Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections were held on Saturday amid insurgent attacks and logistical challenges that forced officials to extend polling in several centres by another day.
At least five explosions occurred in Kabul alone, with confirmed attacks outside the capital in polling stations across Afghanistan.
Despite engaging in peace negotiations with the US administration last week, the Taliban had called for a boycott of the elections, ordering their fighters to target polling centres and security forces.
Power lines transporting electricity from Tajikistan to the northern provinces were attacked, affecting a voting process that relied on electronic biometric equipment.
Taliban fighters blocked road and highways in areas under the group’s control, preventing voters from accessing polling stations. Several reports also stated that Taliban members had kidnapped election workers in the north. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah criticised the Taliban's attempt to sabotage the elections. "Our enemies do not want the country to have leadership elected by the people and so they seek to bar people to participate in election," he said, in an address at the end of first day of polling.
Security wasn’t the only concern for many Afghans. Questions were also raised by the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC) over the transparency of the elections. Ali Reza Rouhani, an EEC spokesperson, pointed to numerous shortcomings in the electoral process, including biometric systems that did not work, and observers who were not granted access or mistreated. “The Complaints Commission were also denied access,” to unspecified polling stations Mr Rouhani alleged.
The head of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission acknowledged mistakes. “There were ups and downs in today’s elections. Many of the officials were unable to reach the polling centre due to threats from Taliban,” said Abdul Badi Sayyad at a press conference in Kabul on Saturday evening.
Logistical and technical issues hampered and delayed voting in many provinces, he acknowledged. Polling in many stations was extended as a result, and in some cases would continue on Sunday.
“In the centres where materials weren’t derived or employees didn’t show, elections will be held there tomorrow,” he said.
In addition, 371 polling centres that were closed on Saturday would be open on Sunday, Mr Sayyad said.
Despite the security threats, Afghans turned out in relatively large numbers to vote in the first parliamentary elections in eight years. By midday, about two million out of 8.8 million eligible voters had cast their ballots. Kabul saw the highest voter turnout in the country, as of Saturday evening.
The relatively high turnout was a sign of the country’s increasing autonomy, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. “These elections were the first completely run by Afghan authorities since 2001 and are an important milestone in Afghanistan’s transition to self-reliance,” the mission said in a statement. The UN body urged electoral authorities to “re-double their efforts to make sure all eligible voters are given a reasonable opportunity to cast their ballot”.
The extension of voting hours was welcomed by voters who had been unable to cast their ballots. Mohammad Qurban, a citizen from Tala wa Barfak in Baghlan province said he had made several unsuccessful attempts to vote at the only open polling station in his district, but was turned back by ongoing clashes.
"I have been trying to go cast my vote all morning, but there has been fighting ongoing between the security forces and Taliban in our district," Mr Qurban told The National. "I was caught in the crossfire. The insurgents were firing missiles and I had to come back home."
Across the country at least 28 people were killed and 83 wounded. A total of 192 "security incidents" were reported across Afghanistan, including grenade and IED attacks, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Afghan security forces prevented 1725 “incidences” across the country, the ministry said in a statement without providing further details.
Among the dead were 10 policemen and one soldier, with 17 members of the security forces wounded.
Mr Qurban in Baghlan said he remained hopeful he would get a chance to cast his ballot.
“If the security improves, I will try to go out to vote again,” he said.