KABUL, Afghanistan -- Vote counting started yesterday in Afghanistan's landmark election, widely expected to install US-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai as the war-ravaged country's first popularly chosen president.
Turnout in Saturday's vote was about 75 percent, a senior official estimated, a figure underlining Afghan enthusiasm for democracy after two decades of turmoil.
Firm results were not expected for at least a week, and the final tally is not due until the end of the month. Still, the first official results posted late yesterday gave early encouragement to Karzai.
Of 25,671 valid votes tallied in five provinces so far, Karzai won 15,098, or 59 percent of the total, according to the election website.
Former education minister Yunus Qanooni, who is expected to be Karzai's closest challenger, was running at 17 percent, ahead of ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had 13 percent.
Counting started yesterday in Kabul, the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif, Gardez in the east, and the main southern city of Kandahar. The remaining three counting centers were expected to begin work by tomorrow.
Officials had stalled the count while a panel of foreign specialists sifted through several dozen complaints from the 16 candidates about alleged irregularities on polling day.
Reginald Austin, the top adviser to the Joint Electoral Management Body, or JEMB, said the allegations included fraud in the form of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation of voters, and multiple voting.
There were also complaints about ink used to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot. Election staff were supposed to mark voters' thumbs with indelible ink, but some used pens or ink meant for marking ballots instead and it was easily washed off.
Candidates, including Qanooni and a representative of Dostum, met the three foreign specialists yesterday.
"We hope this commission can investigate fairly and in an atmosphere free from diktat or any pressure," Qanooni said.
Craig Jenness, a Canadian lawyer on the panel, said it would "consider carefully" the candidates' complaints.
But he said he did not know if the panel would complete its work before the results are announced -- a demand of Qanooni and several other Karzai rivals.
The panel said Wednesday it was forced to quarantine ballots from at least 10 polling centers in four provinces, including Kabul. Austin said that could include a maximum of 200 ballot boxes containing some 140,000 votes -- out of an estimated 8 million votes cast nationwide.
The probe has persuaded many of Karzai's 15 challengers to back off from a threat not to recognize the outcome.
Dostum yesterday became the latest candidate to abandon the boycott threat, strengthening the chances for a new president to consolidate feeble central control in a country widely controlled by warlords and drug barons.
Karzai, who enjoys strong international backing amid hopes he can bridge Afghanistan's deep ethnic divides, is widely expected to win the election, possibly with the simple majority needed to avoid a run-off.
Five days after the vote, officials said almost all the ballot boxes had reached the eight counting centers -- arriving by road, air, and even donkey.
NATO transport planes were flying in ballots from neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where about 850,000 refugees from Afghanistan's two decades of war also voted.
According to an early estimate, Austin said nearly 8 million of the 10.5 million Afghans registered to vote cast ballots, giving a turnout of between 75 percent and 80 percent despite snow in some areas and threats of Taliban attacks.