Kabul, Afghanistan - Millions of Afghans have cast their ballots to pick the country's next president, with only isolated attacks on polling stations reported in the country's first democratic transfer of power in its 5,000 year history.
After months of manoeuvring, jockeying, tribal meetings and campaigning, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul have emerged as the frontrunners in Saturday's polls, coming from a field of eight candidates that includes everyone from former mujahedeen commanders to Western-educated technocrats.
Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith, reporting from Kabul, described turnout in the polls as high, despite threats of violence and weather disturbance in some parts of the country. Voting has also been extended for at least an hour, with the possibility of another extension depending on the volume of voters, he said.
Afghanistan has never had an election so well prepared so well in advance.
Four voters were wounded in an explosion at a polling station in the southeastern province of Logar.
It was the most serious attack so far on election day that Taliban had vowed to derail, branding it a US-backed sham.
Voting was also reportedly disrupted in seven polling stations in Khost province, where two people were reportedly injured, according to Al Jazeera's D. Parvaz, who is reporting from Kabul.
Our correspondent also reported that two people, including a police chief were arrested in Wardak province, after they were caught "stuffing" five ballot boxes.
Elsewhere in Zabul province, three Taliban fighters were reportedly killed after accidentally detonating their explosives.
In the province of Faryab, one suicide bomber was arrested, while another explosive was detonated at a polling station in Samangan.
As of Saturday afternoon, the election commission has received 200 complaints of poll fraud. And in the northern province of Baghlan, poll workers were beaten and 1,200 ballots headed to two polling stations were tossed in the river.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, political analyst Haroun Mir said that Afghan citizens know that the 2014 national and local elections are critical to the country's future, which continues to be threatened by the Taliban.
The group has recently carried out several attacks in the capital Kabul and across the country that left many dead and created an atmosphere of insecurity.
Even with the deployment of 352,000 troops to provide security for about 12 million voters and 20,752 polling stations, some 748 polling stations remained closed because Afghan security forces could not secure them, according to the IEC.
On the eve of the vote, two Associated Press news agency journalists were shot as they reported on the preparations. Anja Niedringhaus, a 48-year-old German photographer, was killed and journalist Kathy Gannon was injured.
In a move that underlined the complexities of the race, a last minute drama unfolded on Friday when a rumour swept Kabul that President Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, had switched his support from Rassoul – who as former foreign minister is seen as Karzai’s chosen successor – to Ghani.
"That is absolute nonsense. This is very dirty politics, and very false rumours," a top official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera.
Though the rumour may have been a failed attempt to influence the poll, it was indicative of a fear expressed by some Western diplomats that eleventh hour power politics could influence the poll.
|Afghanistan is ready for elections
Massive fraud during the 2009 campaign undercut Karzai’s legitimacy and allegations are already being made that deals have been cut to stuff ballot boxes. Some observers, though, expect this election to be fairer and better-run.
"Afghanistan has never had an election so well prepared so well in advance," Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera.
"Really everything has been delivered according to timeline both in regard to broad legislative and other provisions but also the delivery of ballot papers, sensitive and non-sensitive materials to the seven thousand-odd voting centres."
With analysts predicting that a vote of over 50 percent, required for an outright win, is unlikely to be achieved by any of the leading candidates, a May 28th second round between the two who poll the highest is a real prospect.
The US and other nations are watching closely and hoping the $126 mln foreign-funded poll goes smoothly. A free and fair election would give them a small success to point to after 13 years of bloodshed since US-led forces toppled the Taliban, and make the scheduled pull-out of most foreign troops this year easier.
Follow John Wendle on Twitter @JohnWendle
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies