KABUL, Afghanistan — Despite Taliban rocket strikes and bombings, Afghans voted for a new parliament, the first election since a fraud-marred presidential ballot last year cast doubt on the legitimacy of the embattled government.
As officials tally votes over the next few days, the real test begins: Afghans will have to decide whether to accept the results as legitimate despite a modest turnout and early evidence of fraud.
The Taliban had pledged to disrupt the vote and launched attacks starting with a rocket fired into the capital before dawn Saturday. The insurgent group followed with a series of morning rocket strikes that hit major cities just as people were going to the polls — or weighing whether to risk it.
At least 11 civilians and three police officers were killed, according to the Interior Ministry. The governor of Kandahar province survived a bombing as he drove between voting sites. In all, there were 33 bomb explosions and 63 rocket attacks, said Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi. He said 27 Taliban were killed Saturday.
Yet there appeared to be less violence than during the last election, when more than 30 civilians were killed and a group of insurgents attacked Kabul. Afghan security officials dismissed the attacks as “insignificant” and said they did not hamper voting, adding that 92 percent of polling stations were open Saturday.
“There are no reports of major incidents,” Afghan election commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi told reporters.
Many of those who voted said they were determined to be heard over the Taliban.
At a mosque in eastern Kabul, a former schoolteacher said she had traveled from her home on the outskirts of the city the night before because voting was safer in the city center.
“Even though I heard about those rocket attacks, I wanted to vote,” said Aziza, 48, who gave only her first name. “Today is a historic day for Afghan people and it is very important for the restoration of democracy.”
But at one school serving as a voting center in Kabul, observers for candidates or election-monitoring groups outnumbered voters by about 10 to one. Four men in tunics marked their ballots surrounded by about 50 people taking notes on their actions.
Defense Minister Wardak described the turnout as “low.” He said that fear of attacks and the difficulty of getting to polling stations were likely reasons people stayed home.
The election commission has yet to provide an overall turnout figure but said late Saturday that 3.6 million people cast ballots at the 86 percent of polling stations that had reported figures so far. Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in the presidential vote last year, out of 17 million registered voters.
In several cities, voters appeared to cluster at a few main sites, leading to those sites running out of ballots well before the end of polling.
In the key southern city of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold where NATO and Afghan forces have been ramping up security, insurgents launched about a dozen attacks on the city. No one died but about a half-dozen people were injured, according to hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A very low turnout — particularly in provinces wracked by the insurgency — could hurt the credibility of the vote in a country where democratic rule has yet to take deep root after decades of war. If residents reject results outright it could enflame ethnic tensions and complicate the transition to a new parliament.
About 2,500 candidates were vying for 249 seats in the parliament, and drawn-out fights between candidates slinging accusations of fraud also could hobble an institution that has so far served as only a weak check on the administration of President Hamid Karzai.
A host of allegations of fraud and election worker misconduct piled up in the first few hours of the vote.
Candidate monitors complained that the ink applied to voters’ fingers to prevent them from casting multiple ballots was not working. The ink is supposed to last 72 hours, but many said they had been able to wipe it off with bleach.
In Jalalabad, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with fake registration cards.