KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans lined up by the hundreds Tuesday up in a last-minute rush to register for voting cards, a sign that interest in national elections is high despite fears of violence.
The Taliban have vowed to "use all force" to disrupt the balloting and the militants already have staged several high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul in recent weeks. But men and women queuing on the last day of registration said they won't let the threats keep them away from the polls on Saturday as Afghanistan experiences its first democratic transfer of power.
President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since shortly after the Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term.
Shopkeeper Ghulam Abbas, 65, said Karzai didn't keep his promises to make the country better and he hopes a new president will give the country a fresh start.
"I hope the corruption is ended and security is improved," he said as he stood in line to get a new voter card, after losing his three years ago when he moved from the province of Bamiyan to Kabul. Women, many holding children and wearing the all-encompassing burqa, also turned out to register.
The stakes are high as Afghans choose a new leader who will guide the country as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of this year. Karzai has refused to sign a security pact that would allow thousands of international forces to stay beyond that deadline to help train and advise Afghan forces, leaving the decision to his successor. All three front-runners have said they would sign the deal.
With NATO troops increasingly taking a backseat in the fighting, the number of casualties also has dropped. Last month marked the first time no U.S. deaths were reported in Afghanistan in more than seven years, although a British and a Romanian soldier were killed, according to an Associated Press tally. The last month that had no American fatalities was January 2007.
International officials and other observers have expressed concern that an excess in voting cards stemming from a chaotic registration process in past elections will be a source of fraud. Some estimate there are as many as 20 million voting cards in Afghanistan, although the number of eligible voters is about 12 million.
The Independent Election Commission, which is overseeing the vote, said that as of Thursday, at least 3.8 million new voters had registered since last year and long lines at many of the 41 registration centers nationwide suggested that number would rise above 4 million. However, millions of people are expected to use the cards they received in 2009 and 2010, making it impossible to determine a firm figure.
Abdul Ghafoor Raheemi, 29, from Kandahar, said it would be his first time voting. He didn't want to risk the violence in the last election.
"I am really willing to use my right to vote this time," he said as he collected his voting card in the southern city. "It seems everyone is willing to vote and participate in forming a new government."
The eight presidential candidates, meanwhile, have staged near-daily campaign rallies across the country. Academic and former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in disputed 2009 elections, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul are considered the main contenders, but none is expected to get the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
Abdul Ghafar Amiri, a 21-year-old university student, said he hoped for unity and improvements in security and the economy.
"This election is a very important one for the Afghans because it is the first democratic transition of power from one president to another," he said.