KANDAHAR/KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s landmark election on Saturday was marred by a shortage of ballot papers that left many voters still queuing to cast their vote with polling due to close, as the organizers appeared unprepared for a high turnout.
The Independent Election Commission ordered voting to be extended by at least an hour, with ballot papers being dispatched where they were needed for people to vote for a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
Organizers of the vote - meant to be the first democratic handover of power in Afghan history - had feared that a low turnout and Taliban violence would derail the election but as polling stations began to close, those fears had not materialized.
“People did not expect this number of people to come out to vote,” Toryalai Wesa, governor of the southern city of Kandahar, told reporters. “They though the turnout would be similar to the past and that’s why they sent fewer voting materials this time.”
In the capital, Kabul, many polling stations decided to extend voting hours way beyond the official closing time of 4 p.m. (1130 GMT) to allow voters to cast their ballots.
In the western Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul a line of hundreds of men and women snaked outside one polling station, with many impatient voters saying they had been waiting in the rain for most of the day.
“I have waited here for hours, but was not allowed inside to vote because there is no ballot paper,” said Hassan, who only gave his first name, as others nodded in agreement. “This is a deprivation of my right and I am unhappy at not being able to take part in this historic process.”
Many polling stations in Kabul decided to extend voting way beyond the official closing time of 4 p.m. (1130 GMT) to allow voters to cast their ballots.
Mohammad Hashimi, an election observer, added: “Many people stood in the rain for hours but couldn’t vote because of the ballot papers.”
Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, told reporters that signs were that the turnout was good, while acknowledging the foul up over ballot papers.
“The report we have so far indicates that many people participated in these elections and even in some stations we ran out of ballot papers,” he said. “We have already sent some ballots to those stations which we had reserved in provinces.”
Of the eight candidates contesting the presidency, the three frontrunners to succeed Karzai - who is barred by the constitution from running again - are former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
A smooth election with a high turnout is good news for Afghanistan’s Western backers who are watching the vote closely in order to decide whether to continue to extend billions of aid desperately needed to support Afghanistan’s ailing economy.
It was not immediately clear how widespread the shortage of ballot papers was around the country. Afghanistan has 12 million eligible voters, and officials say there were 15 million ballot papers printed.
In Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold and Afghanistan’s second city, ballots had run out at the majority of polling stations in the city, according to a spokesman for the governor’s office.
“Due to the mismanagement of election commission in Kandahar, voting materials in the majority of polling stations have run out,” said Dawakhan Menapal, the spokesman.
One young, angry voter, Mohammad, said he was upset because he was unable to vote.
“I came here at 8 a.m. to this polling station to select our candidate, it’s 11:30 and the election workers has told us that the election papers have run out and you should go to a different polling station,” he said. “People have crushed their voting cards and thrown them away.”
There was no official on turnout, but at the last election in 2009, the turnout of 4.6 million was regarded as low.
Because of Afghanistan’s difficult terrain, it will take weeks for officials to gather ballot boxes from around the country and count the votes. Official preliminary results from the Saturday vote are not expected until late April.
Writing by Maria Golovnina; Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni and Sarwar Amani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore