Afghanistan's Anti-Fear Vote

No one anticipated the ink problem. Before Saturday's election in Afghanistan, the big concern was not the thumb-staining system to prevent multiple voting, but widespread violence.

For months, Taliban militants had been trying to disrupt Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election, attacking election workers and intimidating would-be voters with death threats. Allied troops were reinforced and plans made to secure polling areas and cities.

But a massive turnout of voters in the face of snow, rain, and dust storms proved that millions of Afghans were not to be intimidated. The expected widespread attacks didn't materialize.

The Afghan people's strong showing seems to reflect the views that voter Zia Jan told Monitor reporter Scott Baldauf on election day: "We are not afraid of any attacks," she said. "If we are killed, we will still vote."

It is freedom from fear, far more than voting irregularities, that ought to be the marker of this election, for as Franklin D. Roosevelt warned in 1933, fear "paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

And certainly, Afghanistan still has much advancing to do. While the economy is growing at a rate of 20 percent, girls are attending school for the first time, a national road network is being built, and millions of refugees have returned home, the challenges ahead are daunting. Afghanistan's opium trade is booming. The Taliban insurgency is not yet quashed; the tribal chieftains' militias are not disbanded. Not to mention pervasive poverty and illiteracy.

That's where the election irregularities such as the ink issue come in, because an election polluted by widespread fraud can also sap the legitimacy of a leader to move ahead with change.

Candidates opposed to highly favored front- runner and incumbent Hamid Karzai called for an election boycott Saturday when it was discovered that some polling stations marked voters' thumbs with removable instead of indelible ink.

The election's organizers promise an independent panel will investigate this and other irregularities along with the crucial issue of how widespread they were. That appears to have calmed objections for now.

It's important to remember that the technical difficulties experienced in the first democratic presidential election in a communal and tribal society such as Afghanistan can decrease with each new election. Breaking the grip of fear, however, is a much harder task, and that seems to have been accomplished last weekend.

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