KABUL Afghanistan holds a presidential election on Saturday that is meant to mark the first democratic transfer of power in its history.
President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan for more than 12 years since the fall of the Taliban, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office.
Of the eight candidates, the three frontrunners are former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rassoul and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.
To win, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of valid ballots, failing which the top two candidates go into a run-off. The three frontrunners all enjoy similar levels of support, so a second round of voting is likely.
The process is almost certain to drag on for several months, partly due to Afghanistan's difficult terrain, which will require about 3,000 donkeys to carry ballots and voting boxes to the country's most inaccessible areas.
The likelihood of allegations of mass fraud by rival candidates could further delay and complicate vote counting.
The final result from the first round may not be known until at least mid-May. If there is a second round, it is scheduled to be held at the end of that month. The name of the new Afghan leader may not be known for months, and some diplomatic sources believe it might not be confirmed before October.
Here are some details of the election.
- There are nearly 28,500 polling centres and smaller polling stations. But at least 10 percent of polling stations are expected to be closed due to security threats, according to Independent Election Commission Secretary Ziaulhaq Amarkhel.
- Polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. and close at 4 p.m. on April 5, but some could remain open for two hours longer, depending on the number of voters.
- Some 200,000 Afghan observers are expected to monitor the vote: roughly 10 per polling station. But they are unlikely to be spread evenly across the country, due to security concerns.
- Two of the three main international observer missions pulled out foreign staff after the Taliban attacked a highly fortified hotel in the capital, Kabul, where many were staying, killing nine.
- Afghanistan, with a population of about 30 million, has 12 million eligible voters, but as many as 18 million voter cards are in circulation.
- Turnout was 4.6 million in the previous presidential election, in 2009, which was considered low. Some 1.2 million ballots were thrown out as fraudulent. Afghanistan has printed 15 million ballot papers this time, but spiralling violence may once again keep the turnout down.
- The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the election, which they see as a U.S.-backed sham. They have been staging almost daily attacks, mainly in Kabul, in the run-up to the poll.
- Afghanistan's authorities say they will deploy 352,000 forces to provide security during the vote.
- If a candidate dies before the announcement of final results, new elections will be held within 30 days.
- Vote counting: April 6 to 20
- Preliminary results: April 24
- Presidential election complaints period: April 7 to 27
- Final results announcement: May 14
- Run-off, if necessary: May 28
(Source: Independent Election Commission)
(Reporting by Maria Golovnina, Mirwais Harooni, Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez)