Afghanistan Is One Step Closer To Karzai's Successor

On Saturday, voters turned out in large numbers despite threats of Taliban violence. It will take weeks to learn who will become Afghanistan's next president. Hamid Karzai can't run for a third term

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene and our colleague Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan, a country that is a big step closer to choosing a new president. A presidential election brought out a record number of voters, adding up to an impressive 60 percent turnout. Afghans stood in long lines for hours amid tight security to vote. They faced down the Taliban, which had threatened to continue a spectacular string of attacks.

Renee Montagne spent Election Day at polling stations in the capital Kabul and she's with us on the line. Renee, good morning.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So I guess the first question, do we have a sense of who's winning this election?

MONTAGNE: Well, we have a sense. We do, indeed. We don't know for sure. A preliminary count won't be release by the government's independent election commission until the end of the week and not a full official count until two weeks from now. But there are numbers coming in, floating around mainly from the camps of the leading candidates. Last evening I we stopped in at the war room - and I mean that in a political sense - of front-runner Ashraf Ghani.

You might remember he's the former World Bank technocrat that we profiled last week.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: Dozens of young men were crowded around tables in several rooms. They were manning phones and tabulating votes coming in as they are counted and posted in polling centers around country. Here's campaign volunteer Mohammed Naseem. He teaches English literature at Kabul University by day.

MOHAMMED NASEEM: We have the latest information. Every time when they get an update, we are updated here.

MONTAGNE: Literally, you just pick up the phone and start typing it in?

NASEEM: Yeah, yeah. I wish you were minutes before here and you will have seen guys clapping.

MONTAGNE: Clapping because their numbers showed one province seeming to go their way big. Similar scenes are playing out this morning in the campaign offices of the other lead candidate, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. So we have some numbers.

GREENE: Well, Renee, we should remember in 2009, I mean, there were such problems in this country. I mean vote rigging, ballot stuffing, over a million votes thrown out. And a lot of people were fearing this would all happen again this time.

MONTAGNE: Well, definitely. Abdullah Abdullah, in fact, the man that Karzai beat in 2009, he and his supporters have been heavily focused on that issue. In fact, one of his campaign posters read: My biggest rival is fraud. One person who is following this is Andrew Wilder from the U.S. Institute of Peace. He's here in Kabul. And his was one of the few groups that kept international observers here after these pre-vote attacks that killed so many people. He traveled to villages around Kabul on voting day and here's what he told us this morning.

ANDREW WILDER: With the preliminary results we are beginning to hear now, it does look like there are two very strong front-runners and others following very far behind. It is not, I think, in the interest of either of the front-runners to make a big deal of fraud because it looks like that first round is going to get them into the second round.

I think that it was actually encouraging that one of the leading candidates yesterday, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, said that there was fraud but he did not think that the scale of the fraud was massive.

MONTAGNE: And that seems to be the feeling at this early stage. You know, one thing that's very interesting with all these very unofficial counts is that the candidate widely viewed as President Karzai's hand-picked successor, Zalmai Rassoul, he's trailing far behind the other two front-runners, which actually adds to the perception, David, that this was a legitimate vote.

GREENE: A legitimate vote and a safe vote. I mean, when you got to Afghanistan, Renee, we were talking about how the Taliban might disrupt this whole election with violence. You know, now that it's happened safely, all this turnout, what's the Taliban saying?

MONTAGNE: Well, if you didn't know, David, the Taliban's official spokesman has a Twitter feed.

GREENE: Hmm.

MONTAGNE: And their reaction has been pretty simple. I'll - just one example. They tweeted: It was a fraudulent election imposed by the Americans and their puppet candidates cheerleading the process. So that's the Taliban.

GREENE: That's their take. Well, Renee, how can we help our listeners understand the importance of this election and who wins?

MONTAGNE: Well, you might think of it this way. After 12 years, billions spent, blood spilled, Afghans at great risk to themselves have said no resoundingly to the Taliban. And they will soon elect as president one of two men, both of whom are highly educated, politically moderate and western leaning. So that's what this election has done.

GREENE: All right. We look forward to more of your reporting. That's our colleague Renee Montagne in Afghanistan where an election was held over the weekend. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, David.

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