, KABUL Aug 21 – Votes were counted in Afghanistan on Friday after a presidential election hailed as a success by the international community despite low turnout, Taliban violence and allegations of irregularities.
President Hamid Karzai – bidding for another five years in office – praised the war-weary Afghan people for defying threats of violence and described the polls as a "day of pride and glory" for the country.
US President Barack Obama, NATO and many other Western backers of Karzai’s government also welcomed Thursday’s election, which although subject to sporadic attacks was spared a feared full-scale Taliban onslaught.
The United Nations representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said the most positive aspect of the polls was the lower than expected level of violence and he urged the country’s leaders to pull together.
"The Afghan people as well as the international community expect that the political establishment will get together and unite behind a common agenda. The Afghan people don’t need more fragmentation and division," he said.
Initial results are expected at the weekend with pre-vote opinion polls suggesting Karzai will likely be forced into a second round run-off in six weeks time with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
There are concerns that dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election could spark protests and Abdullah’s office has detailed 40 complaints so far, most of them alleging that officials were commanding people to vote for Karzai.
The election authority said it was investigating complaints from candidates, although Western officials played down prospects for entirely free and fair elections given reports of vote-buying and Karzai’s reliance on warlords.
Officials said it would be some days before they could determine how many of the 17 million registered voters had cast their ballots, but Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said the government was "satisfied" with turnout levels.
However, international observers said turnout was likely to be lower than the roughly 50 percent reached in the 2005 parliamentary polls and much lower than the 70 percent figure during the 2004 presidential election.
They said the numbers could be particularly low in the south, where the Taliban insurgency is at its bloodiest despite a US and NATO campaign to pacify the lawless nation.
One diplomat described turnout in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city and the capital of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, as " very, very low" while another diplomat estimated turnout in parts of the south as below 10 percent.
Afghans were electing a president and 420 councillors in 34 provinces across the country.
The Taliban had threatened to target polling stations on election day and to cut off the fingers of voters, and scattered incidents of Taliban violence were reported around the country.
Notable election-day clashes included a multi-pronged assault by Taliban militants in the northern town of Baghlan which officials said left 30 militants dead, and a shootout in Kabul that killed two militants.
Officials also said 26 civilians were killed in nationwide unrest.
The polls, only Afghanistan’s second direct presidential election, were seen as a crucial test of a system installed after the Taliban were ejected from power in late 2001, following the September 11 attacks.
Despite billions of dollars of Western aid and over the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops helping to provide security, most Afghans still lack electricity, roads are bad, jobs are scarce and graft widespread.