KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan voters lined up for blocks at polling stations nationwide today, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.
Amid tight security, men in traditional tunics and loose trousers, and women clad in the all-encompassing burqas arrived at polling centers more than an hour before they opened in Kabul and elsewhere.
Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani marked his ballot live on television then urged all Afghans to vote as he launched the nationwide elections for a new president and provincial councils.
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
“I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote,” she said. “I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election.”
The militants have vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centers and election workers, and recent high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul are clearly designed to show they are perfectly capable of doing just that.
On Friday, a veteran Associated Press photographer was killed and an AP reporter was wounded when an Afghan policeman opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
If the turnout is high and the Afghans are able to hold a successful election, that could undermine the Taliban’s appeal by showing democracy can indeed work.
With President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, Afghans will choose a new president from a field of eight candidates, with three of them widely considered the main contenders. As international combat forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of the few successes in Karzai’s tenure.
Nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces fanned out today to protect polling stations and voters. On Friday evening, mobile phone messaging services stopped working in the capital, Kabul, in what appeared to be a security measure by authorities to prevent militants from using messages for attacks.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among the front-runners – Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top rival in the last election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank official; and Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister. All have promised to sign a security agreement with the United States that will allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country after 2014 – which Karzai has refused to do.