Only hours after they opened, Afghans have taken to the polls for the second time in as many months to elect their new leader.
The victor in Saturday’s two-man runoff between Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — former foreign minister who secured 45 percent of the original vote — and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — ex-finance minister who earned 31.6 percent of the round one ballots — will head the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in contemporary Afghan history.
With 7 million voters, 36 percent of whom were women, the initial April 5 polls were noted for an unexpectedly high turnout despite repeated threats of attack by the Taliban.
Yousof Nuristani, chief of the Independent Election Commission, speaking at a press conference in the capital on Saturday evening said more than seven million Afghans took part in the second round of the election.
Of those, 38 percent were women, a three percent increase over April. Men cast 62 percent of the votes.
Nuristani's statement of an increase in participation came despite early reports that even with sunny weather, turnout was likely to see a significant drop in round two.
In fact, election workers who spoke to VICE News in Kabul all cited declines in traffic at polling centers across several areas of the capital.
The footage shows Afghans waiting outside a polling station in Kabul, waiting to cast their presidential vote. Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
There were significantly fewer attacks in the weeks leading up to the runoff, especially in Kabul, than the first round, which saw two attacks on election bodies. The most significant pre-runoff attack came last week, when Abdullah’s team was targeted at a campaign event in the capital.
However, round two election day has already seen more attacks in the capital than April. Prior to polls opening, the capital was rocked by four attacks, including one blast that injured four civilians.
Elsewhere, a missile that landed in eastern Laghman province killed three women in one Qarghai district household.
In Kunar province, provincial police officials accused the Taliban of attacking 26 polling centers across eight districts in the hours from 5AM and 10:30AM. In all, 15 civilians were injured. The police also suffered casualties in the ensuing fights — two were killed and another three injured. The Taliban were said to have lost 12 men and while another 13 sustained injuries.
Addressing local media in the afternoon, Umer Daudzai, interior minister, said in the first seven hours of voting, the interior ministry had documented 150 cases of "smaller" — scale threats — IEDs and bombs.
Once again, Saturday’s vote was kicked off by Nuristani, who cast the first ballot.
Ahead of the seconds round of Afghanistan’s presidential elections on June 15, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) held a press briefing with the Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ján Kubiš, in Kabul on June 11. Credit: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Ahmadzai and Abdullah followed suit at Habibia and Esteqlal high schools, respectively.
Before casting his own ballot, Ahmadzai addressed students at the West Kabul high school he graduated from. The former chancellor of Kabul University also took a moment to sit at his old desk.
Saturday’s ballot, part of the nation’s third presidential election, marks Afghanistan’s first-ever runoff.
“I didn’t vote in round one, because there were too many candidates,” Zabihullah, 31, said of the original pool of eight candidates.
However, the Nangarhar province native, said it became easier to arrive at a decision once it was a two-man race.
“I expect them to take responsibility for the country, to take us out of this bad state. If I can’t have a good future myself, then maybe my children and grandchildren can,” Zabihullah said.
On the streets, one young man on his way to vote, could be heard saying: “I would vote a third time.”
Mohammad Ismail, 52, took his six-year-old daughter, Neda, with him to vote.
“She didn’t understand the whole process or exactly what the candidates were saying all along but she was excited to be part of it and see it up close,” Ismail said.
The North Kabul native said his decision was made purely on merit.
“It had nothing to do with what language they spoke or what part of the country they’re from”, said Ismail, in reference to fears that an election which pits Ahmadzai — a Pashtun from Logar province — and Abdullah — the son of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother — would be divided along ethnic lines.
Speaking to local media a day before the second round vote, Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said second round campaigning, which ended on Wednesday, was plagued by “the use of ethnic politics.”
The tensions leading up to the polls turned violent when Ahmadzai's camp accused supporters of Abdullah of firing on the former's backers in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. The shooters, bodyguards of parliamentarian Engineer Ghafar, are accused of shooting on three of Ahmadzai's supporters when they heard chanting: "Long live Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai!"
Two of the young men succumbed to their bullet wounds while in the hospital.
In Kabul, observers for Abdullah accused Ahmazai's observer team of intimidating them and trying to keep them from polling sites in the Taimani neghborhood of the capital.
Voting was originally slated to continue across 6,325 polling centers until 4PM, but those who were still in line by 4PM would be allowed to cast their ballots past the cut off.
Addressing the media on the eve of the polls, IEC officials said they had taken logistical problems from round one into account in preparations for Saturday’s runoff vote.
An additional 5 percent of ballot papers were distributed in response to shortages reported throughout several provinces in round one. In the capital, at least two were said to have run out of ballot sheets by 11AM.
In the eastern province of Khost, reports cited shortages in 20 polling centers. Ballot shortages were also reported in Kunar province.
In total, 333 centers reported similar shortages, including the blue ink meant to prevent fraud, until 1:30PM, but Nuristani said the issues had been quickly resolved.
Four provinces — Ghazni, Nuristan and Nangarhar, in the east and Zabul, in the south — saw a reduction in the number of polling centers as a result of round one turnout and security risks.
By the time counting began at 5PM, the Electoral Complaints Commission had already received 118 formal, written complaints. An additional 144 were lodged by telephone.