An Afghan 'hanging chad' dispute

An independent inquiry is helping to defuse a controversy over ink used in Saturday's election.

Afghanistan's first election, shaken by charges of electoral fraud, appeared to be moving closer to resolution as election officials here promised to hold an inquiry.

At the center of the controversy was the ink used to dye voters' thumbnails, a protection against multiple voting. Many voters said the ink was easy to wash off, and by midday Saturday, 15 candidates declared the election invalid because of allegedly rampant multiple voting.

By Sunday, several candidates appeared to back down after a series of meetings of US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and candidates, and a promise of an independent inquiry. Now all eyes are back on the vote counting, a process that could take two to three weeks to complete.

It's perhaps too early to say whether Afghanistan has passed its crash course in democracy. By some measures - high voter turnout, low levels of violence, and participation of women even in conservative southern areas - Afghanistan's first election has been a resounding success. Yet flaws like the ink imbroglio and candidate charges of favoritism by the US were predictable and preventable, human rights advocates say, and were the almost inevitable result of an election that was rushed from the beginning.

"Everything was done at the last possible moment," says Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "The election planning began late in every way, from defining the legal regimes of the election process to the registering of voters and political parties."

Putting the election off until the spring might have allowed for better training of officials and proper testing of materials such as the supposedly indelible pens, Mr. Parekh adds. One possible reason for the ink problem is that some election workers misapplied the ink to fingernails rather than cuticles. There also may have been a mixup over multiple types of ink, one for marking voters, another for taking fingerprints.

More democracy work needed

But while Bush administration officials warn that too much criticism of the elections might tarnish voter enthusiasm for the parliamentary elections next April, Andrew Wilder says the greater danger would be declaring victory too soon.

"There is a lot of progress, but it's a progress that we could lose very quickly," says Mr. Wilder. "There are some who would want to use this election as an exit strategy, to say 'We've had a democratic election, look at the turnout, even women participated, let's pull out.' We have to view this as the first step to bringing a democratic culture to Afghanistan. It's not the end of the process."

That Afghanistan would have its own version of Florida's hanging-chad dispute must come as little comfort to American administration officials who had hoped to make Afghanistan a beacon of democracy in the Islamic world. Yet, the mushkil-e rang, or the problem of the ink, seems to be moving toward resolution. By Monday, four candidates had backed off their calls for a boycott and had agreed to accept the outcome of an Afghan government inquiry. Karzai's chief rival, Yunis Qanooni, however, has yet to signal full backing for the inquiry process.

"There is going to be an independent commission made to investigate it," electoral director Farooq Wardak told the Associated Press. "There could be mistakes; we are just human beings. My colleagues might have made a mistake."

As ballot boxes began to stream into eight regional vote-counting centers - some of them traveling by armed convoys, others by donkey - Afghan officials and international leaders praised voters for their courage.

Afghan interim President Hamid Karzai told the BBC he found it "tremendously inspiring to see millions of Afghans come out of their homes and villages and mountainous areas and travel for hours in snow and rain and dust storms to line up and vote."

Ambassador Khalilzad, himself an Afghan-American, said in a statement, "The Afghan Nation has spoken - it has voted for democracy and freedom. This is a triumph for Afghanistan."

Perhaps the greatest surprise is what didn't occur on election day: massive Taliban attacks. Afghan military checkpoints leading into most Afghan cities limited traffic, making it difficult for the estimated 3,000 Taliban insurgents to launch any major attacks on polling day. Tipoffs to the Ministry of Interior prevented one major attack on Friday, as a fuel-laden truck with explosives packed into the tires was halted on the road to Kandahar. Three men, identified as Pakistanis, were taken into custody.

Lt. Gen. David Barno told the AP that the Taliban "basically didn't show. They had very limited attacks."

Voter relief

In Kabul itself, voters voiced relief that the election was peaceful. Far from being disappointed by the ink dispute, Afghans say they would vote again enthusiastically in April.

"This dispute didn't affect my feelings about democracy," says Fakhria Faqiri, shopping at a plumbing supply shop. "These things happen. We already voted for our favorite candidate and if other people have problems, that is their point of view."

Mrs. Faqiri says it took her a great deal of effort to get the ink off her thumbnail and cuticle, adding, "they used the real stuff on me." Her husband, Haji Maruf Shah, points to his thumb. "Mine is still there."

But the plumbing-store clerk, Hussain Hashmi, says the ink dispute was deliberate and that certain candidates benefited from it.

"I don't think it was an accident, it was intentional," he says, sitting in his office above his showroom. And he won't decide whether he trusts in the results of the election until after the UN completes its investigation.

"First I want to know who did this, and then we'll tell you whether it has an impact on our belief of democracy," says Mr. Hashmi, who says his own thumb was clean by 11 a.m., after doing some painting and then washing his hands. He didn't vote twice, he quickly adds.

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