Afghans to vote in run-off election as US troops exit
An Afghan woman shows her inked finger after voting in first round elections in Herat on April 5, 2014, the second round polls begin today - by Aref Karimi
The vote pits former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah against ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani in a head-to-head contest to lead Afghanistan as US-led troops withdraw after 13 years of fighting Taliban insurgents.
April's first-round vote was hailed a success as turnout topped 50 percent and Islamist militants failed to launch any high-profile attacks on polling day.
But Saturday presents another major challenge in the prolonged election process, which began with campaigning in early February and will end when the final result is announced on July 22.
"There is concern that the enemy who failed in the first round will seek revenge, but we can assure you they will fail again," General Afzal Aman, head of Afghan army operations, told reporters.
"We have been conducting missions all over Afghanistan for election security for the past two months."
Ahead of the vote, the Taliban issued a warning to voters, saying that polling booths would be targeted by "non-stop" assaults.
"By holding elections, the Americans want to impose their stooges on the people," the insurgents, who were ousted from power by a US-led offensive in 2001, said on their website.
International fears have focused on the risk of tension between the candidates' supporters after the result, which may be contested if the count is close and serious fraud allegations are raised.
"No one should be complacent about what is at stake in the coming weeks," US ambassador James Cunningham said in a statement. "We call on both candidates to direct their campaigns and supporters not to engage in fraud.
"It is our fervent hope that the two candidates, with the future of their country in their hands at this unprecedented time, will not seek a winner-take-all outcome."
The last presidential vote in 2009 was riddled with fraud, damaging relations between the Afghan government and the US-led donor nations on which it relies for funding.
Abdullah eventually pulled out of that election, allowing Karzai to retain power, but this year neither candidate is likely to back down if the result is close.
- Advantage Abdullah? -
Ethnic frictions are also a concern as Abdullah's support is based among the Tajik minority and other northern tribes, while Ghani is a Pashtun -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is strongest in the Taliban-infested south and east.
Both candidates held a hectic schedule of meetings on Wednesday, the final day of campaigning before a 48-hour period of silence in the run-up to polling.
After several bloody attacks before the April vote, recent weeks have been relatively peaceful except for a suicide blast targeting Abdullah in Kabul last week that left 12 dead.
In the first round, Abdullah secured 45 percent of the vote with Ghani in second on 31.6 percent in an eight-man contest.
More than seven million people voted, but turnout on Saturday may be lower after a dip in public interest.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from a third term, has ruled since the end of the austere Taliban era, when men were beaten for not having beards and women were forced to wear the all-enveloping burqa.
His mercurial 13-year reign has seen massive changes as billions of dollars of aid money poured into the country, triggering rapid development in the cities and some improvements in women's rights, health and education.
But the Taliban remain undefeated despite the might of the US-led NATO military, and a recent International Crisis Group report concluded that "the overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks".
NATO troop numbers peaked at 150,000 in 2012, with 50,000 still deployed.
Just 10,000 US soldiers are due to remain by the end of this year -- leaving the fledging Afghan army and police responsible for thwarting the insurgency.
Among the other priorities for the new president will be to boost the aid-dependent economy as funding falls and to sign a security agreement with Washington after ties became badly strained in the final years of Karzai's rule.
Moves to restart a peace process with the Taliban are also probable as Afghanistan seeks to end its decades of conflict.
Preliminary results are due on July 2, with the final results on July 22 after adjudication of complaints.
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