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Afghanistan: Election Officials Try To Learn From Mistakes In Vote

Vote counters in western Afghanistan on 10 October Afghanistan's presidential election is being called a major success by its international and Afghan organizers. Voter turnout has been described as "massive." Terrorist attacks threatened by Al-Qaeda militants and remnants of the Taliban appear to have been thwarted by tight security across the country. Still, the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) admits that mistakes were made on 9 October when millions of Afghans cast secret ballots for the first time in order to choose their country's leader. The JEMB and an independent panel are now examining those mistakes to ensure they are not repeated when Afghanistan takes its next important step on the road to democracy -- the elections for parliament and local administrative offices slated for spring of 2005.

Kabul, 11 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- JEMB chief Faruq Wardak has praised the eagerness shown by millions of Afghans who took part in the first-ever direct presidential election on 9 October.

But with candidates continuing to allege fraud over faulty ink markings on the fingers of some voters, Wardak said the JEMB is trying to learn from its mistakes.

"Thanks to the Afghan people that have registered -- thanks to the thousands and thousands of the young Afghan dedicated teams who have worked [at the polling stations and as election monitors] and the international election experts," Wardak said. "We are, in the meantime, learning lessons. Some of the mistakes that we may make here will not be repeated in the parliamentary election, which is going to be much more complicated."

All 15 challengers of Afghan transitional leader Hamid Karzai maintain that ink that could easily be rubbed off the fingers of some voters might have allowed those who were erroneously issued multiple registration cards to cast more than one ballot.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met yesterday with two of Karzai's strongest rivals in the vote -- former Education Minister Mohammad Yunos Qanuni and former Afghan Vice President Mohammad Mohaqeq.

Both Qanuni and Mohaqeq now say they will consider the election to be legitimate if an independent commission determines there was not massive voter fraud.

"I appeal to the United Nations to hold an independent investigation and ensure that the candidates are represented [on an independent commission]," Mohaqeq said. "If the commission announces that the elections were fraudulent, of course, at that time there will be a need for a new election."

Afghanistan's election commission said it will delay vote counting while seeking advice on dealing with possible illegal ballots. An independent panel has been created to investigate the fraud claims.

UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said it is possible that first results could be out this week.

Mohammad Sayyed Niazi is leader of some 2,300 independent Afghan election monitors in the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. He said close monitoring of ballot counting is now needed to ensure ordinary Afghans that the official results are legitimate.

"Our suggestion for the JEMB is that they make sure the counting process does not include the problems that happened in the voting process," Niazi said. "We can say that if the ink issue did not appear in the voting process, the process would have been much more fair and clear."

Some international officials said the furor of Afghan voters over the ink issue needs to be put in perspective. Among them is Robert Barry, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election support mission in Afghanistan.

"If you look at the regulations for this election, and if you were to examine the implementation of every one of these regulations, it is completely impossible because the regulations are -- I would say -- much too demanding for a country at this stage of the training and development of election administrators," Barry said.

Barry noted that the last of the 120,000 polling-station workers for the 9 October election had been hired only a week before the vote. Training of those poll workers began just days before the vote.

For Wardak, the JEMB chief, the scandal over faulty ink markings is providing the first lesson for those who are looking ahead to the 2005 legislative elections.

"There could be other lessons that we learn," Wardak said. "And I am pretty sure these will help us to make our parliamentary election as smooth as possible."

John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, sees next year's parliamentary and local elections as the real test of whether democracy can work in Afghanistan.

"This presidential election is not the most important milestone on the road to democratic rule. Most politically active people -- most political organizers, political party leaders -- recognize that the more important test will come in the 2005 parliamentary and local elections. That's when the warlords will make their move to cement control at local levels through more legitimate democratic processes. That's when the test will take place," Sifton said. "Can independent actors standing up to them -- with no guns, but just words and pamphlets and voter organization -- overcome these people who, in many cases, don't enjoy the support of the local constituencies they rule?"

Grant Kippen is the Afghanistan director of a Washington-based nongovernmental organization called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. His group trained Afghan election monitors for the 9 October vote. Kippen told RFE/RL that the presidential election was an enormous educational process for both observers and for Afghan voters themselves.

Wardak agreed. He said the most important lesson for ordinary Afghans was to understand that when they go into a polling booth, their vote really is secret -- that nobody can attach their name to the ballot they marked.

"They saw it practically. Their vote is secret. So that is another confidence-building [measure] for future elections," Wardak said. "So far, I have heard that people were hearing on radio and television [about how a secret ballot election works]. But they had never seen it practically [until the presidential election]."

Wardak said the 9 October experience will help Afghan men and women better understand their rights as voters.

In that sense, and considering what the JEMB has called the strong turnout of both men and women voters, Wardak concluded that Afghan society has just taken a significant step forward.

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