- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Millions of enthusiastic Afghans stood in line and voted — without any large-scale attacks that many had feared — as the nation chose its first-ever directly elected leader.

But the vote was marred by a boycott by most of the candidates opposed to the front-runner, President Hamid Karzai, amid charges of widespread fraud.

At least 13 of the 15 candidates who were running against Mr. Karzai announced their withdrawal from the fray, charging that the system meant to safeguard against bogus voting had failed.

According to wire services, the remaining two candidates later joined the boycott.

The dispute began soon after the early-morning start of balloting in the capital, Kabul, when it was discovered that inexperienced Afghan polling officials were using the wrong marker pens to prevent multiple voting.

Instead of marking the left thumbs of voters with a special indelible ink — the last line of defense against people voting repeatedly — officials were using ordinary pens meant for marking ballot papers.

Election officials nevertheless refused to halt the process, which was completed smoothly as millions of Afghans kept their promise to vote fearlessly despite the threat of large-scale attacks by anti-government Taliban rebels.

“Given the complexities of this electoral process, there have inevitably been some technical problems,” said Ray Kennedy, vice chairman of the U.N.-appointed Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB).

“Nevertheless, the JEMB is encouraged that the voters of Afghanistan have turned out in large numbers and the process overall has been safe and orderly,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Men and women voted at separate booths, in keeping with this nation’s strict Islamic teachings.

“Overall, there was massive participation in the election,” said U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.

Mr. Karzai — who is widely favored to win — said the fate of the balloting was with the electoral panel, but he added that, in his view, “The election was free and fair. … It is very legitimate.”

Ballot counting is expected to take weeks.

President Bush, at a campaign rally in Minnesota, said that a “great thing had happened” with the Afghan election. “Freedom is beautiful. Freedom is on the march,” he said.

In Afghanistan, optimism swelled among many who cast their ballots.

“For the first time, Afghans are able to choose their own leader,” said Kabul shopkeeper Ahmed Jan. “From today, things will only get better in the country.”

But that was not the view of Mr Karzai’s opponents. By midday, they were in a conclave at the election headquarters of one of the candidates, Islamic scholar Abdul Sattar Sirat.

“We want the elections to be reheld as soon as possible in a fair, transparent manner and without interference,” Mr. Sirat said. “Any government that comes to power as a result of today’s election has no credibility, no validity and is illegitimate for us.”

Most voters interviewed at polling stations appeared to be backing Mr. Karzai, though there was also vocal support for his main rival, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, and some other contenders.

But the opposition candidates rejected the vote on several counts, including reports that fake ID cards were being used and reports of pressure from polling officials on voters to choose Mr. Karzai.

“There is no perfect election in any country,” said candidate Homayoun Shah Assefy, a brother-in-law of the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. “But this went beyond the red line. This is unacceptable.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad went to Mr. Sirat’s office in the evening and met the aggrieved candidates.

“We recognize that some allegations remain and that there should be a process to address these allegations through a thorough and transparent investigation,” he said.

But he called the election “a profound success, as demonstrated by the high voter turnout and the Afghan people’s enthusiasm and pride in their country’s first election for head of state in their 5,000-year history.”

Though the election authorities have promised to investigate any charges of irregularities, it is difficult to predict how the stalemate between Mr. Karzai and his opponents will play out politically.

Ordinary Afghans interviewed yesterday saw the election as a trailblazing event that has empowered them for the first time in their lives.

Many indicated they were voting to get rid of the warlords, some of the most notorious of whom are in the opposition camp.

“I don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” said engineer Mohammed Ayub Amiri, as he displayed a purplish-blue left thumb.

After the initial protests from candidates, polling officials had started dipping entire thumbs into freshly commandeered ink pots.

“What is important is that we are on our way to becoming a democracy,” Mr. Amiri said.

Said schoolteacher Abdur Rahman, “God only knows if these elections will bring peace. God made us fight, now God will decide whether we will unite.”

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