Millions of Afghans voted in a mostly peaceful run-off to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, a decisive test of the country's ambitions to transfer power democratically for the first time in its tumultuous history.
According to Reuters, there were far fewer incidents of violence than had been feared and, as after the first round of voting, there was a palpable sense of relief in the Afghan capital. Voting ended at 4 p.m. (1130 GMT).
"I'm from this country so I am never afraid of threats," said Lajiullah Azizi, a hospital worker who voted in western Kabul just minutes after a small bomb exploded at his polling station. "I hope this election will bring peace."
Officials immediately began counting ballots, although Afghanistan's difficult terrain, where ballot boxes have to be hauled by donkey from some of its remotest corners, means preliminary results will not be known until July 2.
"Based on what I saw, it's been a very calm election day with vigilant security," Thijs Berman, the chief observer of the EU Election assessment team in Afghanistan, told Reuters.
Most foreign troops will leave by the end of 2014, and whoever takes over from Karzai will inherit a troubled country plagued by an assertive Taliban insurgency and an economy crippled by corruption and the weak rule of law.
The election pitted former anti-Taliban fighter Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani after neither secured the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in the first round on April 5.
Karzai, standing down after 12 years in power marked by increasingly sour relations with the West, is certain to retain a hand in politics but has been tight-lipped about his plans.
"Today Afghanistan takes a step towards stability, development and peace. Come out and determine your destiny," Karzai, clad in his trademark green Afghan robe, said after casting his ballot.
Later, in a video distributed by his office, he added: "This is a major step at a time when Afghanistan’s enemies try to disrupt the election."
The main source of contention with the West is Karzai's refusal to sign a security pact with the United States allowing a small contingent of U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond 2014. Both Abdullah and Ghani have promised to sign it promptly.
Twelve million voters were eligible to cast ballots at 6,365 polling centers across Afghanistan, from windswept deserts on the Iranian border to the rugged Hindu Kush mountains.
There were isolated cases of violence but voters were not put off by a couple of rockets landing in Kabul and other attacks, in which one person was reported injured. Long queues snaked out of polling centers soon after voting began at 7 a.m.
Rocket attacks were also reported in Ghazni province.
In a more serious incident, two tribal elders were killed when they defied a Taliban warning in Kunar province not to participate in the elections, triggering a gun battle between villagers and insurgents, local officials said. Four rockets landed in the provincial capital. No casualties were reported.
Overall, there were 150 roadside bombs, magnet bombs and rocket attacks, according to the interior ministry. Deputy Interior Minister Ayoub Salangi said 14 people were killed and 41 wounded.
The turnout was so high that some 333 voting centers ran out of ballot papers, sparking minor protests by disgruntled voters. The election commission said additional materials were later distributed and calm was restored.
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