An member of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) has said that an unofficial estimate of voter turnout in the country's September 28 presidential election shows that a little more than 2 million voters cast ballots -- a sharp drop from roughly 7 million who turned out for the last presidential election in 2014.
With 9.57 million Afghans registered to vote on September 28, the low turnout estimate suggests that turnout was just over 20 percent.
Observers from the Afghan Independent Rigths Commission said turnout appeared to be especially low among women.
Early on September 29, the IEC said it had counted more than 1.1 million votes in the election that was marred by a series of militant attacks across the country, reports of problems at polling stations, and low voter turnout.
That vote count included ballots tallied from 2,597 polling stations -- just over half of the total number of polling stations that had remained open for the election.
Afghan election officials said polling took place in a total of 4,905 centers. More than 500 polling stations were closed due to the threat of militant attacks.
Fifteen candidates were on the ballot, but the election was widely seen as a two-horse race between President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking another five-year term, and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.
If no candidate receives a majority in the first-round vote, a second round will be held on November 23 between the top two finishers.
Preliminary results for the September 28 vote are expected on October 19, allowing electoral bodies to process complaints and tally votes sent to Kabul from remote areas of the mountainous country.
The final results are expected to be announced on November 7.
Violence was reported soon after polls opened across the country on September 28 with an explosion at a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar that was being used as a polling station. Local hospital officials later said at least 15 people had been wounded by the blast, three seriously.
The government bolstered security to try to ensure what could be the second-ever democratic transition of power in the war-wracked country of 35 million people.
Some 72,000 security personnel were deployed to secure polling centers across the country. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and were originally scheduled to close at 3 p.m., but the IEC later extended voting by two hours until 5 p.m.
Besides the incident in Kanadahar, there were also reports of sporadic rocket attacks elsewhere in the country on September 28.
Reuters reported explosions near polling stations in Kabul, Ghazni, and Jalalabad.
There were reports of militants firing mortars into the northern city of Kunduz.
Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for Kunduz Province, said Taliban militants also attacked Afghan security forces in two locations outside the city, sparking gun battles.
Officials said five security officials were killed in those attacks and 37 civilians wounded.
"The enemy carried out 68 attacks against election sites across the country... but security forces repelled most of the attacks," acting Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid said.
Yousef Rashid, the head of the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, said voting was generally smoother than in the past, but difficulties were reported across the country, including problems with the biometric voting devices meant to combat voter fraud.
Ghani, 70, and Abdullah, 59, have led a deeply unpopular and fractured national unity government since a U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement following a disputed, fraud-marred presidential election in 2014.
A Pashtun, Ghani is from the largest ethnic group. He is a Western-educated technocrat who has served as finance minister. Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist, was a senior member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and has support among ethnic Tajiks, the country’s second-largest group.
The factors underlying fraud during the 2014 elections -- systemic corruption, widespread insecurity, and a problematic electoral system – have not been been addressed and many observers have warned of another potential dispute.
That scenario could ignite a protracted political crisis and raise the threat of civil war in the multiethnic country.
Observers say the fear of violence and the potential for another disputed election sapped enthusiasm for the vote.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and Tolo News