Boycott threatens Afghanistan's foray into democracy

Even as enthusiastic Afghans went to the polls, 15 presidential candidates, charging fraud, called for a suspended election.

Polling day begins vigorously in the village of Deh Afghanan. Men push and crowd their way into the polling stations, impatient for their first taste of democracy.

They aren't quite sure how it all works, but that doesn't matter. Polling officials punch holes in their voting cards, paint the men's left thumbnails with indelible ink markers, and go through the same old questions with the patience of Job.

"Take this ballot, and whoever you want to vote for, you just mark the spot next to the picture," says an official.

A young man points to a picture of President Hamid Karzai. "Not here," the official says, "in the voting booth, please."

The giddy enthusiasm that was obvious here and in 4,800 voting centers around the country was a positive first test for democracy in Afghanistan and a welcome sign that this brand new system was being embraced by Afghan citizens. For many Afghans, the greatest relief was that Saturday's elections were largely free of the violence threatened by Taliban fighters and feared by security experts.

But the mood of the voters out in the countryside, and even in the city of Kabul itself, was in stark contrast to the mood among the candidates themselves, who by noon had accused the Karzai government and its supporters of fraud and manipulation. Whatever the merits of the opposition's complaints, their call for a suspended election has serious risks. It raises the prospects of even more backroom deals, and could make it difficult for the eventual winner to establish his legitimacy as a leader. Even worse, it could turn voter enthusiasm into cynicism in a single stroke, causing more damage to Afghanistan's future than any Taliban rocket.

No one ever said that Afghanistan's first presidential elections were going to be perfect. UN officials admitted that there appeared to be significant numbers of Afghans who had obtained multiple voter registration cards. And since Afghanistan has not had a proper census for decades, there is no reliable list of voters, no standardized form of identification, none of the usual stopgaps that can protect against citizens voting early and often.

The problems start early

In Deh Afghanan, a Pashtum majority district in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, it became clear early on that there was problem with the indelible ink markers. Basically, they aren't indelible. Another problem is that by 9:00 a.m., there are still no women election officials, just a female supervisor who must start calling around to find the women who had signed up for this job months ago.

They are the problems of negligence, not of malice, something one would expect in a first-ever election.

Haji Ghulam Sakhi rubs the black ink off his thumbnail with the end of his turban. "Look, it comes off so easily," he says, with some alarm. "There should be a special marker. We heard on radio that the ink they are using is not real, it's false.

Yet Haji Sakhi says that "this is the happiest day of my life. This is the first time I have the right to vote. God is great and he is kind for bringing us an election where we can choose our leaders."

In Kabul, at Abu Zahra Ghafari High School, women in burqa veils line up in the chilled morning light. Zia Jan and three of her family members decided to vote together, and they walked from their homes to the school. The process in the polling station is smooth and orderly, two qualities typically in short supply in Afghanistan.

"We are very happy about voting," says Zia Jan, who belongs to the Shiite minority of ethnic Hazaras. "We are not afraid of any attacks. If we are killed, we will still vote. We just want a president who brings peace, we don't want anything else."

Col. Gulab Naikzai and his wife Shireen came to vote together, although they eventually had to enter separate male and female voting stations to cast their votes.

"We want a clean, honest, patriotic person for president, someone who will reconstruct the education system, not just in the government centers but in every village of Afghanistan," says Colonel Naikzai, who serves in the new 14,000-man Afghan National Army. "This election is for our children's future," says Shireen Naikzai.

And up north of Kabul, in the Tajik dominated town of Charikar, voters say they are happy with the way the polls were conducted. "Since the polling began we haven't heard any problems, both men and women have voted," says a shopkeeper named Zalmay. Predictably, he says he cast his vote for Yunus Qanooni, a fellow ethnic Tajik and leading candidate for veterans of the anti-Soviet war.

By noontime, most of the citizens of Charikar have already cast their votes at the three voting stations. At the Tajrobawi School, an elderly man named Ghulam Hazrat is one of the last voters to make his way to the voting booth, and he pleads with an election official for some help. "I want to vote for Qanooni, but my eyes are bad, I'm not sure I'll be able to find his face on the ballot," says Mr. Hazrat.

An election supervisor takes Hazrat by the hand and chides him. "You should keep your vote a secret, and not say it in front of all these people," he says. Inside the booth, behind a curtain, the supervisor helps Hazrat mark the ballot for Mr. Qanooni.

In Kabul, charges of fraud

Yet while there appeared to be only minor problems out in the polling stations, and great enthusiasm among the voters, back in Kabul, the mood was much darker. By noon, 15 candidates have called for the election to be suspended. They allege substantial fraud and intimidation by Mr. Karzai's supporters, and charge that the faulty ink pens have made it possible for Afhgans to vote multiple times.

"There is lots of fraud, and we have reports of our representatives all over the country that people are voting 10 to 15 times," says Houmayon Shah Assefy, a presidential candidate and first cousin of King Zahir Shah. "We have called for a postponement, because we want better supervision. Elections under these conditions have no meaning. This election has no legitimacy."

At a media center run by the UN, elections official Ray Kennedy, the vice chairman of the Joint Elections Management Body, is attempting damage control. The JEMB has agreed to study the complaints of fraud, but the show must go on. "Many people are still eagerly waiting in line for their opportunity to vote in this historic election," Mr. Kennedy says at a press conference. "Halting the voting at this point is unjustified and would deny these individuals their fundamental right to vote."

At a media center run by the UN, elections official Ray Kennedy, the vice chairman of the Joint Elections Management Body, is attempting damage control. The JEMB has agreed to study the complaints of fraud, but the show must go on. "Many people are still eagerly waiting in line for their opportunity to vote in this historic election," Mr. Kennedy says at a press conference. "Halting the voting at this point is unjustified and would deny these individuals their fundamental right to vote."

Across town, the 15 opposition candidates wrap up a meeting at the home of Abdul Sitar Seerat, a former adviser to King Zahir Shah. One of the candidates, Latif Pedram, says that the faulty ink has allowed people to vote 10 times, although he doesn't offer any specific proof that voters have actually voted 10 times.

"If Bush wanted to appoint somebody as president, fine, he should appoint somebody," says Mr. Pedram, in frustration, before getting into a maroon SUV and driving off.

And then, as if on cue, Bush's personal envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad arrives outside Mr. Seerat's house, accompanied by dozens of armed security men.

"I'm here to help," Ambassador Khalilzad says to reporters, as he walks to Seerat's front gate. Moments later, he steps back outside the gate with Mr. Seerat himself, and takes precisely one question: Are you worried about what will happen to Afghan democracy if the election is declared invalid?

Mr. Seerat begins to answer the question "Yes, it's not valid...."

Mr. Khalilzad interrupts: "We don't know, we will see," and nudges Seerat back inside the gate, away from reporters.

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