'We Don't Recognize The Results'

Even before the polling booths closed in Afghanistan's first-ever direct presidential election, all 15 candidates running against incumbent Hamid Karzai denounced the election as a fraud and refused to recognize the results.

The resulting turmoil bewildered the millions of Afghan voters, most of whom were casting their first ballots ever. Facing unseasonably cold strong winds, blinding dust storms and death threats from Taliban guerrillas, they made their way to the polls today, many traveling on foot over rugged mountain trails. Thanks to the strong security presence of a combined force of some 100,000 Afghan police and Afghan, NATO and American soldiers, the Taliban's offensive never materialized. As a result voting was largely calm and orderly across the largely mountainous country, only three years after the overthrow of the repressive Taliban regime.

But several flaws in the voting and voter registration process quickly turned what could have been a landmark election into one whose legitimacy is being questioned by the candidates who were widely expected to lose to the heavy favorite, Karzai.

The controversy began early in the day at some of the 25,000 polling stations throughout the country when ill-prepared election workers mistakenly marked voter's fingers with pens that were designed to mark ballots--and not with the indelible-ink markers designed to prevent a voter from casting more than one ballot. Some voters--it's impossible to know how many--discovered soon after they emerged from the voting booth that the ink which had marked their index finger could easily be rubbed or washed off. As a result, some voters are believed to have gone back to the polls and voted for a second or perhaps even a third time. Compounding the ink problem is the fact that some Afghan voters had acquired more than one voter registration card. Indeed many electoral experts suspected that the official number of 10.5 million voters was a highly inflated figure. In their haste to supply voting cards to as many eligible voters as possible, Afghan election officials may have issued more than one card to many voters. Some Afghans even made a point of getting more than one card because of a rumor that the cards could be used for food rations or even as permission to go on the Haj. As a result, a voter having multiple cards could vote several times simply by washing his finger after every trip to the voting booth--if the indelible ink wasn't used.

One 19-year-old interviewed by NEWSWEEK near a polling station in the southeastern province of Paktia laughingly boasted that he had voted twice this morning. The man, who had a blanket draped over his shoulders to ward off the cold and who refused to give his name, said he had voted once for Karzai using his own voter registration card. Then he washed his finger, took his brother's voting card and voted a second time.

When word of the multiple voting reached the opposition candidates, they immediately cried foul. After a hastily arranged, emergency meeting of the candidates or their representatives in Kabul, ethnic Uzbek candidate Abdul Satar Serat made a statement for the group. "Today's election is not a legitimate election," he said. "We don't recognize the results," Yunus Qanooni, Karzai's former education minister and the only opponent who was expected to garner a significant number of votes, agreed, saying the election "will not have any credibility."

Election officials downplayed the ink controversy from the beginning, saying the problem was not widespread and had been caught early. "Halting the vote at this stage is unjustified and would deny these people their right to vote," said Ray Kennedy, the vice-chairman of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral commission. "There have been some technical problems but overall it has been safe and orderly." Habibullah Rafi, an Afghan adviser to the electoral commission, also dismissed the candidates' claims, calling them sore losers. "It's common when someone loses that they declare fraud," he said. "If they wanted to boycott the vote they should have announced that decision before the voting started."

It's true that none of the candidates really had a chance against Karzai, who controls the media, is relatively popular and whom most Afghans see as the only man who can keep and even increase the flow of vital Western aid to poverty-stricken and war-racked Afghanistan. The president's men had been saying confidently that they hoped for a 60% voter turnout, with Kazai capturing more than 50% of the vote, thus obviating the need for a second round of voting. UN and Afghan officials huddled in the evening to find a way to resolve the crisis.

Karzai quickly dismissed his rivals' protests. "Who is more important, these 15 candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?" he asked. "Both myself and all these 15 candidates should respect our people--because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote."

Indeed, many ethnic Pashtun voters in Paktia--Karzai is also a Pashtun--said they were happy to have had an opportunity to vote and that they had cast their ballots for the president. Gulam Jan, a 65-year-old suffering from a severe chest infection, was supported by his two grown sons as he cast his ballot. "This is the first time I've ever voted," he whispered. "I hope this election will help to bring a better future to our children."

Mohammad Asim, a 31-year-old physician at the hospital in Gardez, Paktia's dusty capital, said he voted for Karzai in the hope that he will be a tougher, more determined president after he is legitimized by the election. "I'm 90% sure that Karzai will be a stronger leader," Asim said. "We hope he moves against corruption, to disarm the warlords and to finally give us good governance." Indeed, according to most opinion polls, Afghans say that the government's priority should be improving the still dangerous climate of security and disarming the gunmen. One man riding on a farm tractor in Paktia said he had wanted to vote but that his father had ordered him not too, fearing violence at the polls. "It's better that I respect my father's word than break it and vote for Karzai," said Juma Gul, 33.

Afghan women are especially vulnerable in a country awash with guns. They are also tightly restricted by Islamic traditions and local customs. Even so, in the less oppressive cities Afghan women seem to have turned out to vote in relatively large numbers. There were shorter lines of women voters in the provincial cities and even fewer women queued up to vote in the countryside. Sima, a 46-year-old woman, walked for an hour and a half to her Paktia polling station this morning, carrying her two-year-old child. "I'm happy to have the same right to vote as my husband," she said. "I'm voting for Karzai because he's our leader and has done a lot for the country."

In an attempt to end the turmoil, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad met with Serat late in the day. The high-profile Afghan American is widely seen by Afghans as the country's real power broker, not Karzai. But he seems to have failed to persuade Serat and the other candidates to back off. "Any government that comes to power as a result of today's election has no credibility, no validity and is illegitimate for us," reiterated Serat.

If the election is questioned or even annulled--the least likely outcome--then many Afghan voters will feel disenfranchised. If the election results stand then a candidate like Qanooni, who represents the powerful Tajik ethnic minority group, could demand a high price for his political cooperation, thus undermining the election results. Either way, the election that was supposed to have brought Afghans together may end up dividing them further.