LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Afghanistan is a step closer to having a new president. Millions of Afghans went to the polls Saturday to vote for a successor to Hamid Karzai, who's been president since 2001. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah faced off against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in the runoff election following April's first-round vote. As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, Afghans defied Taliban threats and went out to vote.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Polls hadn't even opened yet in Kabul when several Taliban rockets rained down on the city. They did no damage but triggered alarms - literally and figuratively. Was this the opening salvo from the Taliban, who had long promised to do everything possible to undermine the vote? At the National Police Command Center in Kabul, Afghan and NATO officials monitored security feeds from across the country. Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman of Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior, said some 160,000 security forces had been deployed to protect voters from the Taliban.
SEDIQ SEDIQQI: The intel we have suggests that they have prepared themselves and they have said publicly that they will attack.
CARBERRY: By midmorning it was clear the Taliban were trying to make good on their threat to disrupt the election.
SEDIQQI: The enemy is active.
CARBERRY: Army chief of staff General Sher Mohammad Karimi said militants were launching attacks on polling places.
SHER MOHAMMAD KARIMI: They are shooting from a long distance with machine guns, with rifles and sometimes rockets.
CARBERRY: Though the attacks were deadly enough to kill at least 50 civilians and 29 security forces over the course of election day. Taliban violence was the reason why many people, like 38-year-old housewife Farzana, came out to vote.
FARZANA: (Through translator) I don't want problems and war anymore.
CARBERRY: But in Kabul, and many other areas, evidence pointed to a significantly lower turnout than the first round, which is why many reacted with disbelief when election officials announced an initial turnout estimate in excess of 7 million, more than the official count in the first round.
ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).
CARBERRY: Abdullah Abdullah immediately seized on that as a sign of fraud. He won the first round by 14 points and warned that only massive fraud could prevent him from defeating Ashraf Ghani in the second round. So far more than 750 complaints of fraud have been registered.
ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).
CARBERRY: In a fiery press conference last night, Abdullah demanded proof of the turnout estimate and also called for the removal of the chief election officer, who was detained by police on election day and accused of ballot rigging, which he denies. Kabul-based analyst Kate Clark.
KATE CLARK: This is a nuclear option.
CARBERRY: She says Abdullah, who's been complaining about fraud since before the election started, is effectively gunning for control over the fragile electoral commissions.
CLARK: It is a really deeply destructive tactic to take. But at the same time, we all know what politicians are like. At times, they will throw everything they can at something to win.
CARBERRY: Clark says this runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the outcome. That could mean the next president, whether it's Abdullah or Ghani, would enter office under a cloud of controversy.
CLARK: The danger is that Afghanistan loses.
CARBERRY: Preliminary election results are due on July 2nd, with final certified results coming July 22. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.