Hundreds of thousands of citizens flocked to schools, mosques and tents across Afghanistan on Sunday to vote in this war-weary nation's first legislative elections since 1969, as militants largely failed to follow through on threats to disrupt the balloting with violence.
The elections marked the final phase of an international plan, drawn up after the ouster of the extremist Taliban government in 2001, to transform Afghanistan into a stable democracy.
President Hamid Karzai summed up the sense of pride expressed by many of his countrymen throughout the day as he cast his ballot before television cameras.
"We are making history," he said. "It's the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."
However, several polling centers in the capital, Kabul, and in rural areas south of the city were almost deserted by noon. Some observer organizations predicted that the turnout nationwide would prove far lower than the 70 percent of voters who showed up to vote in October in Afghanistan's first democratic presidential election.
"The low turnout was very obvious in districts all over the country," said Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, which deployed about 7,000 monitors to the roughly 6,300 polling centers. Election officials said they would not be able to determine how many of the 12.5 million registered voters had participated until Monday.
Despite the overall sense of calm, scattered violence by suspected Taliban insurgents left about a dozen people dead by the end of the day -- including a French soldier killed by a roadside bomb in the southern province of Kandahar, four civilians killed in a rocket attack in the eastern province of Konar, and three Taliban fighters and two Afghan police officers killed in a battle in the southeastern province of Khost, according to Afghan and international officials.
At least 19 polling centers were attacked with rockets or small arms fire, although no one was killed. A rocket hit a U.N. compound in Kabul, slightly injuring one person.
Suspected Taliban militants have mounted a string of deadly attacks since spring across the south and east, killing hundreds of civilians, including seven candidates and four campaign workers.
A purported spokesman for the Taliban, Abdul Latif Hakimi, had claimed the militia would not attack polling stations on election day. But he had threatened violence against other targets and warned Afghans not to participate in the vote.
Some voters in the village of Musahy, in a narrow, verdant valley a bumpy 12-mile drive south of Kabul, appeared to heed that advice Sunday. On Saturday, gunmen had opened fire on a police convoy crossing a nearby bridge, killing five policemen.
Two hours after the polls opened, only a trickle of voters had passed through the village school that served as the voting center.
Safiullah Hashemi, 30, the deputy headmaster, waited patiently for a police escort to take him to an even more remote center that he had agreed to administer several miles away. He said his parents had begged him not to leave the house Sunday morning.
"I told them that this is my country. I have to serve it," he said with a wistful smile.
A few feet away, Italian soldiers in two beige armored vehicles kept a careful watch -- part of a contingent of more than 2,000 NATO and 700 U.S. troops brought in to supplement the nearly 30,000 international forces based in Afghanistan.
It was unclear to what extent the fear of violence kept people from voting. Nadery said that, in a surprising twist, his observers had seen some of the largest early morning crowds in several polling centers in southern provinces, such as Paktika, Paktia and Khost, all major targets of insurgent violence.
Nadery suggested that voters across the country who chose to stay home may have been motivated less by fear than by bewilderment at the vast number of contenders.
More than 2,700 candidates were running for 249 seats in the lower house of parliament, while more than 3,000 were running for seats on 34 provincial councils that will help select delegates to the upper house. According to the voting system adopted in Afghanistan, people can choose only one candidate each for the upper house and the councils, even though they will ultimately be represented by several.
In Kabul, there were nearly 400 candidates to choose from for the upper house. "It's made it really difficult for people to make up their mind," Nadery said.
At the two-story Chendawal mosque in downtown Kabul, one of the few mosques that still seemed a hive of activity by Sunday afternoon, the coordinator of the polling center, Shafiq Kakar, said many of the 2,500 voters who had passed through appeared unsure of whom they wanted to pick. "The problem is that most of the people around here are illiterate," he said.
Even those who did arrive with a candidate in mind often found it hard to find their choice on the province's two seven-page ballots, which resembled small newspapers. To make it easier, the ballots also included a photograph slightly smaller than a postage stamp and a designated number and symbol -- such as an animal or a farming tool -- next to the name of each candidate.
All the same, Leilama Ahmadi, 35, a housewife who arrived at the women's side of the center covered head to toe in a blue burqa, said she spent ages puzzling over her ballot, trying to find her chosen candidate on the long list while an elections official admonished her to hurry up.
"Finally I just took the pen and made a mark on it," she said. "I have no idea who I voted for."
Zarware, 45, a regal-looking woman dressed in a dark pink gown and a bright blue veil common to her nomadic Kuchi tribe, received a more patient reception at a polling center in the central province of Logar.
When Zarware, who like many Afghans goes by one name, peeked over the cardboard voting booth with a look of confusion, an election worker immediately asked her who she wanted to vote for, then showed her the box to check.
But this elicited howls of fury from about a dozen observers who had crowded into the polling center.
"She is telling voters this is the candidate you should pick! Isn't that fraud?" yelled out Zarmina, 30, a headmistress at a local high school.
"You should make the voter show where she is ticking in front of all of us representatives," shouted Abida Oma, a 25-year-old wearing an orange scarf.
Zarmina Ehtmadi, one of the election workers, threw her hands up in exasperation. "We're just asking the voters who they want to vote for," she retorted. "It's our duty to help them."
Standing outside the doorway, another candidate representative, Abdul Wahid, seemed oblivious to the drama unfolding inside.
"I'm so happy today," he said, "because we are finally going to have unity in Afghanistan."