Afghans flocked to polling stations nationwide yesterday, defying a threat of violence by the Taliban to cast ballots in what promises to be the nation's first democratic transfer of power.
As Afghans embarked on a major transition nearly 13 years after the US-led invasion toppled the rule of the Taliban, the excitement over choosing a new leader for the first time appeared to overwhelm the fear of bloodshed in many areas.
The turnout was so high that some polling centres ran out of ballots.
The head of the Independent Election Commission said the turnout could exceed seven million - more than half of eligible voters.
Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said that an estimated 3.5 million people had voted by midday, five hours after polls opened.
President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the Islamic movement was ousted, is on his way out, constitutionally barred from a third term.
International combat troops are leaving by the end of the year. And Afghans are left largely on their own to face what is likely to be an intensified campaign by the Taliban to regain power, even as authorities face higher public demands to tackle entrenched poverty and corruption.
Men and women waited in segregated lines at polls under tight security. At a Kandahar hospital-turned-polling station, the men's line stretched from the building, through the courtyard and out into the street. In Helmand province, women pushed, shoved and argued as they pressed forward in a long line.
The vote is the first for Afghans in which the outcome is uncertain. Voters are choosing from eight presidential candidates, as well as selecting provincial council members. With three front-runners in the presidential race, a run-off was widely expected since none is likely to get the majority for an outright victory.
"I went to sleep with my mind made up to wake up early and to have my say in the matter of deciding who should be [the] next one to govern my nation," said Saeed Mohammad, a 29-year-old mechanic in Kandahar. "I want to be a part of this revolution and I want to fulfil my duty by casting my vote so that we can bring change and show the world that we love democracy."
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan police and soldiers fanned out across the country, searching cars at checkpoints and blocking vehicles from getting close to polling stations. Some voters were searched three times in Kabul, and text messages were blocked in an apparent attempt to prevent candidates from last-minute campaigning.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the ballot by targeting polling centres and election workers, and in the past weeks they stepped up attacks in the heart of Kabul to show they are capable of striking even in highly secured areas.
Yesterday, a bomb exploded in a school packed with voters in Logar province, wounding two men, one seriously, according to local government spokesman Din Mohammad Darwesh.
Rocket attacks and gunbattles forced authorities to close an additional 211 polling centres, raising the total number that weren't opened because of security concerns to 959, according to Nuristani.
Nouristani also confirmed that some polling centres had run out of ballots but said authorities were addressing the shortfall. They also extended voting by an hour. "We have already sent ballot papers to wherever needed," he said.
After nearly 13 years of war, the country is so unstable that the very fact the crucial elections are being held is touted as one of Karzai's few successes.
Mohammad Aleem Azizi, a 57-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul, said he voted to re-elect Karzai in the last election in 2009 but had been disappointed.
"Security deteriorated, insecurity is getting worse day by [the] day," he said. "I want peace and stability in this country. I hope the new president of Afghanistan will be a good person."