Afghans brave threats to vote in historic election
After weeks of threats, suicide bombings and fears of fraud, Afghanistan defied the Taliban and went to the polls in joyous mood yesterday to elect a new president as Hamid Karzai stands down.
Polling stations stayed open for an extra hour to accommodate the queues that formed during the day.
Early figures suggested a record turnout of seven million voters, equal to the 58 per cent that voted in the 2012 US presidential election – an extraordinary figure for a country torn by conflict.
The election is seen as a crucial test of stability as Nato's mission in Afghanistan ends and its forces go home.
However, voters face weeks of uncertainty as counts are tallied, fraudulent ballots are rejected and plans are laid for what many people believe is an inevitable run-off.
Sporadic violence was reported across the war-torn country but the day passed peacefully for the most part amid an intense security operation.
Groups of women arrived together at polling stations in Kabul keen to exercise their new reputation as a force in Afghan politics – so very different from life under Taliban rule before 2001.
Rabia Merij, a housewife, wore a new scarf to cast her vote at Zarghona High School. Sunglasses covered her eyes despite the steady drizzle. She said no one would be put off by Taliban threats. "If we listened to the threats, then we would never do anything."
Security was a major worry during the run-up to the election. Suicide squads attacked a guesthouse, the headquarters of the election commission and the interior ministry in the final days of campaigning.
The eve of the election was also overshadowed by an attack on two female, foreign journalists.
A police officer in Khost shot dead Anja Niedringhaus, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer with the Associated Press, and wounded her colleague, Kathy Gannon. Security forces launched a major operation to secure election day itself with 400,000 officers on duty.
While militants kept up a steady stream of propaganda on social media sites, claiming success in derailing the "puppet democracy", their attacks were isolated.
A blast at a school being used as a polling station in Logar province wounded four people and there were reports of firing elsewhere.
It meant that 211 polling centres had to stay shut, according to Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, but fears of a bloodbath failed to materialise. In fact, dozens of rural areas reported running out of ballots – such was the high turnout – prompting suspicions that some voters were deliberately being disfranchised to help one candidate or another.
Western diplomats will not be sorry to see the departure of Mr Karzai, who has proved an unreliable ally in recent years, pursuing back-channel talks with the Taliban and launching angry outbursts against Nato-led troops.
He is barred from standing after completing two terms as president but at 56 is unlikely to disappear from the political scene.