Initial results of the race — whose main contenders were President Ashraf Ghani and his government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah — will not be announced until Oct. 17. The final results are not expected until early November.
Neither candidate claimed victory, although Ghani has been predicted to win with more than 50 percent of the vote.
In a brief live address, Ghani thanked the voters for their “passion for democracy” and called on the Taliban to “honor the people’s demand for peace . . . the door to negotiation is open.” The election was the fourth presidential contest since the end of Taliban rule in 2001.
The insurgents, who had denounced the election as a sham and vowed to violently disrupt the polls, claimed they carried out 300 attacks during the voting. But officials reported only a handful of serious attacks, including a suicide bombing in southern Kandahar province that injured 16 people and an explosion in eastern Nangahar province that left two dead.
There were numerous reports of relatively minor violent incidents, mostly small bomb blasts near polling sites.
But while the election was more peaceful than anticipated, the low turnout nationwide came as a shock to the government and both major candidates, who had crisscrossed the country by air to stage campaign rallies despite the threat of insurgent attacks.
Election monitoring groups, gathering reports from officials across the country, estimated that fewer than 2.5 million voters, out of 9.6 million who had registered, came to the polls. They attributed the low numbers to fears of Taliban violence, concerns about fraud, and skepticism that holding the election would help bring peace after 18 years of conflict.
“Under election law, a low turnout does not make the results less legitimate, but, of course, there will be worries about fairness and participation,” said Yousuf Rasheed, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan. “Turnout was not just an issue in some places, but everywhere.”
The government deployed more than 70,000 security forces to guard the election and shuttered 2,400 of about 7,400 polling centers. The capital was blanketed by police, and security cordons were set up around each polling place, sometimes several blocks away. Many streets were blocked by cargo or police trucks, and security personnel searched passing vehicles, as well as all voters who approached the polling places on foot.
Ghani, 70, cast his ballot soon after the polls opened, at a fortified high school near his palace. His wife, Rula, and his top running-mate, Amrullah Saleh, voted there with him.
The election, which had been delayed twice, came weeks after negotiations collapsed between U.S. and Taliban leaders. It was seen by the Ghani administration and by some voters as a key step toward beginning peace talks with the Taliban, which has been waging an especially aggressive and violent campaign in recent months.
“This is a historic chance for the country that won’t come again,” said Abdul Mohammed Abdali, 25, a business student, after he emerged from voting at a Kabul high school, his forefinger marked with purple ink. “It is time for Afghans to sit down together and stop killing each other.”
Abdul Nazari, 67, a retired security officer who voted in a Shiite mosque in the minority ethnic Hazara district of west Kabul, said he had no fear of the Taliban, “even if they set off a bomb down the street. The Taliban failed this country and closed the door on education,” he said. “I have been waiting for this day to bring change and opportunity for Afghans, especially the young.”
Few voters Saturday expressed concerns about fraud, although Abdullah and other opponents had claimed that Ghani would attempt to rig the vote by paying off local officials and other abuses of power. Both U.N. officials here, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued strong statements this past week saying they expected the election to be fair and transparent.
In some ways, the half-empty voting centers made for a speedier and more reliable process than in past elections, and technical improvements in voter identification also appeared to lower voters’ worries about ballot-box fraud.
“This is 100 percent better than last time,” said Hakimullah Azizi, 50, a poll monitor working at his third election in Kabul. “There are no crowds, no delays, and people are leaving happy.”
But the reports of low turnout were consistent across the country, both in Taliban-plagued regions and in relatively safe ones.
In eastern Ghazni province, a Taliban stronghold, provincial council leader Nasir Ahmad Faqiri said eight rockets had landed in the provincial capital. He said turnout was lower than in past elections, in part due to fear and in part “because people have lost trust in the election.”
In northern Kunduz province, the scene of heavy Taliban attacks in recent months, legislator Fatima Aziz said there had been one suicide bombing in one area of the capital city and heavy fighting in another. She said voter turnout was extremely low, in part because people could not reach the sites where they had registered.
“People did not want to risk their lives,” she said. “It was really disappointing.”
Even in areas where there was no sign of insurgent attacks, such as the capital cities in Helmand and Balkh provinces, officials reported that turnout was even less than they had expected. In western Badghis province, one tribal leader estimated that no more than 20 percent of voters had gone to the polls.
In Kandahar province, a longtime political leader and former legislator, Khalid Pashtoon, said that voting had gone smoothly with little indication of fraud but that turnout had also been very low. He estimated that fewer than 50,000 people had voted in the vast province, which has a population of close to 1.1 million.
In Kabul, where voting centers appeared generally safe, technical glitches left frustrated citizens wandering from room to room in schoolhouse poll centers, unable to find their name on any registration list. One was a turbaned truck driver named Sadruddin, 60, who left a poll center in the Kabul suburbs in a huff after failing to find his name.
“Last year, I voted in this same school. There was a suicide bombing outside, and when I ran out I saw bodies everywhere,” he said, referring to the violence-plagued parliamentary elections in October. “This time I came back, because we need to choose a leader and we need to bring peace, so we can walk freely again. I am very disappointed.”
Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.