KABUL, Afghanistan – Millions of Afghans defied threats Thursday to cast ballots in the country’s second national elections since Taliban rule, but turnout appeared weaker this time because of continuing violence, fear and disenchantment. In much of the Taliban’s southern strongholds, many people did not dare to vote, bolstering the hopes of President Hamid Karzai’s chief rival.
At least 26 people were killed in election-related violence, fewer than had been feared.
Officials began counting millions of ballots as soon as the polls closed at 5 p.m. after a one-hour extension. First preliminary results weren’t expected for several days.
A top election official, Zekria Barakzai, told the Associated Press that he estimated 40 to 50 percent of the country’s 15 million registered voters cast ballots – far lower than the 70 percent who voted in the presidential election in 2004.
Nevertheless, many Afghans did vote, some at great risk to their lives. Many waited until midday to see whether the Taliban would carry through with threats to attack polling stations. Some proudly showed off the ink on their index fingers to prove they had voted.
Karzai, who has held power since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban in late 2001, was favored to finish first among 36 official candidates. A strong showing by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.