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Afghans flock to polls to vote for new leader

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — 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 centers ran out of ballots.

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Afghan men line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand province, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. 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 centers ran out of ballots. (AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq)

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 fulfill 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 centers 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 centers, 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 centers were opened on Saturday.

Nouristani also confirmed that some polling centers 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 center.

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 honor 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.

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Khan reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Kim Gamel in Kabul contributed to this report.


Candidates for Afghanistan's presidential election

The Associated Press

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 file photo, Afghanistan presidential election candidates, from left, runner-up in the 2009 election, Abdullah Abdullah, former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and former Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak attend the first presidential election debate at the Tolo TV building in Kabul, Afghanistan. Wardak, a longtime defense minister until he was removed by parliament in a vote of no confidence in 2012, gave no reason for his withdrawal and he was not throwing his support behind any remaining candidates, he said Sunday, March 16. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini, File)

Eight candidates are vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan's election on Saturday. A look at the field:

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Having gained 31 percent of the vote as runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections, Abdullah has an advantage in name recognition and political organization. He was a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander famed for his resistance to Soviet occupation and the Taliban. Abdullah has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan's north, but his perceived weak support among Pashtuns — Afghanistan's largest ethnic group at 42 percent — could keep him from gaining a majority of votes, even though he is half-Pashtun.

ZALMAI RASSOUL: A former foreign minister, Rassoul has been national security adviser to the government and is seen as close to Karzai. He could end up being a consensus candidate among many political factions. A Pashtun like Karzai, he has a medical degree and is fluent in five languages, including French, English and Italian. He lived in Italy for many years with Afghanistan's deposed King Zahir Shah, who died in Kabul in 2007.

ASHRAF GHANI AHMADZAI: Ghani is a former finance minister who ran in the 2009 presidential elections but received just 3 percent of the vote. A well-known academic with a reputation as a somewhat temperamental technocrat, Ghani chairs a commission in charge of transitioning responsibility for security from the U.S.-led coalition to Afghan forces. Ghani also worked at the World Bank.

ABDUL RASOUL SAYYAF: An influential former lawmaker and religious scholar, Sayyaf is one of the more controversial candidates among Afghanistan's foreign allies because of his past as a warlord during the 1990s civil war and allegations of past links to radical jihadists including Osama bin Laden. As a Pashtun and charismatic speaker, he may appeal to Afghanistan's large number of religious conservatives.

QUTBUDDIN HILAL: An engineer by training with experience in Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, Hilal once headed a military commission tasked with uniting jihadi organizations. He twice served as first vice president — in 1993 and 1996 — and also served as deputy prime minister. He has been endorsed by the leader of Hezb-i-Islami chief, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, considered a terrorist by the United States and a target of the U.S.-led coalition.

GUL AGHA SHERZAI: Earned the nickname of "the bulldozer" for serving as public works and transport minister. Previously a mujahedeen commander in Kandahar, he also has served as governor of Kandahar and later governor of Nangarhar. He was the only governor to meet Barak Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.

HEDAYAT AMIN ARSALA: Born in Kabul to an influential Afghan family, Amin was the first Afghan to join the World Bank, in 1969. He worked there for 18 years before joining the fight against the Soviet occupation. Arsala later served as finance minister, briefly as foreign minister, and after the collapse of the Taliban was selected as commerce minister. He also headed the Independent Commission of Administrative Reforms, the National Statistics Commission and the Economic Cooperation Committee. For years, he served as a senior adviser to Karzai.

MOHAMMAD DAOUD SULTANZAI: A pilot by training, Sultanzai defected to Germany after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then settled in the U.S. He returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and went on to serve as a member of Parliament. Sultanzai also is known as an Afghan political commentator and talk show host.


Issues dominating Afghanistan's elections

KATHY GANNON, Associated Press

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An Afghan woman walks to cast her ballot at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, April 5, 2014. Afghan voters lined up for blocks at 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. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Several issues are at the top of Afghans' minds as they go to the polls Saturday. High among them is deteriorating security as the country undergoes its first democratic transition of power in history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term in office. The most often mentioned issues include:

SECURITY: A spike in attacks ahead of the elections has highlighted the poor state of security in Afghanistan. While most people said it has hardened their determination to go to the polls, fear dominates their lives and the lives of their children. Stories abound of children whose artwork is seldom without helicopter gunships or soldiers with guns. Security has been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops at the end of this year. Many candidates say that improving security is the top concern.

CORRUPTION: According to Transparency International, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, along with North Korea and Somalia. According to most Afghans, corruption seeps into every facet of their life. Errands as simple as paying bills often require bribes. The most immediate worry of many Afghans is that fraud will again mar polling results. The 2009 election was declared deeply flawed by local and international election monitors.

ECONOMY: Lack of jobs and widespread poverty has most Afghans wondering where billions of dollars in international aid that poured into Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban have gone. The Asian Development Bank said the Afghan government twice missed its revenue targets last year. Foreign aid contributes upward of 90 percent of the government's overall budget. But there is some good news with the Asian Development Bank revising Afghanistan's growth rate this year upward to 5.3 percent. Much of that growth is in the country's agricultural sector.

WOMEN: Afghan women have come a long way since the Taliban ruled the country and they were forced indoors and into the all-encompassing burqa (It should be noted however that most women still wear the burqa in rural areas where an overwhelmingly conservative culture prevails.) But today girls are in school and women are in the workforce, some holding seats in parliament. Still, many women activists worry that the government's determination to protect their rights is waning. They worry going forward that their gains might be sacrificed in favor of an agreement with the Taliban. They have been rallying behind women candidates, and look to the next president to move forward with legislation that enshrines their rights.

FUTURE US ROLE: Afghan President Hamid Karzai's deteriorating relations with Kabul's Western allies has Afghans worried that a further deterioration could leave them isolated once again. Karzai has refused to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which is needed if a residual force of about 12,000 to 15,000 U.S. and NATO troops is to remain behind in Afghanistan next year. Every candidate has vowed to sign it, but Washington says the longer it takes to get the pact inked, the fewer troops it is likely to keep in the country. The billions of dollars in international aid that come to Afghanistan are also tied to the nation's relationship with the United States and other Western countries.

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