Calm, distrust mark historic vote

Karzai foes suspect fraud in Afghanistan election

U.N. will investigate

October 10, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan -Afghans eagerly swarmed to the polls yesterday in the nation's first presidential elections, but the process turned out to be as troubled by distrust as it was historic.

Long lines formed early at polling places across the country as Afghans waited eagerly to exercise their new democratic rights. There were no successful large-scale attacks against voters or polling places, as had been feared.

But the 15 candidates challenging interim President Hamid Karzai, the front-runner, expressed suspicions of rampant fraud after voters found they could scrub their hands of the ink mark intended to stop them from casting multiple ballots.

By midday, all 15 demanded the vote be halted and the ballots trashed, after almost a year of preparations that cost foreign governments $200 million and 12 election workers their lives.

The Joint Electoral Management Body conferred with the protesting candidates but declined to stop the balloting.

"Halting the vote at this stage is unjustified and would deny these people their right to vote," said Ray Kennedy, vice chairman of the group, which is made up of United Nations workers and Afghans.

At Zarbhona High School in western Kabul, Akhmad Toraq, a lanky 18-year-old student, said he had voted at 7:30 a.m., went home to wash up for breakfast and saw the ink dribble away. "It was gone completely, just from soap and water," he said, holding up his left thumb so a reporter could see.

When he complained to polling officials at the school, they told him to file a complaint. "They are saying this is a mistake," he added. "How can they say this? This is our future."

A woman in a powder-blue burqa - the traditional head-to-toe veil worn by Afghan women - scurried down the street toward the entrance to Zarbhona High.

"I washed the ink off of one of my hands!" said Sudoba, 40, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "Maybe others will vote five or six times."

Like many others here, she suspected the runny ink was part of a plot by organizers to skew the election results.

"What is this?" she said. "Do you foreigners want to make fun of us? We are not that stupid."

A U.N. spokesman said there was no evidence that the ink problem had led to significant fraud, and noted that by mid-morning, procedures had been changed to make sure the mark was indelible.

The spokesman, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said complaints about the conduct of the election would be fully investigated. The concerns of the candidates, he said, were "important and must be taken seriously."

But Karzai's opponents would not be mollified.

"This is completely fraudulent," said Dr. Nilab Mobarez, a vice presidential candidate on the ticket of Humayon Shah Asifi, a Pashtun leader and brother-in-law of former King Zahir Shah. "This election must be stopped."

Journalist Abdul Latif Pedram accused the Bush administration of stage-managing Afghanistan's elections.

"This government will never be really representative of the Afghan nation because it will be the government that George Bush wants, in order to have control," he told reporters. "We will never agree to such a government."

In St. Louis, the president called the election a "marvelous thing."

"Freedom is powerful," Bush said at a Republican breakfast fund-raiser. "Think about a society in which young girls couldn't go to school, and their mothers were whipped in the public square, and today they're holding a presidential election."

In Kabul, Karzai greeted reporters at the Presidential Palace after the polls closed. He rubbed the black mark on his own thumb to show the ink properly applied was indelible, and hailed the elections as a "very great day" for Afghanistan. "God has been kind to us," he said, according to the Associated Press.

The vote count was expected to begin today, but a complete count might not be certified for weeks.

Like the stubborn hanging chads on punch card ballots in Florida four years ago, big problems arose from small details yesterday.

Poll workers were given pens with washable ink for ballots and indelible ink to put on the thumbs of voters.

Troubles began, officials said, when some workers inked thumbs with the washable ink. Even the indelible ink, it turned out, could be scrubbed off if it didn't dry.

"The problem was that a number of polling station officials did not do it correctly," de Almeida e Silva said.

So shortly before 9 a.m., the elections board sent a message to the nation's 21,500 polling centers - located in mosques, schools and mud-brick huts - that voters had to have their thumbs inked with the indelible markers and wait for 30 minutes before casting their ballots.

Voters were required to carry identification cards with their photos. As they voted, the cards were punched, preventing them from being used again.

Many Afghans have shown reporters collections of scores of voter identification cards - although whether most multiple-card holders were intent on fraud or collecting souvenirs isn't clear.

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