Afghans Vote In Large Numbers Despite Risks

After a campaign marred by violence, Afghans voted Saturday in presidential elections for what's to be the first ever democratic transfer of power. Results are not expected for some time.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. In Afghanistan, millions of voters lined up at polling centers across the country today to cast their ballots for a successor to the man who's ruled Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Of course, that's Hamid Karzai. And this will be the country's first-ever democratic transition of power. NPR's Sean Carberry joins us from Kabul. Sean, thanks very much for being with us.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: You were out at polling places, you were taking a look at the election as it unfolded all day. What did you see and hear?

CARBERRY: Well, despite the cold and rainy weather in parts of the country - including Kabul - and the threats of Taliban violence, the turnout exceeded expectations. Afghans of all description lined up - in some cases, for hours - to cast votes. People I encountered, they were quite cheery and rather defiant. They wanted to send a message to the Taliban. They wanted to vote for the future of their country. One young female voter, who didn't want to be identified, I spoke with her at a polling place. And here's what she had to say.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: What she's saying is that she came here to vote for the future of Afghanistan, for the future generation in the country; and to vote for someone who can actually get things done here. And in fact, the turnout was so high that there were reports that a number of polling stations around the country actually ran out of ballots, and they've been scrambling to get more to them. And based on past elections here, this vote seems to have really been quite a success. It's the first time that a presidential election has actually been held on time without being delayed because of security or technical problems.

SIMON: Taliban's been calling the election a fraud and said that they would derail the vote. Were they able to?

CARBERRY: Well, they really didn't seem to deliver on their campaign promise. They did stage a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul over the last few weeks; on election offices, on foreigners, guesthouses and hotels. But really, today, there's been sporadic violence. It's been low-level. There was one explosion outside a polling place, but that injured people. It didn't kill anyone. We have no reports of any fatalities. And we also have a lot of reports of foiled attacks. There have been a number of arrests around the country.

And in fact, one of my local staff members - when he went to vote, he overheard a report on a police walkie-talkie, saying that four suicide bombers had been arrested in Kabul. So again, clearly intent on the part of the Taliban, but very little in terms of significant results.

SIMON: What about fraud? That's certainly been a factor in some past Afghan elections.

CARBERRY: It has. And it will take several days, really, to several weeks to get a clear picture of how much of a problem that is in this vote. Certainly, anecdotally, we heard of a handful to a dozen people arrested around the country committing acts of fraud - ballot stuffing, or trying to vote multiple times or with voter cards that weren't theirs. I mean, the positive thing is that there have been arrests already. Again, we haven't heard of anything really systematic going on. I did speak with one election observer at a polling place here in Kabul, and this was her take on it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: She's saying that she's 80 percent certain that fraud won't take place. And she says this because the people of Afghanistan have endured a lot of suffering. And this is a chance for them to vote for someone new. So we'll see in the coming weeks, as the counting happens, how much fraud emerges - but not hearing any horror stories yet.

SIMON: I assume, Sean, you're not going to have anyone there kind of pulling in the CNN-type touchscreen - pulling up results from various provinces. When might we get a really solid indication of who the next president of Afghanistan will be?

CARBERRY: You're right. It is going to take some time here. We should start to get some basic, preliminary results in the coming days. But the actual count won't be completed until April 20. But once that's released, there's going to be several weeks of challenges, and a period where another body evaluates fraud and complaints and challenges from candidates. And May 14th is when the final, certified results of today's vote will actually be released. And most analysts are convinced that there's no chance any of the candidates will get more than 50 percent of the vote today, which means the top two candidates will go to a runoff, probably to be held sometime in June; meaning, we're looking at sometime late summer, early fall, actually, before we know who the next president of Afghanistan's going to be.

SIMON: NPR's Sean Carberry in Kabul. Thanks so much.

CARBERRY: Thank you, Scott.

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