KABUL (Reuters) – Afghans braved the threat of militant attacks and delays at polling booths to vote in a presidential election on Saturday, a major test of the Western-backed Afghan government’s ability to protect democracy despite Taliban attempts to derail the polls.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah poses as he casts his vote at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan September 28, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
A senior interior ministry official in Kabul said at least 21 civilians and two Afghan forces were injured in about a dozen small-scale attacks conducted by the Taliban during the first five hours of voting.
“The security plan used to prevent attacks seems to be working so far…we have foiled insurgent attacks,” said Abdul Moqim Abdulrahimzai, the director-general of operations and planning at the Interior Ministry.
More than 9 million registered voters are potentially heading to the polls to elect a president among a dozen candidates registered. But, the race will likely come down to incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his former deputy Abdullah Abdullah.
No women are running for president, and only three women appear on the ballot for deputy president.
The winner will play a crucial role in the country’s quest to end the war with the Taliban and any resumption of talks between the insurgents and the United States that were called off earlier this month.
The hardline group, which controls more of the country than at anytime since its regime was toppled in 2001, has threatened voters to stay away from the election or face dire consequences.
To protect voters and polling stations, tens of thousands of Afghan forces were deployed across 34 provinces.
About 9.6 million of Afghanistan’s 34 million people are registered to vote at around 5,000 polling centers that will be protected by some 100,000 Afghan forces with air support from U.S. forces.
“Bravado gets defined when one musters courage to cast their vote in Afghanistan,” said Roya Jahangir, a doctor based in the capital of Kabul.
Jahangir said she and her husband will vote even if it means standing in long queues for hours.
“We hope this time there is no fraud — otherwise voters will feel cheated once again.”
However, by the afternoon, hundreds of voters complained that their names were missing on the voters’ list or on the biometric device used to prevent fraud.
Addressing the concerns of disgruntled voters, the country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) eased the restrictions, allowing them to vote if they have election stickers on national identity cards.
POLLING STATIONS ATTACKED
In the northern province of Balkh, men and women said they waited for election officials to arrive at polling stations set up in schools, colleges, mosques, hospital campuses and district centers.
An explosion at a polling station in a mosque in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar wounded 16 people, according to a security source.
In the northern province of Faryab, Afghan forces clashed with Taliban fighters in six districts, forcing people to stay indoors and refrain from voting.
The Taliban said in a statement their fighters attacked polling stations in Laghman province, in eastern Afghanistan. Officials said four explosions in the eastern city of Jalalabad disrupted voting at some stations.
Explosions also hit Kabul and Ghazni, officials said.
The hardline Islamist group intensified attacks against the Afghan and foreign forces following the collapse of talks between the United States and the Taliban earlier this month.
U.S.-led airstrikes have led to the destruction of Taliban and Islamic State hideouts but dozens of civilians were caught in the crossfire this month.
Western diplomats in Kabul said the potential resumption of talks depends on the scale of attacks conducted by the Taliban to prevent elections.
“Talks can only begin if the Taliban exercises restraint and allows people to vote,” said a diplomat overseeing the elections.
POLLING STATIONS CLOSED
More than 400 polling centers remained closed because they are in areas under Taliban control. Hundreds more will be closed because of security concerns.
Shamsuddin, a resident of Dehdadi district in the northern province of Balkh, said polling stations were not open due to overnight clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces.
The voting process is another source of concern.
Shaharzad Akbar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, tweeted that the biometric identification process initially resulted in errors before she was able to vote in Kabul.
“The process is too lengthy,” she said.
Chief contenders Ghani and his former deputy Abdullah both came to power in 2014 after a bitterly contested election marred by fraud.
“I thank God that today that people’s vote will help the republic of Afghanistan to move forward,” Ghani said, casting his ballot in a Kabul high school.
Abdullah cast his ballot at a different Kabul school.
“The threats to innocent people do not show the strength of the Taliban,” he said.
Afghanistan’s political scene is still tainted by the aftermath of the disputed 2014 presidential vote which forced the two main rival groupings to form an unstable partnership. Both sides were accused of massive electoral cheating.
Western security sources and Afghan officials said they had asked local media not to sensationalize threats and attacks, concerned that they could discourage voting.
The election is the fourth presidential vote since the fall of the Taliban to U.S.-led forces.
Due to the difficulty of collecting results across Afghanistan, the overall results will not be known before Nov. 7.
Highlighting the IEC’s challenges, commission officials said they had no contact from 901 out of 4,942 polling centers on Saturday.
It was not clear whether voting had taken place in these centers, or they were forced to shutdown by the Taliban.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Orooj Hakimi, Paul Carsten, Hameed Farzad in Kabul, Mustafa Andalib in Ghazni, Sarawar Amani, Ismail Samim in Kandahar, Anwarullah Mohabbat in Paktia, Matin Sahak in Balkh, Storay Karimi in Herat, Ahmad Sultan and Rafiq Shirzad in Nangarhar, Writing by Rod Nickel; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Kim Coghill