Insurgents worked to disrupt Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday, with a series of blasts reported across the country as voters headed to the polls and troops flooded the streets of the capital.

The vote marks the culmination of a bloody election campaign that is seen as a two-horse race between President Ashraf Ghani and his bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive.

By midday, the toll was hard to determine as national authorities provided little information about the reported blasts, but it may have been lighter than previous elections.

One person was killed and two others wounded in an explosion near a polling center in Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar, provincial governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said.

And at least 16 people were wounded in the southern city of Kandahar when a bomb went off at a polling station, according to a hospital director, while officials across the country reported several small explosions at other election sites.

The Taliban, who unleashed a string of bombings during the two-month election campaign, claimed to have hit several polling stations.

“Peace is the first desire of our people,” Ghani said after casting his vote at a high school in Kabul.

“Our roadmap (for peace) is ready, I want the people to give us permission and legitimacy so that we pursue peace.”

There was tight security as Afghans headed to the polls as voting started, following a bloody campaign that has been marred by repeated deadly bombings across the country.

The Taliban, who unleashed the bomb attacks, have in recent days issued repeated warnings they intend to attack polling centers and have told voters to stay away.

Kabul locked down

Wary authorities placed an uneasy Kabul under partial lockdown, flooding streets with troops and banning trucks from entering the city in an effort to stop would-be suicide bombers attacking the electoral process.

Afghan women voters cover their faces while queuing to cast a ballot at a polling station in Herat on Sept 28, 2019. The Taliban opposes the poll so women fear being identified. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP

“Voting has begun all over the country, and we are glad the people are already in big lines at polling centers waiting to cast their votes,” Independent Election Commission spokesman Zabi Sadaat said.

One voter at a polling station in a Kabul high school said it was important to cast a ballot.

“I know there are security threats but bombs and attacks have become part of our everyday lives,” 55-year-old Mohiuddin, who only gave one name, said.

“I am not afraid, we have to vote if we want to bring changes to our lives.”

The capital’s traffic, often gridlocked, dropped to a trickle as schools and offices closed for the day and as many people chose to stay off the roads.

Some 9.6 million Afghans are registered to vote, but many have lost any hope that after 18 years of war any leader can unify the fractious country and improve basic living conditions, boost the stagnating economy or bolster security.

Bitter rivals

Several of the 18 original contenders have dropped out and the poll is considered a two-horse race between current President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive.

Both claimed victory in the 2014 election – a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it led to a constitutional crisis and forced then-US president Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.

Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah, left, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar shake hands prior to a debate at Tolo News TV station in Kabul on Sept 26. President Ashraf Ghani faced derision for declining to show up. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Voting in Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election began at 7am (0230 GMT) at nearly 5,000 polling centers across the country. Authorities had initially planned to open hundreds more but were unable to do so because of the abysmal security situation.

Campaigning was hampered by violence from the first day, when Ghani’s running mate was targeted in a bomb-and-gun attack that left at least 20 dead.

Bloody attacks have continued to rock Afghanistan, including a Taliban bombing at a Ghani rally last week that killed at least 26 people in the central province of Parwan near Kabul.

72,000 guarding polls

The interior ministry says 72,000 forces will help to secure polling stations.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said: “Any acts of violence against the electoral process, including attacks directed at polling centres, polling staff and voters, are unacceptable.”

Election officials say this will be the cleanest election yet held, with equipment such as biometric fingerprint readers and better training for poll workers to ensure the vote is fair.

Still, the US embassy in Kabul has said it is “disturbed by so many complaints about security, lack of an equal playing field and fraud” and many Afghans say they have no intention of voting, citing fraud and security fears.

Saturday’s poll was initially slated to take place in April, but was twice delayed because election workers were ill-prepared, and the US was leading a push to forge a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.

That deal has been scuppered for now after US President Donald Trump pulled out.

Polls close at 3pm local time (1030 GMT).

AFP