Boycott flops as Afghan poll declared fair

Posted in Broader Middle East | 11-Oct-04 | Author: Declan Walsh| Source: Guardian

Afghan election workers sorts ballot papers at a counting center in Kabul October 11, 2004.
An opposition boycott of Afghanistan's presidential election appeared to be cracking yesterday as local and international observers declared the vote prone to blunders but generally fair.

Mohammed Mohaqeq, a high profile challenger to the interim president, Hamid Karzai, said he no longer supported the boycott announced on Saturday by all 15 opposition candidates, who claimed there had been widespread voter fraud.

"There is no question of a boycott," he told about 1,000 supporters at a mosque in western Kabul.

The US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, shuttled between other candidates to persuade them to follow Mr Mohaqeq's example as the counting of the votes started in eight tightly guarded centres.

Another candidate, Abdul Hadi Dabir, said some had already changed their minds.

Meanwhile, a joint UN-Afghan election body announced an independent inquiry into claims of fraud.

The controversy marred an otherwise peaceful election that saw millions of Afghans participate in what they hoped would end a quarter of a century of violent chaos.

In an initial assessment, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (Fefa) said that despite many errors and some deliberate rigging the poll was largely successful. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation of Europe, which deployed 40 experts, gave a similar verdict.

The fraud allegations emerged after just a few hours of polling, when voters complained that what was supposed to be indelible ink, used to prevent multiple voting, could be easily rubbed off.

Naseem, a hotel waiter in Kabul, held out a spotlessly clean hand that he said had been inked at a polling station an hour earlier. "I just washed it away," he said.

The scale of the problem remained unclear yesterday. UN officials blamed inexperienced election workers, who had used the wrong ink. But observers said the organisers were also at fault because some of the correct ink had dried up or was not indelible.

Fefa called for an investigation into the irregularities, which also included allegations that some poll workers directed voters how to vote.

The election marked a setback for the Taliban, which managed just a few skirmishes and landmine attacks on polling days. "The Taliban made very limited attacks," the US commander, Lt Gen David Barno, told Associated Press. "Yesterday was a huge defeat for the Taliban."

The insurgent force had issued warnings of bombings, beatings and rocket attacks. But millions of Afghans were undeterred, flooding into bullet-pocked schools, mosques and clinics to cast their ballot.

One official with the peacekeeping force said a line of voters had had to scatter after a rocket exploded in Jalalabad. But after a few moments, they had returned to the queue and voted.

Some voters saw the opposition boycott as a ploy by poor losers. "This was like an exam for them, and they have failed," said Saleh Muhammad, 64, a shopkeeper in western Kabul. He said he kept a Mohaqeq poster in his window to avoid harassment, but had voted for Mr Karzai.

First figures were due late last night, but a spokesman said a result might take another week.