Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide on Saturday, 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 centres ran out of ballots.
The excitement over choosing a new leader for the first time appeared to overwhelm the fear of bloodshed in many areas, as Afghans embarked on a major transition nearly 13 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the rule of the Taliban.
President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the Islamic movement was ousted, is on his way out, constitutionally barred from a third term. International combat troops are leaving by the end of the year. And Afghans are left largely on their own to face what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power, even as authorities face higher public demands to tackle entrenched poverty and corruption.
Men in traditional tunics and loose trousers and women clad in all-encompassing burqas waited in segregated lines at polls under tight security. At a Kandahar hospital-turned-polling station, the men's line stretched from the building, through the courtyard and out into the street. In Helmand province, women pushed, shoved and argued as they pressed forward in a long line.
The vote is the first for Afghans in which the outcome is uncertain. Voters are choosing from a field of eight presidential candidates, as well as selecting provincial council members. With three front-runners in the presidential race, a runoff was widely expected since none is likely to get the majority needed for an outright victory.
"I went to sleep with my mind made up to wake up early and to have my say in the matter of deciding who should be next one to govern my nation," said Saeed Mohammad, a 29-year-old mechanic in the southern city of Kandahar. "I want to be a part of this revolution and I want to fulfil my duty by casting my vote so that we can bring change and show the world that we love democracy."
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.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the balloting by targeting polling centres and election workers, and in the past weeks they stepped up attacks in the heart of Kabul to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas.
On Saturday, a bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously, said local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
Rocket attacks and gunbattles forced authorities to close an additional 211 polling centres, raising the total number that weren't opened because of security concerns to 959, said Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani. He said in all, 6,212 polling centres were opened on Saturday.
Nouristani also confirmed that some polling centres had run out of ballots but said authorities were addressing the shortfall. They also extended voting by an hour, to 5 p.m. local time (1230 GMT) to accommodate everybody standing in line.
"We have received complaints about it and we have already sent ballot papers to wherever needed," he said.
Most polling stations closed as planned after nearly 10 hours of voting.
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.
Partial results are expected as soon as Sunday.
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 being used to prevent people from voting twice.
After nearly 13 years of war, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of Karzai's few successes. Karzai has been heavily criticized for failing to end the endemic poverty or clean up the government in a country that Transparency International last year ranked among the three most corrupt in the world, alongside Somalia and North Korea.
Mohammad Aleem Azizi, a 57-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul, said he voted to re-elect Karzai in the last election in 2009 but has been disappointed.
"Security deteriorated, insecurity is getting worse day by day," he said. "I want peace and stability in this country. I hope the new president of Afghanistan will be a good person."
Nazia Azizi, a 40-year-old housewife, was first in line at a school in eastern Kabul.
"I have suffered so much from the fighting and I want prosperity and security in Afghanistan. That is why I have come here to cast my vote," she said. "I hope that the votes that we are casting will be counted and that there will be no fraud in this election."
Electoral officials have taken extra measures to prevent fraud after widespread vote-rigging in 2009 marred Karzai's re-election. Strict protocols include bar codes on the ballot boxes delivered by truck and donkey caravans to all 34 provinces and plans to tally the results immediately after the vote closes and post a copy of the results at each centre.
The Taliban's bloody campaign is a sign of the stakes of the election. If turnout is high even in dangerous areas and the Afghans are able to hold a successful election, that could undermine the Taliban's appeal.
On Friday, veteran Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and AP reporter Kathy Gannon was wounded when an Afghan policeman opened fire while the two were sitting in their car in the city of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The two were at a security forces base, waiting to move in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots.
There do not appear to be major policy differences toward the West among 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 to continue training security forces after 2014 — which Karzai has refused to do. The candidates differ on some issues such as the country's border dispute with Pakistan. But all preach against fraud and corruption and vow to improve security.
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.
Mohammad Daoud Sultanzai, one of the presidential candidates, cast his ballot at a high school with his wife at his side— a rare occurrence in a country where male and female voters are segregated and where men rarely appear in public with their wives.
"It is a big honour that I have participated in this process and I ask all Afghan mothers, sisters and daughters to participate in this political process and have an active role in the election," said his wife, Zohra.