KABUL (Reuters) - At least 2.2 million people voted in Afghanistan’s presidential election with more votes to come, the election commission head Maulana Abdullah said on Sunday, indicating a very low turnout that could mar the result.
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 of around 34 million into further chaos.
There were 9.67 million voters registered ahead of the election. Abdullah said turnout numbers had been received so far from 3,736 of 4,756 polling centers nationwide. Almost 800 centers had still to report their figures and the status of more than 200 other centers was also unclear.
Preliminary results are not expected before Oct. 19 and final results not until Nov. 7. If no candidate gets over half of the votes, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates.
“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.
In the last presidential election in 2014, roughly 7 million turned out to vote, though widespread fraud tainted the election and results were never declared.
Ahead of Saturday’s poll, Taliban fighters attacked several polling stations across the country to try to derail the process, but intense security prevented large-scale violence.
There were more than 400 attacks, mostly small-scale, carried out by the militants, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Many Afghans still braved 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.
Over a dozen candidates are vying for the presidency, led by incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his former deputy Abdullah Abdullah.
The Afghanistan Analysts Network said there were also technical shortcomings in the vote including biometric devices not working, missing voter names and election material sent to the wrong province.
As many as eight election staff were kidnapped on 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.
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 centers to larger regional offices for counting. From there, the boxes make their way to the capital Kabul.
Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Additional reporting by Rod Nickel; writing by Paul Carsten; editing by Stephen Coates/Jason Neely/Susan Fenton