KABUL, Afghanistan – Trucks, helicopters and donkeys carried ballots to counting centers across Afghanistan (search) on Monday, although early indications suggested turnout in landmark legislative elections was lower than for last year's presidential vote.
Afghan and international officials hailed Sunday's elections as a major success in the country's march toward democracy, but chief electoral officer Peter Erben (search) said reports from about one-third of the polling stations indicated a turnout of just over 50 percent.
Electoral officials and independent monitors have suggested that turnout was kept down by security fears and frustrations over the inclusion of warlords on the ballot. Turnout was 70 percent in the October 2004 presidential election.
The government and its Western backers hailed the first elections for a national assembly in more than 35 years as a strong show of defiance in the face of Taliban threats and a determination to bring stability after decades of war and chaos.
Erben said that Afghanistan "should be satisfied with the turnout" because it compared well with elections in other postwar countries.
President Hamid Karzai praised voters — who cast ballots in schools, mosques and even desert tents — for coming out "in spite of the terrorism, in spite of the threats." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said the election showed "the clear determination of the Afghan people to pursue the peaceful and democratic development of their nation."
Taliban insurgents had called an election boycott. Attacks killed at least 15 people, including a French commando, in the hours before and during voting — the latest victims of violence that killed more than 1,200 people in the past six months.
But with tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign forces providing security, there were no spectacular assaults. Election officials said no one was killed in attacks near polling stations — although three voters were wounded — and only 16 of the 6,270 stations did not open because of security threats or logistical problems.
"Four years ago, the Taliban were here and women were being stoned to death ... and now you have women running polling centers and women voting," U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann (search). However, he predicted that the United States and other countries would have to provide aid and military support "for a long time."
Mohammad Horun, a teacher, said he did not vote because he trusts neither the government nor the parliamentary candidates to protect his interests and improve the economy.
"We voted for President Karzai, but there's been no change in my life," said Horun, 32. "All these people are out for power."
The voting for parliament and 34 regional councils was the last formal step toward democracy under an internationally sponsored plan laid out following the ouster of the oppressive Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Many people looked to a big vote to marginalize Taliban rebels whose stubborn insurgency rumbles on in the south and east.
Washington and other governments have poured in billions of dollars trying to foster a civic system that encourages Afghanistan's fractious ethnic groups to work together peacefully and ensure the nation is never again a staging post for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Security was tight as workers brought ballot papers from far-flung polling stations to provincial capitals, where counting was to start Tuesday. Provisional results were expected by early October.
Once final results are posted, it will likely take time to figure out who has the power in the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or parliament. But there are fears it could be split along the same ethnic and tribal lines that fueled years of war as 1970s coups led to a decade-long Soviet occupation followed by devastating civil war and the Taliban takeover in the 1990s.