Thursday, August 20, 2009
Count begins in Afghanistan as pollling stations close
Afghan officials have begun counting votes as polling sites closed in the presidential election.
Taliban threats had appeared to dampen voter turnout in the militant south with scattered rocket, suicide and bomb attacks closing some voting sites.
Low turnout in the south would harm President Hamid Karzai's re-election chances and boost the standing of his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Turnout in the north appeared to be stronger than in the south, a good sign for Abdullah.
Election officials extended voting by one hour to allow more people to vote.
International officials have predicted an imperfect election - Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential vote - but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate, a key component of Western war strategy.
A voting official in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban's spiritual birthplace, said voting appeared to be 40% lower than during the country's 2004 presidential election.
Militants carried out attacks around the country. Security companies in the capital reported at least five blasts, and Kabul police exchanged fire for more than an hour with a group of armed men; two suicide bombers died in the clash.
Mr Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple-and-green-striped robe, voted first thing at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink - a fraud prevention measure - and held it up for the cameras. Presidential palace officials released a rare photo of his wife casting her vote.
Mr Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001 by the West, is favoured to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by Mr Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50%. Preliminary results are expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday.