KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in the southern province of Kandahar on Saturday, a week late because of the assassination of the provincial police chief by Taliban insurgents.
Police said voting in the province had taken place without major security incidents. Thirty-two of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces voted over two days on Oct. 20-21. No voting has been held in one other province, Ghazni, still reeling from having been taken over by the Taliban in August.
The election, held up for years amid disputes between political factions over voting rules, is one of the biggest tests of Afghanistan’s ability to protect itself since an international security force mostly withdrew in 2014. A far smaller NATO-led force still trains Afghan troops and helps them hunt down insurgents.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban and has long been a center of the insurgency that has been waged throughout years of international intervention since the strict Islamist movement was toppled during a U.S. bombing campaign in 2001.
Voting in Kandahar was delayed after police chief Abdul Razeq, one of Afghanistan’s most feared anti-Taliban commanders, was killed along with the provincial intelligence chief two days before the election by a member of the governor’s bodyguard.
The attack took place after a meeting with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller. Miller escaped unharmed but another U.S. general was wounded.
Residents braved threats of militant attacks to queue on Saturday outside more than 170 polling stations across the province amid heavy security.
“We were worried about attacks but our security arrangement worked to prevent disruption of the vote,” Zia Durani, a spokesman for Kandahar police.
Despite delays caused by technical and organizational glitches, voters waited patiently to cast their vote. Election officials said the turnout was higher than expected.
During two days of voting last weekend, insurgents launched some 250 attacks across the country, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100, the interior ministry said.
Thousands of soldiers were deployed to boost the morale of voters shaken by the killing of Razeq, who was widely credited in the province with maintaining stability. Major roads were closed nearly 24 hours before polls opened to prevent car bombs.
President Ashraf Ghani’s government named Razeq’s brother as his successor after his supporters threatened to block the Kandahar vote. Razeq’s death served as a rallying cry for some voters and candidates.
“People are determined to take part in the election because they want to show the Taliban that terror cannot stop the Afghans from deciding their future,” Dawa Khan Menapal, an independent candidate, said before the voting in Kandahar.
With the Taliban operating freely across much of the country and heavy pressure from international partners for the vote to be held, the election was seen as a major test of the credibility of the government.
Voting in the 32 provinces also saw a high turnout but problems with new biometric verification devices, missing or incomplete voter rolls and absent election workers following Taliban threats meant many voters waited for hours.
Preliminary nationwide results are expected to be released in November. Final results will not be known until the new year.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Peter Graff