KABUL, Afghanistan – Vote counting in Afghanistan's (search) presidential election got under way Thursday, five days after a landmark vote meant to cement a new era of stability after more than two decades of strife.
A top election official said about three-quarters of the 10.5 million Afghans who registered for the election turned out to vote — despite threats of violence.
Ballot boxes have flooded in to the counting centers by road, air and even donkey from across the rugged, impoverished country. The head of the Afghan-U.N. electoral commission cut the seal on the first box opened in the capital, Kabul (search), to begin the tallying process to determine the country's first popularly elected head of state.
Counting also started in four regional centers: the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, eastern Gardez and the main southern city of Kandahar (search).
The remaining three counting centers were expected to begin work by Saturday. U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said 95 percent of the ballot boxes have reached the counting centers.
Reginald Austin (search), the top adviser to the joint election commission, said the first "substantial" results could emerge in about a week.
Austin said initial information from polling stations indicated that "nearly eight million" people cast ballots, a turnout of between 75 and 80 percent.
Karzai, who enjoys strong international backing and is seeking to bridge the war-ravaged nation's deep ethnic divides, is widely believed to have won, possibly with the absolute majority needed to avoid a run-off.
Officials had stalled the start of vote counting while a panel of foreign experts sifted through several dozen complaints of alleged irregularities from the 16 candidates, including front-running, U.S.-backed incumbent Hamid Karzai.
None of their complaints appear serious enough to invalidate final results expected by Oct. 31.
Some ballot boxes have not retrieved yet from far-flung regions, and the count may take time even after they do. Most election workers have received only a few hours of training.
Staff in Kabul went through a final drill on procedures before Zakim Shah, the president of the Joint Electoral Management Body, snipped the green seal on a plastic box containing hundreds of ballots to begin the process there.
Still, many election centers likely will close for Friday, the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, election spokeswoman Silvana Puizina said.
The chances for a solid result improved following the appointment of a panel of three foreign experts to investigate complaints from Karzai's rivals.
The panel said Wednesday it was forced to quarantine ballots from only about 10 polling stations, indicating that any problems with the vote — especially with ink used to mark people's hands to prevent multiple voting — may be limited.
Election staff were supposed to mark voters' left thumbs with indelible ink, but some apparently used pens meant for marking the ballots or ink meant for stamping them instead.
The probe prompted many of Karzai's 15 challengers to back off from a threat not to recognize the outcome. Ethnic Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum on Thursday became the latest candidate to abandon a possible boycott.
Craig Jenness, a Canadian lawyer on the panel, said the group received 43 complaints by a Tuesday deadline and gave candidates until Thursday to submit additional ones.
But he said the vote tally would not be held up by the additional complaints.
A spokesman for ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said he filed objections over polling stations that ran out of ballots and a dearth of voting centers in west Kabul, where many Hazaras live.
Still, the election was a clear triumph for the massive security operation mounted to protect it from militant attack.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the lack of major violence over the weekend and the enthusiastic voter turnout were a "resounding defeat" for Taliban and Al Qaeda rebels. Barno commands 18,000 mainly American troops here.
"This turning point spells the end of more than two decades of the rule of the gun in this nation and confirms the bright hope of all the Afghan people in a democratic future centered on the rule of law," he said Wednesday in Kabul.