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Afghanistan: Expectations Confront Polling Reality

Election officials said voters turned out in large numbers in Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election, with no reports of major attacks or violence to disrupt the poll. But the election was marred by a different kind of turmoil -- complaints by some of Hamid Karzai's rivals, who said the vote should be halted largely because of irregularities. Voters at polling stations visited by an RFE/RL correspondent in Kabul today were initially excited and spoke of high expectations. But that mood turned to anger when voters discovered that the ink used to mark their thumbs and prevent multiple voting could be easily wiped off.

Kabul, 9 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The jovial mood of voters in the Afghan capital this morning quickly turned to surprise, and then anger, when problems emerged with the ink used to prevent individuals from casting more than one ballot.

Faruq Wardak, chief of the secretariat of the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), was surrounded by an angry crowd of voters when he visited a polling station in eastern Kabul less than two hours after the vote began.

Scores of voters held up their voter registration cards with cancellation holes punched in them to show that they had voted. They also stuck out their thumbs to show that they had been able to easily wipe away the ink that is supposed to ensure that anyone who received multiple registration cards would not be able to vote more than once.
The United Nations' chief spokesman in Afghanistan said the JEMB decided after careful consideration to continue voting throughout the country.

Surrounded by the angry crowd, Wardak told RFE/RL that if the problem proves to be wide-scale, it could pose a threat to the credibility of the election.

"The center that I visited, in the beginning when I arrived, so many people complained that the indelible ink is very easily washed away," Wardak said. "When I went there, I found that the wrong marker was used [by the poll station workers]. The marker that was supposed to be used to for marking the ballot paper, that was used to ink the finger. In some polling stations, we found that indelible ink marker does not exist at all. I am not ruling out at this stage, if this is very massive, there could be an act of sabotage just to defame the process."

Wardak initially told RFE/RL that any polling stations without the proper indelible ink would have to be closed until the supplies could arrive. He said the vote could be put on hold at those locations until Sunday.

Later, after coordinating with UN and Afghan election workers at his headquarters, Wardak said the problem had been resolved at all polling stations where the problem had emerged.

Some of the 16 presidential candidates demanded that the election be postponed.

But the United Nations' chief spokesman in Afghanistan, Manoel De Almeida e Silva, said the JEMB decided after careful consideration to continue voting throughout the country.

After Almeida e Silva's announcement, RFE/RL correspondents in provincial regions across the country continued to report the ink problem.

Afghan transitional leader Hamid Karzai confirmed earlier this year that some individuals received more than one voter card during a UN-led drive to register more than 10 million voters.

Karzai said the total number of duplicate cards was not known. But he calmed widespread fears about voter fraud by insisting that the use of indelible ink would prevent those who got more than one card from voting twice.

In Kabul today, the man who was expected to present the greatest challenge to Karzai -- former Education Minister Mohammad Yunos Qanuni -- told reporters that he would not vote unless something was done to resolve the situation. Qanuni said that if the problem continued, the election would not have any credibility.

John Sifton, a researcher on Afghanistan from the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, said the confusion over the ink was not the only issue that could undermine the credibility of the vote. He said many Afghans also were being pressured on who to vote for by Afghan factional militias that hold sway in provincial regions outside of the capital.

"There's no one mood in the country and there's no one atmosphere. District by district, province by province, Afghans are telling us different things about their expectations, hopes and fears about this election," Sifton said. "Rural people tend to not understand, to the same degree, their political rights. They are more prone to being intimidated and told how to vote -- and obeying -- because they don't understand that their vote is secret. Whereas urban voters are more likely to understand their rights and are more likely to do what they want. [They are more likely to understand] that they don't have to listen to what [Afghan militia] factions tell them."

Meanwhile, there were three reports of attempted violence this morning by Taliban fighters who have vowed to disrupt the ballot.

In Assadabad, the provincial capital of the eastern province of Kunar, two rockets were fired on a polling station. The closet landed about 100 meters from where voters had gathered. There were no reports of any injuries in that attack.

In the southeastern city of Gardez, Afghan security forces seized explosives from a car as it tried to cross a checkpoint protecting a polling center.

Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi told RFE/RL that a group of Taliban fighters used machine guns to attack a checkpoint near a polling station on the outskirts of Kabul shortly after voting began.

Azimi said three soldiers from the Afghan National Army were injured in that attack and that one Taliban fighter was captured.

However, a lower-ranking official, also speaking to RFE/RL, said no such attack took place.

[For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.]