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Early tallies indicate Afghan vote was a success

KABUL, Afghanistan — After enduring months of Taliban attacks and days of security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered the first solid indications that the vote had far exceeded expectations.

Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between 7 million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.

At least some of the votes are expected to be disqualified for fraud, but if the numbers hold up, they will buttress anecdotal accounts of Afghans voting in large numbers Saturday in the country’s first wide-open election, with at least three of the eight candidates considered contenders to replace President Hamid Karzai. Afghan and Western officials, including Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations’ top election official, had said turnout above 40 percent would be an excellent result.

High turnout would represent a sharp public repudiation of the Taliban, which had pledged to disrupt the election and had warned Afghans to stay away from the polls. Though the insurgents did manage a number of high-profile attacks in the weeks before the election — striking a voter registration center, the election commission headquarters and Kabul’s only luxury hotel, among other targets — preliminary tallies indicated that millions of Afghans ignored those threats, and that the limited violence on Election Day did not keep people from voting.

Afghan election observers backed up the numbers offered by election officials, as did Western diplomats, though the latter struck a more cautious tone. But both said some votes would invariably be thrown out because of fraud.

The question was how many, and whether Afghanistan would see a repeat of the 2009 election, which was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and other fraud. Turnout that year was about 38 percent though some estimates put it lower. The memory of what happened that year still hovers here, giving many reason to hesitate before declaring this weekend’s vote an unqualified success.

But the focus for many people Sunday was on what had happened the day before, which seemed to surprise a country that had braced itself for a bloody day.

—Matthew Rosenberg and Jawad Sukhanyar, The New York Times

Puerto Ri

Puerto Rico’s fiscal agent has hired another well-known restructuring law firm, raising the specter that the financially troubled island is preparing to revamp its finances.

The Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico, which oversees all of the commonwealth’s debt deals, said it had hired Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

The development bank declined to say whether Cleary had been hired as part of an effort to restructure the commonwealth’s debt.

“The GDB regularly solicits advice and counsel from a number of legal and financial advisers with respect to financing plans and other related matters,” a spokesman for the development bank said in a statement. “Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton were engaged by the GDB as part of these ongoing efforts.”

The hiring of Cleary, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes as Puerto Rico tries to jump-start a flagging economy while also digging out from a mountain of municipal bond debt.

Cleary has represented many financially challenged government clients, including Greece, Iraq, Iceland and Argentina.

Puerto Rico investors worry that a restructuring could result in large losses on their bond holdings as the government seeks to reduce its debt load. Unlike Detroit and other U.S. municipalities, Puerto Rico cannot file for federal bankruptcy protection, making the prospect of a restructuring by the commonwealth potentially even more frightening to creditors because there is no clear template.

Last month, the Government Development Bank disclosed soon before it sold $3.5 billion in municipal bonds that it had hired Millco Advisers, an affiliate of Millstein & Co., which is also well known for its restructuring work.

Millco’s founder, James Millstein, was the architect of a complicated series of transactions that paid back the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for its initial bailout loans to American International Group.

—Michael Corkery, The New York Times

Maryland lawmakers raise minimum wage

Maryland embraced President Barack Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour Monday, the second state to do since Connecticut acted last month.

The Maryland General Assembly voted for the pay raise on the last day of its 2014 regular session, giving Gov. Martin O’Malley a victory on his top priority this year. The governor, in his last year in office, has staked out a consistently liberal record as he weighs running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

O’Malley thanked lawmakers “for giving so many Maryland families the raise they deserve.”

The governor also said he would sign a bill passed Monday that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana. Violators caught with less than 10 grams of the drug would be issued the equivalent of a traffic ticket and would pay a fine rather than face criminal prosecution.

Action on the minimum wage has moved to the states with congressional Republicans refusing to act on Obama’s call to lift the federal minimum wage from $7.25. Eight states and the District of Columbia have raised their base wages in 2013 and 2014 as Democrats seek to use economic inequality as a rallying point in the midterm elections.

—Trip Gabriel, The New York Times