KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Trooping into schools, mosques and tents, millions of Afghans defied a Taliban boycott call and militant attacks to vote for a new parliament yesterday, taking the last formal step in starting a democracy aimed at ending decades of rule by the gun.
Officials hailed the polls as a major success, although initial estimates suggested voter turnout was lower than hoped for because of security fears and frustrations over the inclusion of several warlords on the ballot. Results were not expected for more than a week.
Many people looked to a big vote to marginalize renegade loyalists of the ousted Taliban regime by demonstrating public support for an elected government built up under the protection of 20,000 soldiers in the American-led coalition and 11,000 NATO peacekeepers.
Washington and other governments have poured in billions of dollars trying to foster a civic system that encourages Afghanistan’s fractious ethnic groups to work together peacefully and ensure the nation is never again a staging post for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
“After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions,” President Hamid Karzai said as he cast his ballot nearly a year after his own victory in an election that defied Taliban threats.
He praised Afghans for going out to vote for the parliament and 34 provincial councils “in spite of the terrorism, in spite of the threats.”
Fifteen people, including a French commando in the U.S.-led coalition, were killed in a spate of violence during the day. But there was no spectacular attack as threatened by Taliban militants, whose stepped-up insurgency the past six months caused more than 1,200 deaths.
Heavy security kept most violence away from polling stations. Election officials reported three people wounded and no one killed in attacks near polls and said only 16 of the 6,270 voting stations did not open because of security threats.
Vote counting begins tomorrow, and with donkeys and camels being used to collect ballots in some remote areas, preliminary election results are not expected until early October.
Even then, it likely will take time to figure out who has the power in the new Wolesi Jirga, a parliament with 249 seats, 68 of which are set aside for women. Most of the 2,775 candidates ran as independents, and Karzai was careful not to publicly favor anyone, fearing renewed tensions if any political blocs become too powerful.
Rights activists viewed the election as a big step for women in this traditionally male-dominated society. The 5,800 candidates for parliament and the provincial assemblies included 582 women, and a quarter of legislative seats are reservedd for women.
Enthusiasm was generally high as Afghans clutching voter identification cards filed into schools with lessons still scrawled on blackboards or stepped over piles of shoes to cast ballots in mosques. Tents served as polling stations in remote areas
Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote, up from 10 million for the presidential election.