kabul. "This is my right, and no one can stop me."

Before the vote, polling suggested a tight race. Of the eight candidates, the palace and Mr Karzai's inner circle pushed Zalmay Rassoul, a French-educated physician and former national security adviser and foreign minister. But Abdullah Abdullah, another former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official, attracted large crowds at their rallies. If none of them wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the two top finishers will face off in a second round on May 28.

Several polling stations reported that so many voters turned up that they ran out of ballots. At the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul, the site shut down once all its 1800 ballots were used up and voters were told to go elsewhere. Mohammad Wazir, the head of the polling site, said that under new rules instituted this year in a bid to prevent fraud, sites were not allowed to borrow ballots from nearby locations if they ran out.

Interior Minister Omar Daudzai said there had been 140 attacks across the country in the previous 24 hours and that nine police officers, seven soldiers and 89 insurgents had been killed. The violence prevented nearly 1000 polling stations or about one in six nationwide from opening, officials said.

There were also attempts at cheating. The Interior Ministry said that at least 14 people, including six government officials, had been arrested for attempted fraud. A woman and three men in Khost province were arrested after being accused of trying to cast 1067 votes for their preferred candidate. (Washington Post, Reuters)

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/afghan-voters-defy-taliban-to-vote-for-new-president-20140406-zqrer.html.

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