The United Nations and NATO praised Afghans for their courage in turning out to vote in parliamentary elections despite the threat of extremist violence amid fears over poll irregularities.
At least 14 civilians were killed in the second parliamentary vote since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban but more than 3.5 million Afghans took part in the election.
Insurgents fired rockets in several cities and set off bombs at a polling station and beside a convoy carrying the governor of Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in the south, but officials said several more attacks were foiled.
Stressing that it was not a final figure, Fazil Ahmad Manawi, the country’s senior election official, said 3,642,444 votes had been cast at 4,632 polling centres, according to preliminary data.
“This makes 40 percent of the maximum number of voters,” he said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised voters for their “courage and determination,” according to a UN statement received in Kabul.
A spokesman for Ban noted that the election had been held despite “significant security challenges” and condemned “reported acts of violence”, without referring to any specific incidents.
Ban’s statement was echoed by the European Union, which said “these elections constitute an important and visible sign of Afghan sovereignty, and underline the will of the Afghan people to shape the future of their country.”
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen lauded Afghanistan’s citizens for braving Taliban violence.
“I congratulate the Afghan people today on the parliamentary elections, despite the violence carried out by those attempting to deny the people’s most basic democratic right,” he said in a statement.
He said voters and candidates had shown their “determination to resist intimidation as they choose their own leaders and path for their country.”
But the Electoral Complaints Commission said it had received complaints of delayed poll station opening, intimidation, ineligible voters, misuse of registration cards, proxy voting, poor ink quality and shortages of ballot papers.
Among those who complained was the election monitoring group the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), which said voting had been affected by insecurity, violence and irregularities including ballot stuffing.
“Taking these problems into account, FEFA has serious concerns about the quality of the elections,” the monitoring group said, adding that it planned to produce more detailed reports on these problems.
FEFA said that counting of votes began soon after polls closed at 4:00 pm (1130 GMT) Saturday, but in haphazard fashion.
“While counting was under way shortly after the closing of polls in some areas, in others it was postponed until the next day,” FEFA said, citing one of several irregularities it had noted in the election.
Preliminary results are expected on Wednesday, with final certified results due on October 31.
President Hamid Karzai — whose own re-election last year was mired in massive fraud and recorded a turnout of 33 percent — had called on people to vote to take their country “forward to a better future”.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said that by the close of voting it had recorded 303 incidents of election-related violence, compared with 479 during last year’s presidential poll.
The United States and NATO have almost 150,000 troops in the country fighting to bring an end to the long war, now dragging towards its tenth year.
ISAF’s commander, US General David Petraeus, commended the role played by the Afghan national security forces, who were supported by ISAF troops in providing security for the election.
“The voice of Afghanistan’s future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks. It belongs to the people,” Petraeus said.
More than 2,500 candidates contested 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga. Among them, 406 women were vying for 68 seats reserved for them under legislation designed to better their rights.
Final turnout among the 9.2-million-strong electorate will be key. Experts said violence, expectations of fraud, vested interests and a voting process that favours the status quo would knock numbers.