Afghanistan went to the polls Thursday to elect a president for just the second time in its war-torn history with a sweeping security clampdown in force to prevent threatened Taliban attacks. Dozens of people queued up at polling stations in the capital Kabul and at towns in the largely peaceful north, but early turnout was poor in parts of the south where the Taliban have a strong presence owing to security fears.
The Taliban has struck repeatedly inside the capital in a bloody countdown to the elections aimed at putting the country more firmly on the path to democracy eight years after the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban. Western-backed President Hamid Karzai hopes to win an outright majority to avoid a run-off, but his nervous government has ordered a blackout on reporting violence during polling day, threatening journalists with heavy penalties.
An energetic campaign by ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who has a northern powerbase and draws on ethnic Tajik support, has boosted the chance of a run-off, which would take place in around six weeks time. Explosions were reported in the southern city of Kandahar, where four blasts rang out an hour before polls opened, in central town Ghazni and northern town Kunar, where a witness said five of his relatives were wounded by rocket fire.
Thursday marks only Afghanistan's second direct presidential election, in a crucial test of a system installed after the Taliban were ejected from power in late 2001. Seventeen million Afghans have registered to elect a president and 420 councilors in 34 provinces across the largely rural and impoverished country.
Karzai cast his ballot in Kabul on Thursday at the start of a tense election expected to deliver him a second term and urged his fellow Afghans to flock to the polls. Karzai voted in a boys' high school near his heavily fortified palace soon after polling stations opened. "I ask the Afghan people to come and vote so through their vote, Afghanistan will be more peaceful, more secure and a better place". "God willing this will be for the peace, for progress and for the well-being of Afghanistan." Asked whether he was worried about violence on polling day, Karzai said only "No."
A poll conducted by a US-based organization and released in August said that 44 percent of Afghans were expected to vote for Karzai, below the outright majority that he needs to avoid a run-off. The International Republican Institute group ranked Abdullah second in the survey with 26 percent, while independent candidate Ramazan Bashardost stood at 10 percent and ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani at six percent.