Afghan election workers began counting votes on Saturday following a partial legislative ballot tarnished by scores of deadly militant attacks, technical glitches and administrative chaos.
Nearly 170 people — civilians and security forces — were killed or wounded in election-related violence, official figures showed, and there are fears of more bloodshed when voting resumes Sunday in 401 polling centers.
“Inevitable” problems with biometric verification devices, which were introduced at the eleventh hour, as well as missing voter registration lists and lack of staffing delayed or even prevented voting at those polling sites, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) told reporters.
According to initial IEC figures around three million voters turned up at 4,500 polling centers. Elections have been postponed in Ghazni and Kandahar provinces.
That compares with nearly nine million registered voters, though many suspect a significant number of those were based on fake identification documents that fraudsters planned to use to stuff ballot boxes.
Most polling sites opened hours late after voter rolls were not delivered or teachers employed to manage the voting process failed to show up following Taliban threats to attack the ballot.
There were multiple explosions across Kabul during the day. Hours before polls closed a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a polling center in the Afghan capital, which police said killed at least 15 people and wounded 20.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but the Taliban said it had carried out more than 400 attacks on the “fake election” across the war-torn country.
Violence also disrupted voting in the northern city of Kunduz where a senior health official told AFP three people died and 39 were wounded after more than 20 rockets rained down on the provincial capital.
Eight explosions were recorded in the eastern province of Nangarhar, with two people killed and five wounded, the provincial governor’s spokesman said.
The interior ministry put the overall casualty toll — including civilians and security forces — slightly lower at 160, with 27 civilians killed and 100 wounded.
There were 193 attacks across the country, which the ministry said was half the number recorded on the day of the 2014 presidential election.
– ‘Frustrated’ voters –
Despite threats of violence, voters waited for hours outside polling centers across the country. Some eventually gave up and went home without casting a ballot.
University student Mohammad Alem said he felt “frustrated” after spending more than three hours trying to vote in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, only to discover his name was not on the registration list.
“There also were some problems with the biometric devices because they were already running out of charge,” he said.
After waiting four hours at a polling center, Tabish Forugh tweeted he had not seen “even remotely similar… chaos” at previous elections.
The parliamentary ballot is more than three years late and only the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Turnout was likely affected after the militant group issued several warnings in the days leading up to the poll calling on candidates to withdraw from the race and for voters to stay home.
Hundreds of people were killed or wounded in the months before the poll.
The killing of a powerful police chief in the southern province of Kandahar on Thursday further eroded confidence in the ability of security forces to protect voters.
Voting in Kandahar has been delayed until October 27 following the attack.
Despite the risks, President Ashraf Ghani urged “every Afghan, young and old, women and men” to exercise their right to vote, after casting his ballot in Kabul.
Photos posted on social media showed scores of men and women clutching their identification documents lining up outside voting centers amid a heavy security presence.
A woman dressed in a burqa leaving a polling center in Mazar-i-Sharif told AFP she had been worried about “security incidents”, but decided to vote anyway.
“We have to defy the violence,” Hafiza, 57, said.
– Crucial test –
At least 10 candidates out of more than 2,500 contesting the lower-house election were killed ahead of the poll.
Most of those standing are political novices, and include doctors, mullahs and journalists. Those with the deepest pockets are expected to win.
The poll is seen as a crucial test for next year’s presidential election and an important milestone ahead of a UN meeting in Geneva in November where Afghanistan is under pressure to show progress on “democratic processes”.
Preliminary results are scheduled to be released on November 10.
Votes cast without biometric machines will not be counted, the IEC has said.