AFGHANS DEFY THREAT OF VIOLENCE TO VOTE IN FIRST DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION OF POWER

FoxNews on April 5, 2014, reported that Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power. The turnout was so high that some polling centers ran out of ballots and others remained open an hour past scheduled to accommodate long lines. Excerpts below:

Electoral workers wearing blue vests with the logo of the Independent Election Commission pulled the paper ballots out of boxes and carefully showed them in footage shown live on national television Saturday. Approximately seven million votes were cast.

Partial results are expected as soon as April 6.

Amid tight security, voters lined up at polling centers more than an hour before they opened in Kabul and elsewhere to choose from a field of eight presidential candidates as well as provincial councils. With three men considered front-runners, nobody was expected to get the majority needed for an outright victory so a runoff was widely expected.

“I call on the people of Afghanistan to prove to the enemies of Afghanistan that nothing can stop them,” Yousaf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission said after casting his own vote at a polling station in Kabul, according to Reuters.

The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centers and election workers. High-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul in the weeks ahead of voting were clearly designed to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country, searching cars at checkpoints and blocking vehicles from getting close to polling stations. Some voters were searched three times in Kabul, and text messages were blocked in an apparent attempt to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning.

Karzai, who has led the country since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term. Karzai cast his ballot at a high school near the presidential palace.

“Today for us, the people of Afghanistan, is a very vital day that will determine our national future. We the people of Afghanistan will elect our provincial council members and our president by our secret votes,” he said, his finger stained with the indelible ink used to prevent people from voting twice.

The eventual winner faces deep challenges. Security forces will be left to deal with the Taliban insurgency without international troops. Billions of dollars in international aid are at risk with the coalition forces’ withdrawal. Expectations are high among Afghans that the new leader will alleviate poverty…

The Taliban’s bloody campaign underlines the stakes of the election. If turnout is high even in dangerous areas and the Afghans are able to hold a successful vote, that could undermine the Taliban’s appeal.

The race is also the first for Afghans in which the outcome is uncertain. Three men are considered top contenders — a major shift from past elections dominated by Karzai. None is expected to get a majority needed to secure a win outright, so a runoff between the top two vote getters is widely expected.

There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West between 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. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country’s border dispute with Pakistan.

Women have played a more visible role in this election than in the past as concern is rising that women will lose much of the gains they have made after international forces withdraw, reducing the ability of the U.S. and other Western countries to pressure the government to work for equality.

“I’m not afraid of Taliban threats, we will die one day anyway. I want my vote to be a slap in the face of the Taliban,” Laila Neyazi of Kabul told AFP.

Electoral officials have taken extra measures to prevent fraud after widespread vote-rigging in 2009. Strict protocols include bar codes on the ballot boxes being delivered to nearly 6,500 polling centers in all 34 provinces and plans to tally the results immediately after the vote closes and post a copy of the results at each center.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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