Kabul, Afghanistan – Millions of Afghans have started voting to choose a new leader in an election that could lead to the first democratic transfer of power in the nation’s 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.
All three men command a similar number of supporters and the race is seen as wide open with voters, analysts and longtime observers uncertain of the outcome – a rarity in a country where much in politics has traditionally been decided by backroom deals or through convoluted patronage networks.
Outgoing President Hamid Karzai has cast his vote early Saturday amid tight security across the country.
Afghanistan has never had an election so well prepared so well in advance.
Al Jazeera’s D. Parvaz, reporting from Kabul, said two people including a police chief in Wardak province, were arrested for allegedly stuffing five ballot boxes in the district of Saeedabad.
Voting was also reportedly disrupted in three polling stations in Logar province, and seven polling stations in Khost province, where two people have been reportedly injured.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, however, reported that turnout in the polls is high despite the threats of violence and weather disturbance in some parts of the country.
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 remains to be threatened by the Taliban.
The group has followed through on that threat, carrying out several attacks in the capital Kabul and across the country that have left many dead and created an atmosphere of insecurity – even with 352,000 troops on duty to provide security for about 12 million voters and 20,752 polling stations. Another 748 polling stations have been closed because Afghan security forces can 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 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.
“They are trying to capture power in this way, but it is absolutely unacceptable to the Afghan nation,” he said, adding that he was certain of Rassoul’s victory.
But he added: “I am not prophesising anything in advance. That is the decision of the Afghan nation.”
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.
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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