Candidates and voters alike have defied the Taliban to return to the polls for the second round run-off in Afghanistan’s presidential election.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah came out on top in April’s first round, 14 percentage points ahead of his only remaining rival ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.
However Ghani, who is ethnic Pashtun, stands to gain a portion of the Pashtun vote that was splintered in the first round.
Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, making up about 45 percent of the population. While Abdullah is partly Pashtun, he is identified more with the ethnic Tajik minority.
Saturday’s vote was necessary as neither man managed the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in April
Both are hoping to make history by succeeding longtime leader Hamid Karzai in what will be the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history.
Yet the entire process has been fraught with accusations of fraud.
Independent Election Commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani sought to reassure voters and observers that it would ensure the process would deliver a legitimate winner.
“We have zero tolerance for fraud and if we detect any case of election staff working in favour of a candidate, they will be sacked immediately,” he said.
As most foreign troops leave by the end of this year, whoever does get the job will inherit a troubled country with an economy crippled by corruption and an increasingly violent insurgency.
But voters were not put off by rockets landing in the capital and some other explosions, forming long queues outside polling stations.
“Afghan people always rise from the ashes to face challenges. Today is one such challenge and we will rise to the occasion,” said Arash Yarmand, an electrical engineer preparing to cast his vote in Kabul.
Deeply hostile to what they see as a US-sponsored charade, the Taliban has been boasting of a wave of attacks on Saturday but reports suggested far fewer incidents of violence than had initially been feared.