KABUL (Reuters) – Afghans defied chaotic delays outside polling stations and the threat of militant attacks to vote in Saturday's parliamentary elections, which were regarded as an important test of the credibility of the West-backed government.
A suicide bomber killed 15 people in Kabul, the heaviest of a series of minor attacks that claimed dozens of victims across the country, but did not prevent voters with long queues from casting their votes.
"Today, people have given an irrefutable answer to the enemies of Afghanistan," government spokesman Haroon Chakansuri told reporters.
The election should have ended when the suicide bomber attacked a polling station in northern Kabul and killed 1
Voter turnout was higher than expected, with long queues outside polling stations in major cities, but many voters had to wait longer due to technical and organizational issues.
"Enthusiasm and popular participation, despite threats, intimidation and attacks by militants, must be commended today," a senior international security official said, adding, "The electoral process will require close scrutiny as there are several failures."
Untested biometric voter registration tool used at the last minute to counter election fraud caused particular problems. The "Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan", a civilian action group, said the equipment had malfunctioned in more than 40 percent of polling stations.
"The biggest problem is the biometric machines are places where they do not work and many voters have been discouraged and gone home," said Nasibullah Sayedi, a voter in the western city of Herat.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the body overseeing the vote, said the voting hours would be extended in some centers to meet demand, and some polling stations that would not open at all would be open on Sunday.
In the days leading up to the election, Taliban militants issued a series of statements stating that they should not participate in what they perceived to be an outside ordinance.
Security officials said there were more than 120 hand grenade or improvised explosives attacks, but they said many of them did not target reconciliation centers, but aimed to drive out voters rather than cause casualties.
Afghanistan's political scene continues to be impacted by a controversial presidential election in 2014, which forced the two main rival factions into an unstable partnership. Both sides were accused of massive election fraud.
But high voter turnout, at least in major cities, reflected strong support for the process amid threats from militant attacks and widespread disillusionment with a corrupt political class.
"I want candidates to serve the country and hear the voices of the disabled and the poor," said Abdullah, a wheelchair user in Herat. "People ask what difference a person's voice will make, but I say if there's a million disabled people to vote for, do not you think that will make a difference?"
In Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, men and women came to vote and created human chains around six polling stations to prevent the entry of suicide bombers.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan issued a statement welcoming the high number of eligible voters, saying that the authorities must ensure that the election was successfully completed.
It also called on candidates and political parties to play a constructive role "to ensure the integrity of the electoral process when counting votes."
Numerous allegations of electoral fraud before elections, however, challenged legitimacy The process is seen by Afghanistan's international partners as an important step ahead of the more important presidential elections next year.
Due to the difficulty of collecting and collating results across Afghanistan, the overall results will only be known after at least two weeks.
About 8.8 million voters have been registered, but an unknown number, from some estimates even 50 percent or more, is considered fraudulent or wrongly registered.
About 2,450 candidates compete for seats in the lower house, which has 250 seats, including one for a candidate from the Sikh minority. Under the Constitution, Parliament reviews and ratifies laws but has little real power.
Electoral authorities initially planned 7,355 polling stations, but only 4,530 were open for security reasons, according to the IEC.
The election was postponed for one week in Kandahar province following the assassination of the powerful local police chief General Abdul Razeq. The vote in the province of Ghazni was also delayed by arguments over the representation of various ethnic groups.
Additional reporting by Storay Karimi in HERAT, Mohammad Stanekzai in LASHKAR GAH; Sardar Razmal in KUNDUZ; Zaker Noory in BAGHLAN, Qiam Shams in CHARIKAR; Ahmad Sultan in JALALABAD and Akram Walizada, Sayed Hassib, Abdul Qadir Sediqi in KABUL; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Helen Popper, Ros Russell and Adrian Croft