KABUL (Reuters) – Millions of Afghans turned out for a second time yesterday to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, a decisive test of the country’s ambitions to transfer power democratically for the first time in its tumultuous history.
Most foreign troops will leave by the end of 2014, and whoever takes over from Karzai will inherit a troubled country plagued by an assertive Taliban insurgency and an economy crippled by corruption and the weak rule of law.
The run-off pitted former anti-Taliban fighter Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani after neither secured the 50 per cent majority needed to win outright in the first round on April 5.
Violence spiked on the day as militants launched hundreds of attacks with rockets, explosives and gunfire, leaving at least 20 civilians dead, along with a further 11 police and 15 army personnel, the interior ministry said.
But clashes did not deter millions of voters from turning out and feared high-profile attacks did not materialise. Instead, voting ended at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT) with a palpable sense of relief, at least in the Afghan capital.
“I’m from this country so I am never afraid of threats,” said Lajiullah Azizi, a hospital worker who voted in western Kabul just minutes after a small bomb exploded at his polling station. “I hope this election will bring peace.”
Officials immediately began counting ballots, although Afghanistan’s difficult terrain, where ballot boxes have to hauled by donkey from some of its remotest corners, means preliminary results will not be known until July 2.
Karzai, standing down after 12 years in power marked by increasingly sour relations with the West, is certain to retain a hand in politics but has been tight-lipped about his plans.
“Today Afghanistan takes a step towards stability, development and peace. Come out and determine your destiny,” Karzai, clad in his trademark green Afghan robe, said after casting his ballot.