Afghan election sees big drop in voter numbers
Afghanistan's presidential election turnout is unofficially estimated at just over 2 million people or about 20 percent of registered voters, an official said on Sunday, amid concern that low participation could mar the vote.
Roughly 7 million turned out to vote in the last presidential election in 2014.
Tight security ensured the election took place on Saturday in relative calm, but low turnout and complaints about the voting system heightened concerns that an unclear result could drive the war-torn country into further chaos.
"Turnout appears to have been dampened not just by Taliban threats, but also voter disinterest," wrote Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Taliban fighters attacked several polling stations across the country to try to derail the process, but intense security prevented large-scale violence.
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"I am optimistic about the Taliban joining the peace process," said Hussain, 19, who like many young Afghans grew up in neighbouring Iran where millions have taken refuge from war. He now works as a hairdresser in Kabul. "It will be an end to the war and conflicts in our country. I want the Taliban to change their policy and not behave like before"
Twenty-five-year-old artist Mahdi Zahak said: "There is hope for peace, but the only way we can have peace is if the Taliban accept the achievements made here in the past 17 years and let everyone enjoy their lives"
Seventeen-year-old Muay Thai athlete Kawsar Sherzad said: "Afghan females have had a lot of achievements in sports, so I am optimistic that the Taliban will accept these achievements"
Sultan Qasim Sayeedi, an 18-year-old model sports a hairstyle with shaven sides and a slicked back front called a "sinpogh", which he says turns heads on Kabul's streets. "We're afraid that if the Taliban come then we will not be able to hold our shows," he said. Despite that wariness, Sultan says it's time the fighting ended. "If American troops go, peace will come. We want peace," he added
Twenty-two-year-old owner of a luxury clothes shop Sohail Ataie said: "We are tired of war. What we want is peace to live a better life"
"The thing I'm most worried about is that if they return, I'll not be able to continue playing music," said Maram Atayee, a 16-year-old pianist who attends music school in Kabul. "It will be great if the government and the Taliban reach a peace deal. Access to music must be guaranteed for everyone and women's rights protected"
Twenty-one-year-old model Omid Arman said: "Everyone in this country desires peace. We've witnessed a lot of conflicts, it's enough, we don't want to witness any more tragedy"
Nineteen-year-old Nadim Quraishi posing outside his game zone shop said: "We want to see an end to the current conflict in the country. We are hoping for a lasting peace between the government and the Taliban"
Twenty-two-year-old Zarghona Haidari, who works at a book store, said: "I'm not very optimistic about peace in this country. I don't think the Taliban will make a deal with the government"
Eighteen-year-old Farzad Aslami said: "We want peace for the sake of our country's welfare. We don't want any more suicide attacks and explosions"
Twenty-two-year-old doctor Mohammad Jawed Momand said: "Peace requires everyone to lay down their arms and think about education and the prosperity of the country"
There were more than 400 attacks, mostly small-scale, carried out by the militants, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
There were also technical shortcomings, they wrote, including biometric devices not working, missing voter names and election material sent to the wrong province.
Many Afghans, however, did brave the threat of militant attacks to vote in an election seen as a major test of the Western-backed government's ability to protect democracy against Taliban attempts to derail it.
As many as eight election staff were kidnapped Saturday evening by the Taliban in central Parwan province's Shinwari district, the provincial governor's spokeswoman said.
"The local government and tribal elders are working to release them," she said on Sunday.
Two policeman and one civilian were killed in mostly small-scale Taliban attacks and 37 people were injured, the interior ministry said.
Of 9.67 million registered voters, only about one in five cast their ballot, according to the election commission official who requested anonymity as they were not authorised to release a turnout figure.
Previous elections were marred by dozens of deaths, accusations of fraud and allegations that the election commission was not independent. Memories of those issues hung over Saturday's vote.
The days after voting are also fraught. The Taliban often attack those transporting ballot boxes from local voting centres to larger regional offices for counting. From there, the boxes make their way to the capital Kabul.
Preliminary results are not expected before 19 October and final results not until 7 November.
If no candidate gets over half of the votes, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates. (Reuters)