Afghan ethnic politics rears head at election

Vote draws large turnout despite threats

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- As ballots were tallied Sunday from Afghanistan's presidential election, many voters hoped that the country was moving into a new era marked by its first democratic hand-over of power. But early returns in Kabul pointed to the enduring power of ethnic politics.

The presidential candidates had tried to market themselves as post-ethnic leaders, promoting economic and political overhaul rather than the kind of sectarianism that fed the civil war in the 1990s. An electoral result that broke down along ethnic lines could complicate the formation of the next government.

Saturday's election drew a surprisingly large turnout despite threats from the Taliban to disrupt the balloting. At least 23 people were killed on election day and the prior day, mostly soldiers and police officers, the government announced.

Three more people were killed Sunday when a government vehicle struck a roadside bomb in northern Kunduz province, according to Afghan officials.

But there were no large-scale attacks in Kabul, and the death toll was lower than many had expected.

As votes were counted, the country's electoral complaints commission started processing about 1,000 formal allegations of fraud.

Eighteen years after it ended, tensions among those groups have diminished. Saturday's election was celebrated in many quarters as a moment of national unity and collective opposition to the Taliban. But Kabul is still divided into neighborhoods reflecting the country's largest ethnic groups.

In several predominantly Tajik neighborhoods, for example, the ethnic Tajik presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, was the clear winner based on preliminary results. He received about 75 percent of the vote. Ashraf Ghani, who is a Pashtun, thought to be Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, was the second-highest vote-getter, receiving about 18 percent.

In several Pashtun neighborhoods, the results were reversed, with Mr. Ghani winning about three-quarters of the vote.

In ethnic Hazara neighborhoods, Mr. Abdullah was the overwhelming winner. His vice-presidential pick, Mohammad Mohaqiq, is a Hazara warlord.

"Our whole people voted for Abdullah because of Mohaqiq," said Mahram Ali, 48, a Hazara. "We want a change in leadership from Pashtun to Tajik -- and afterwards, our turn will arrive."

The country's election commission estimates that about 7 million votes were cast.

A candidate has to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a runoff, which would be held later this spring or in the summer.

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