Millions of Afghans lined up outside polling centres on Saturday to cast their ballots in an election that marked the country’s first democratic transition from one president to another.
Polling stations stayed open an additional hour due to a rush of last-minute voters, with additional ballot papers having to be delivered to stations across the country, the Afghan election commission said.
An estimated 7 million of the 12 million eligible voters cast their ballots, said Yousuf Nooristani, the chairman of the Independent Elections Commission.
Violence was among the top concerns for the election authority, which closed 211 polling stations on Saturday due to security concerns, in addition to the 748 they announced last month would remain closed.
The outgoing President, Hamid Karzai, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, voted at a high school in Kabul.
In a nationally televised address, he thanked citizens for the strong turnout.
“Afghan participation in today’s election, from every part of the country, showed to the world that Afghans are ... a democracy,” Mr. Karzai said.
“In the rain, in the cold weather, even with terrorist threat, our Afghan brothers and sisters took part in the election,” he said.
Since the ouster of the Taliban in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Mr. Karzai has ruled the country — first as head of an interim government, then as a two-term President elected in 2004 and 2009.
Jamshid Khan, 24, a resident of Kabul, said he was somewhat afraid of Taliban threats to disrupt the election, but added that “they can’t stop us, because we have to come here and give a vote.” Election official Haseena Sherzad said she was “hoping that this vote will bring peace, unity, and happiness to my country.” Kabul was in a state of lockdown, with thousands of troops deployed across the capital and at voting centres. Men and women braved heavy rain to stand in line, some of them for up to two hours.
Voters were sometimes searched multiple times. Mobile text messaging was blocked by the Afghan telecom authority for possible misuse.
There were some reports of violence from other parts of the country, particularly in the eastern regions, according to authorities.
In most cities, the Taliban were unsuccessful in their campaign against the vote. In the past several weeks they had increased their attacks, including two targeting the election office.
Interior Minister Umer Daudzai said there were 140 attacks in the past 24 hours. Nine policemen and seven soldiers were killed across the country in different incidents.
Four civilians were killed and 43 were injured in election-related violence, he said, adding that 89 member of the Taliban were killed.
“The enemy promised to halt elections. Our forces promised security. Today, I can say confidently the enemy failed,” he said.
The Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, said they had arrested 76 Taliban in the past 24 hours.
“Compared to 2009, the number of attacks are way less. In 2009, 650 rockets were fired. This time we don’t have that many rockets fired,” he told reporters.
There were also reports of intimidation by police for voters to their cast ballot for a preferred candidate in certain areas, according to local media.
Sattar Saadat, the head of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), said they had received news of some violations.
“But we hope it would not be big enough to violate the legitimacy of the election process,” he said.
Ashraf Ghani, one of the presidential frontrunners, said that Afghans had sent “a clear message to the enemies of Afghanistan by participating in the election.” “No danger, no threat will hinder our will,” he said, after casting his ballot alongside his two deputies.
There are eight presidential candidates, including opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, former World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
Analysts predict a tight race, meaning none of the three are likely to garner an absolute majority of the vote — forcing a second round of voting between the top two candidates on May 28.
The vote-counting is to begin on April 7, 2014 and is expected to last several days or weeks.
Provincial council members were also elected. In total, 2,713 candidates are running for the provincial councils, 2,406 men and 308 women.