With Modern Election, Voters Make A Break From Old Afghanistan

Afghans voted for a new president Saturday, with only scattered violence. NPR'S Renee Montagne tells NPR's Scott Simon that the vote reflects the country's tug between tradition and modernity.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Afghanistan held its presidential election today. Hamid Karzai, who's been president for more than a decade, is stepping down. His departure offers a historic opportunity - the chance to transfer power of peacefully. But the days leading up to the election have not been peaceful. NPR's Renee Montagne has been reporting from Afghanistan throughout the past week. She joins us now. Renee, thanks so much for being with us.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Help us appreciate how important this election is to Afghans.

MONTAGNE: People talk about it here as if it's a make or break moment for them. There's a high awareness here of how much rests on this election going well having to do with the international community staying here. The Taliban clearly thought this was a make or break moment, too, for them even because they went into this campaign season vowing to disrupt the election. But I'll tell you, when the polling stations opened this morning, at least here in Kabul and I gather in many other places around the country, there were long lines. One of the things that helped was the security was really high. I mean, there were thousands of police, special forces. The situation was good for people to come out to the polls. Facebook helped pump up enthusiasm.

SIMON: I've seen some of the messages - people holding up their fingers.

MONTAGNE: Yes, yes. People holding up their fingers with the blue ink. And those pictures have been all over this morning. Also, people posting photographs of long lines in their areas of people voting, which is - you know, which is pretty inspiring. There were even pictures of lines in more volatile provinces.

SIMON: Renee, how visible have Afghan women been?

MONTAGNE: They have been visible throughout the election, actually. One of the lead candidates has, as a vice presidential running mate, a woman. She was the governor, for many years, of Bamiyan province. And there have been women helping with the campaigns and going to the rallies. The voting places we went, the women were also in long lines responding, also, to the fact that lead candidates this time have been very much aware of the women's vote. And every stump speech contains promises designed to appeal to women. But this morning, we saw women standing in the rain, some of them mothers with their babies and their toddlers in tow. I met this one 18-year-old. She had just voted. She was giddy, really. And I asked her, you know, weren't you a little bit afraid? And here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I was concerned, but it couldn't make me stay home. And I really wanted to vote for Dr. Abdullah. I must say I really love him, and I voted for him.

SIMON: She's voting for Dr. Abdullah.

MONTAGNE: Right. Her man is Dr. Abdullah. He is Abdullah Abdullah, one of the three front runners. He's a former Foreign Minister, impeccably dressed, handsome in an Omar Sharif kind of way. People here actually say he appeals to the ladies. But, you know, one thing you don't see wives on the campaign trail. One thing that has been interesting is that another front runner, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, should he win, his wife, who is Lebanese-American and Christian, would be the first lady of Afghanistan.

SIMON: Of course, we half to talk about the violence that's been leading up to this day. We've talked so much about what's modern in Afghanistan, but clearly there's some forces that have been trying to pull the country back.

MONTAGNE: There have been a number of spectacular attacks. There was much talk about how this could make a difference in how many people came out. There were tragic deaths. And, Scott, we'll surely hear the days to come. There will be voting fraud. Voters, some of them out in the countryside will be reported to not have been able to get out to vote. But, in fact, we're hearing this morning, in some places, there aren't enough ballots because so many people came out. I have to say, though, that today, there were no spectacular attacks, very little violence. And, really, people defied the Taliban. They came out in large numbers to vote, and all in all, it has been a great day for Afghanistan.

SIMON: Renee Montagne of Morning Edition in Kabul. Thanks so much for being with us.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Scott.

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