Voters in Afghanistan take part in landmark presidential election in defiance of Taliban threats.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghans braved the rain, muddy streets and possible attacks by militants to head to the polls Saturday, voting in what turned out to be a mostly peaceful election that marks the first transfer of presidential power since the Taliban fell in 2001.
In defiance of the threats that have loomed over the election since early this year, many voters said going to the polls was their duty.
"If you're not voting, you're not Afghan," said Mohammad Hamid, 27, a recent MBA graduate from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, who cut short graduation celebrations to fly home from Dubai to vote.
Hamid says he had been proudly carrying his voter registration card for the past three months, showing it to friends and neighbors and telling them how to register at one of the more than 6,000 polling stations across the country.
"The election is the most important thing for the current situation in Afghanistan," he said, adding he was not scared to go to the polls and would go even if that meant risking his life. "I will vote for my future."
The election is set against a backdrop of U.S. troop withdrawal and looming cuts to foreign aid, which have propped up the country. There are eight presidential candidates and three front-runners — Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah — and no one is sure who will win.
A few hours after the polls closed on Saturday evening, the Independent Election Commission's chairman, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, told reporters that election officials are ready to manage a second round of voting. The runoff will most likely be held on May 28.
Meanwhile, sporadic violence marked Election Day. A bomb exploded in a school packed with voters Saturday in the Mohammad Agha district of Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously, said local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
Rocket attacks and gun battles forced authorities to close an additional 211 polling centers, raising the total number that weren't opened because of security concerns to 959, Nuristani told the Associated Press. He said in all, 6,212 polling centers were opened on Saturday. Some polling centers beefed up security because of threats received, including a high school in central Kabul, where extra Afghan National Police patrolled the site.
Voter excitement appears to have overcome the threat of violence, as some polling centers ran out of ballots, Nuristani said, adding authorities were addressing the shortfall. Six hundred ballots are provided at each polling station.
At one station inside a post office in central Kabul, 548 women had already cast their ballots by 3:30 p.m. More women were still queuing in line as an IEC worker flipped through the slim pad of remaining ballots, uncertain whether her station would be able to accommodate the women waiting to enter.
Voting was also extended by one hour to accommodate everybody standing in line.
"We have received complaints about it, and we have already sent ballot papers to wherever needed," he said.
Most polling stations closed as planned after nearly 10 hours of voting.
Most believe the vote is a crucial test on how the country — with its fragile security, political and economic situation — will determine its future. Most say that decision is up to the nation's youth, many of them first-time voters under 20.
"We're not afraid," said Homira Hasti, 19, an artist who just finished high school and voted for the first time at the mosque next to her home in western Kabul.
Heading to the polls alone — as other women in her family are not educated and do not see voting as important — Hasti says Afghans are used to the security situation in their country. She waited anxiously in line on Saturday morning in west Kabul with about 45 other women to cast her vote. After exiting the voting booth, she said she was proud of herself.
"After this election, Afghanistan will change," Hasti said from her home, hoping that peace will come to her country.
Despite widespread concerns about corruption and fraud surrounding the election as well as the fear of violence at the polls, Hasti said she believes every vote will have a positive effect.
"We are the young generation who will make our own country," she said.
Hamid and Hasti represent two of the roughly 12 million registered voters who will be casting ballots for their choice of president — the third time in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
"The majority of people who will take part in Saturday's election will be the young generation," said Noor Mohammad Noor, spokesperson for the IEC, adding that about 68% of the population is younger than 35.
Meanwhile, some other young, first-time voters say they do not believe their vote will matter.
Freshta Ferozeshgar, 18, still in high school, said she would be casting a blank vote to protest the election, which she thinks is rigged.
Ferozeshgar and some of her fellow young voters believe this is the only way to send their message that they are against corruption. Her family supports her decision, she said.
Another young voter, Nasrullah Mohseni, 28, a law student and strong supporter of Abdullah Abdullah, was eager as he headed to the polls. He said he didn't want anyone to decide on his future.
"I want to fight terrorism with my vote," he said. "I will fight with my pen, my education, my right (to vote)."
Mohammad Sarwar Khalede, 35, a headmaster at a high school in central Kabul where he is also serving as an IEC supervisor for the polling center located there, reflected on his participation in this year's election.
"Everybody's life depends on this election," he said.