Afghans braved threats of violence and searing heat Saturday to vote in a presidential runoff that likely will mark the country’s first peaceful transfer of authority, an important step toward democracy as foreign combat troops leave. The new leader will be challenged with trying to improve ties with the West and combatting corruption while facing a powerful Taliban insurgency and declining international aid. Despite a series of rocket barrages and other scattered attacks that Interior Minister Mohammad Umar Daudzai said killed 46 people, the voting was largely peaceful. Independent Election Commission Chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani said initial estimates show that more than 7 million Afghans voted, which would be equivalent to the first round on April 5. That would be a turnout of about 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 12 million eligible voters. Abdullah Abdullah, who emerged as the front-runner with 45 percent of the vote in the first round, faced Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an ex-World Bank official and finance minister. Neither garnered the majority needed to win outright, but previous candidates and their supporters have since offered endorsements to each, making the final outcome unpredictable.
The two men differ more in personality than policy. Both promise to sign a long-delayed security pact with the United States. That would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the ill-prepared Afghan army and police. And both pledge to fight for peace and against corruption.
But their different ethnic backgrounds have highlighted the tribal fault lines in this country of 30 million ravaged by decades of war. “I voted today for my future, because it is still not clear — the country is at war and corruption is everywhere and security is terrible. I want the next president to bring security above all and jobs,” said Marya Nazami, who voted for Ahmadzai.