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Officials Begin To Assess Afghan Vote, Claims Of Fraud

Thousands of election workers have begun tallying ballots at eight regional counting centers across Afghanistan following yesterday's presidential election. UN and Afghan election officials say the earliest preliminary results won't be available until late tonight or tomorrow. They say it could take a week for a clear trend to emerge. Final official results aren't expected before the end of October because ballot boxes in the most remote parts of the country have to be carried to the counting houses on mules and camels over roadless terrain. In the meantime, the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has begun to investigate claims of fraud and incompetence alleged by the challengers of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

Kabul, 10 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Election officials in Afghanistan have pledged to thoroughly investigate the allegations of ballot-box misbehavior during yesterday's historic presidential vote.

All 15 candidates opposing transitional leader Karzai called yesterday for the voting to be stopped and declared invalid. They claimed fraud and incompetence on the part of Karzai's government and UN officials after voters across the country discovered they could easily wipe away ink from their thumbs just minutes after voting.

The ink was one of two safety checks to prevent multiple voting. First, a voter's registration card was punched with a hole to cancel the document. Then their thumb was supposed to be marked with indelible ink to prevent multiple voting by individuals who received more than one voter card.
Many Afghans have told RFE/RL they became suspicious about multiple voting when they discovered they could wipe the ink from their own thumbs shortly after voting -- even without soap or water.

Ray Kennedy, the vice chairman of the UN-Afghan JEMB, said it was too early to determine whether faulty ink and inconsistent application methods had allowed widespread multiple voting.

"That is indeed a judgment that the JEMB will have to make," Kennedy said. "We will have to look at the results of this election. If we judge that the extent of the problem was greater than the difference in the election, then that would be one scenario. If we judge that the occurrence was relatively small compared to the difference in results, then that would be another scenario. But we are not judging at this point. We need to let the process run its course and then we will make a judgment."

Kennedy refused to announce an exact deadline on when the JEMB would complete its investigation, saying that it remains to be seen when a final official vote count will be announced.

"A lot of people learned from [the legal disputes of the 2000 U.S. presidential election in the state of] Florida that, yes, there are deadlines. But it could take us some time to resolve things," Kennedy said.

Many Afghans have told RFE/RL they became suspicious about multiple voting when they discovered they could wipe the ink from their own thumbs shortly after voting -- even without soap or water.

Those voters remember remarks by Karzai during the summer when it had been reported that hundreds of thousands of individuals had received more than one voter registration card. At the time, Karzai confirmed that multiple cards had been issued, but he said the total number was unknown.

When asked about the multiple voting cards during an 11 August news conference in Kabul, Karzai initially welcomed Afghans to vote more than once.

"As a matter of fact, it doesn't bother me," Karzai said. "If Afghans have two registration cards -- if they would like to vote twice -- well, welcome. This is an exercise in democracy. Let them exercise it twice. But it will not have an impact on the election. If somebody gives me three cards, I'll take it -- and will go and vote. But my choice in voting will be the same. We are just beginning an exercise. We cannot be perfect."

A few minutes after making those remarks, Karzai returned to the issue to add that the indelible ink marked on a finger of each voter would make it multiple voting impossible:

"When somebody goes to vote, a mark will be put on his or her finger -- of ink -- and that mark will be there for three or four days. So even if they have two cards, it will not matter. We are looking forward to the elections. We're not worried about multiple cards," Karzai said.

Yesterday's developments have brought the issue of multiple registration cards to the forefront of the debate in Afghanistan about whether the election results will be legitimate.

Karzai yesterday dismissed the allegations of fraud and incompetence that were made by his opponents: "The Afghan people have already gone and voted, millions of them have gone and voted, and I think all of us, all of the candidates, must respect the very fact that the Afghan people have come out of their homes in the snow and rain and dust and waited for hours to vote. And we should respect these results, whatever they may be and allow time for the joint commission to study whatever irregularities that there were."

The head of the OSCE's Election Support Team in Afghanistan, Robert Barry, said today that he supports a decision by the JEMB to complete all balloting and move ahead with counting the votes while the investigation of the ink scandal continues.

"To nullify the results of an election where millions of people have turned out without adequately knowing what the facts are behind that does seem to me to be, on the face of it, unjustifiable," Barry said.

There were few international monitors at the 21,500 polling stations across the country to verify whether or not multiple voting was occurring.

The largest group of independent election observers was an all-Afghan group called the Free and Fair Election Foundations of Afghanistan. Created by 13 Afghan nongovernmental organizations earlier this year, that group announced today that it thinks the vote was fair.

But FEFA monitors who were questioned at several polling stations visited by RFE/RL correspondents in Kabul admitted that they were more concerned about the behavior of Afghan security forces outside of the polls than the question of indelible ink.

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